A year as a County Councillor: surviving and thriving in elected life.

I originally wrote this blog in 2018, after just over a year as a County Councillor. The original version can be found on my LinkedIn page here.

You’ve done the hard work, knocking on doors, posting leaflets, and explaining to anyone who’ll listen why they should vote for you; you’ve had the bizarre experience of voting for yourself, and then the elation of the count and the formal announcement that you are duly elected as County Councillor. Well done. Now the hard work really begins.

I’ve been in post for a year at Pembrokeshire County Council, a beautifully wild and rural county as far west as Wales can be. Within a couple of weeks of being elected, I was entrusted with a new Cabinet portfolio of Transformation in a coalition Cabinet, under a new Leader and a very different looking Chamber. One year in, I thought I’d write a short piece about what I’ve learnt.

So here are my top ten tips for any new Councillors, or anyone thinking of standing in the future.

1.       Immerse yourself. Local government is complex enough without the politics, but by the time you add in ‘code of conduct’ and ‘constitution’ training, get to grips with the concept of political balance, and worked out what scrutiny committee does what, you realise how enormous it really is. So throw yourself in to it, soak it all up, but realise that there will come a point (in my case after a year), when you’ll know where you can best spend your time, and what you can say ‘no’ to.

2.      ‘The bloody Council’. There will be a brief honeymoon period where council critics will hold high hopes for the future and you can do no wrong, but sooner or later you will be lumped in as someone with their ‘nose in the trough’ , part of the old boys club, and as a self-serving in-it-for-yourself crook and liar. It’s amazing how my skin has thickened over the last year, because people will undoubtedly have a pop (even when you do nothing wrong). Whilst I would encourage using social media as a modern councillor, every council will have a Facebook group or two who occasionally have a strong opinion or how you voted or what you said, and these thoughts will be happily shared on the internet.

3.      Build relationships. Officers and members will be suspicious of you. You are a potential threat to a way of working which officers may be very comfortable with, and other members will want to know if you can be relied upon for support. On the flip side, there are plenty of staff and Councillors who want to see change and it’s important to find them and work with them. This takes time and patience, but to get things done, you’ll need to build credibility both politically and professionally.

4.      Leadership. In addition to being a Community Leader, you are also in a Leadership position in the Council itself. This is more explicit in my case as I am a Cabinet member, but what I have learned is that officers delivering political priorities want clear and strong direction. This was not easy to begin with, and there have been a few difficult conversations along the way, but by being clear in my objectives, building my credibility and by being authentic, I think I’m in a good place with the team. I’ve also had to remind myself of my mandate, have a belief in what I’m trying to achieve for the common good, and remember that leading change is difficult.

5.      Pace and Process. There is a lot of process in local government, and this inevitably slows things down. As someone who’s worked in the fast moving technology sector, this has been a challenge to increase the speed of delivery of our transformation programme. I’m getting there now, primarily due to the lessons of points 3 and 4 above (building relationships and demonstrating leadership). I’ve also been fortunate enough to have some brilliant senior staff to work with. But of course it could still happen sooner!

6.      Balance. Depending on your availability, work commitments externally (because being a Cllr isn’t a ticket to an early retirement), the external bodies you sit on such as Town & Community Councils, etc,  you will need to find the balance of your work in the council, on the council, and in your community. You also still have a life, something that my partner constantly reminds me of and the need to take some down time. For me, it’s instant calm as soon as I get on my bashed-up fishing boat in the summer months.

7.      Expect the unexpected. Your phone might ring or you might have a knock at the door at any time, and you’ll have to deal with issues ranging from ‘mud on the road’ (a personal favourite here in Pembrokeshire) to potential homelessness and real personal issues where people genuinely look to you for help. That’s a big responsibility but incredibly fulfilling. And by the way, it’s what the people elected you for. They don’t really care about the brilliant contribution you made in scrutiny on the corporate plan, they care about the grass being cut and the bins being collected.

8.      Council is theatre. We make decisions that affect people’s lives, and that is first and foremost what it’s about, but your regular meeting of full Council is also packed with drama. Only a year in myself I am still not entirely confident on my feet, but I watch and listen to the more experienced in the chamber for how they do it: the language they use, the way they construct their arguments, and their timing. It can be daunting, but it’s important to get on your feet and speak.

9.      Fulfilment and Purpose. You have a democratic mandate. People voted for you and have put their faith in you to serve them, and this is your priority. As I mentioned previously, your electorate will be primarily interested in the things that matter to them, so it’s important to remember that you work for them, and they have the power to reject you at the polls. But have belief. In my case I know I am playing a major role in contributing to a better future for my county, but I have to recognise that I will also be needed to intervene in something very minor that makes someone very happy.

10.  Enjoyment. I’m one year in to a five year term (subject to the whim of Cardiff Bay) and it is a privilege to serve. So I’ll enjoy it, bring my own personality and some humour to it, make the most of the experience and do my best.

No two councillors’ experiences will be the same, but I hope that my thoughts above will help anyone brave enough to enter the democratic arena survive and thrive in the first year of elected life.

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