What’s politics got to do with it?


What’s politics got to do with it?

Local authorities are run like utilities and interest in local politics is dwindling. So what is the future for councillors? ask Dr James Souttar and Paul Hoskins.

Local government in Britain seems to be facing a paradoxical crisis. On the one hand a sustained focus on good management and governance over the last couple of decades has made local authorities into increasingly effective service providers. On the other hand, however, local democracy is floundering. Voter turnout is falling, the image of elected members has sunk to perhaps its lowest levels and councillors themselves feel they are losing power and influence to central government.

If the local authority has become, effectively, just another service provider, is local politics now an irrelevance? Across the political spectrum, authorities are putting into practice the same kinds of policies and reforms – policies and reforms dictated by the demands of better service provision, more effective use of resources and greater accountability, rather than ideology. The role local democracy plays in this process is no longer clear to most voters: if the agenda is dictated by what is simply best management practice, what difference does politics make? And if local authorities are now run, in common with most private sector service providers, by professional managers, what exactly do elected members do?

Becoming another utility?   

More and more local authority service delivery is contracted out and, despite initial objections, it is now widely accepted that this is in the public interest.

Outsourcing has allowed local authorities to leave behind much of their service delivery role and evolve into contracting and managing agents – ‘trusted intermediaries’, in the new management jargon.

There is a very interesting analogy between these new contracting authorities and the recently privatised utilities. Twenty years ago utilities were also public sector bodies with the same kinds of ‘corporation’ culture and ways of working. But with the advent of deregulation they quickly separated into high profile ‘resellers’ (purchasing and marketing companies) and largely invisible infrastructure management organisations. Instead of actually providing services the new reseller utilities simply manage the ‘customer interface’: communicating with users, collecting revenues and negotiating with service providers.

The disintegration of politics

At the same time that local authorities have become more utility-like in their makeup and functions, we have also experienced a real decline in political involvement – particularly at the grass roots.

Part of the problem here is that political offerings are increasingly presented as national brands, with local democracy frequently pitched by national politicians as a referendum on national government rather than as a poll on truly local issues. Coverage of national politics has thus come to dominate the discourse, with the activities of councils reported less and less even by local media. Indeed this branding of politics has had a generally destructive role on British polity. For just as we have, as a society, become increasingly fickle in our purchasing behaviour, ‘rate-tarting’ from one largely similar offer to another, so the convergence in political brands has encouraged us to ‘switch’ our votes over small points of difference.

Politics is clearly still important for many people, but at a single-issue rather than a brand level. Causes like third-world debt, foxhunting or opposition to the war in Iraq can mobilise hundreds of thousands of people. But for most of us these causes are no longer part of a coherent philosophy of life – an outlook that could previously be equated with a particular political commitment. They are simply isolated issues that we feel passionate about. And, as at a national or international level, so at a local level.

Management is management

In local government, few councils are willing to expose themselves by ignoring best practice or allowing their performance to be ranked unfavourably against others. League tables mean that being seen to manage well in comparable, measurable areas has become much more important than delivering a political programme.

Not only has this consensus resulted in greater homogeneity in local government, but it has also further shifted the power balance away from elected members towards officers. And, as in the commercial sector, decision-making is becoming apolitical – it is about the use and deployment of resources, rather than decision making about ideological issues and agendas.

So what use are members?

The ‘patchwork’ nature of modern public service delivery, with different functions carried out by central government, local government, quasi-governmental organisations (and often now by private and not-for-profit sector organisations as well) also means that the responsibilities of any particular body are not clear-cut.

Residents generally don’t understand which services are provided at district, county or national level. More importantly, as long as those services are unproblematic, few care.

This is bad news for members. For if they are asked what they can do about the police, the roads, the schools, the local hospital or the drains, the answer must by necessity be evasive. They may have influence over these activities in some respects, but the ultimate say on any of them sits with central government, and some at least of the local bodies who provide these services (police authorities, hospital trusts, boards of school governors) also see themselves as directly accountable to the public, with their own brands and communications activities.

Furthermore, the practicalities of local authority outsourcing mean that although services are contracted at a local level, they may well be provided nationally – and the quality of local services may therefore no longer be a matter of local choices – and local politics – but of service level agreements with third parties determined by purely commercial criteria.

Reselling the councillor role

Public perceptions have yet to catch up with the new roles of the councillor. And councillors need to find new ways of talking about what they actually offer in this new world, where public services are consumed rather than voted for. But this shouldn’t be defensive: there needs to be some recognition of how far we have come. If the answer to ‘what’s politics got to do with it?’ is now ‘not much!’, it is because the political battles to improve people’s standard of living and expectations have largely been won. There may still be issues about how effectively public services are managed, delivered, and accounted for, but these are issues of governance rather than government.

To revitalise local democracy and restore the reputation of its elected representatives we need a vision of the role and value of the elected member for the twenty-first century. A vision that accurately reflects what councillors do, as well as what local communities would like them to take on.

Dr James Souttar is senior consultant and Paul Hoskins is managing director of Precedent Communications . The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those held by the IDeA.

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6 responses to “What’s politics got to do with it?

  1. Vijay

    Local utilities should be run like private companies and politics should have very little role in running them. Local councillors should work on humanitarian issues in the community and help in the upliftment of the poor and should let the utilities run with little interference.

  2. Anant M

    By this comment you have cut the age old British culture to the quick; mate.
    Oooh; I must reflect upon the implications of what you’re suggesting.
    The change is unpredictable, inevitable and indefinite and imminent but the process will be messy and painful – unions will have to battle it out with the management.

  3. sillygloop

    It’s definitely a bit painful at first but cancer cannot be cured by just cosmetic changes. In India loss making PSUs are being privatised and have become viable in quick time. It’s better to have the service up and running profitably than it being run in a below par manner as the management is not answerable to anyone. And in this age of private enterprise, job security has been the first casualty…one can complain about it or go ahead and get involved in starting more businesses to take advantage of the labour available.

  4. Anant M

    What you suggest is the positive approach to the inevitable problem most of us face two or three times (statistically) in our working lives.
    However, such an incisive and effective business critical transition is ONLY possible in Countries like India where there are teemimg educated, available, eager and enthusiastic millions to switch between public and private or take over anew altogether. In such environment any business will take off where Heath & Safety at work, workers rights, pensions and other rights are compromised in favour of speedy outcomes for today. I am not for a moment claiming that this happens in all cases.

  5. sillygloop

    Tough choices truly…but at the end of the day it’s the bread that counts 🙂

  6. Anant M

    Doh! what a stark reality?

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