We have always had the curiously engaging phenomenon of the Great British Amateur. Indeed were it not for the zeal and determination of such home-grown enthusiasts, we would never have been acquainted with the discoveries of either Charles Darwin or Sir Isaac Newton. Of course, Britain has no monopoly on enthusiastic amateurs. Worldwide, the layman has developed very many useful everyday items, such as the prolific Mr Thomas Alva Edison’s numerous patents for everything from electric light bulbs to the phonograph.
Clearly amateurs have a valuable contribution to make.
I have been a solicitor for over two decades. It took me 6 years to attain my professional credentials. Physicians, dentists, surgeons and other fellow professionals study for an equivalent period of time. Even if I had unbridled passion for some hitherto unfulfilled ambition to be a surgeon, I could not simply pop out to my local DIY store, buy some saws and set up shop. The law is there to keep the enthusiasm of some amateurs safely in check, for the wider benefit of society.
Local Authorities, like every sophisticated employer have complex Human Resource strategies together with job descriptions and written person specifications aplenty. They have policy frameworks, pledges to equality and rigorous selection processes to ensure that only those with the relevant skills are appointed as their officers.
But what of Elected Members?
The matriculation requirements of the law are rather less demanding. In essence, any solvent adult, having a pulse, can be elected as a Councillor. With elected individuals of similar status, the law allows them to run local services and administer budgets worth millions of pounds. There is no requirement for a degree, no requirement to understand the complexities of local government, not so much as a test of either numeracy or literacy. The law quite properly enables virtually any public-spirited citizen to volunteer themselves to serve their community.
But once elected, there should be nothing amateur about our members or their training.
Local Authority member development and training can be rather hit and miss across the country. There is no prescribed national curriculum. It is instead left to each Council to ‘have a go’ at training at a local level. Few Councils strive to actively identify on-going Member development needs or set out an attractive calendar of events for the year ahead. A large number of Councils merely dust-off and deliver induction seminars after every 4 year election cycle. Sadly, the members affected – particularly the newly elected – will feel left out in the cold, striving to do their best, without being fully trained and developed for their important roles. There can be no excuse for officers subjecting councillors to robotic “death by powerpoint” briefings in place of a properly structured member development strategy.
Members of every Authority deserve the best training available. It’s what their community expects – and it deserves nothing less.
Forward thinking Councils – and there are very many – have taken up the challenge presented by the matrix of a Member Development Charter accreditation scheme, initially promulgated by the IDeA over a decade ago. In Scotland the Improvement Service has an excellent National Improvement Strategy for Scottish Local Government. In England development initiatives have been carried forward at regional level and many Authorities attain and indeed retain Charter Accreditation. These Council’s see Member Development as an investment. It is an investment to save. The savings flow from confident and clear decision making which reduces the possibility of legal challenge.
There should be a mandatory requirement – embodied in local Codes of Member Conduct - that members must attend a minimum number Continuing Professional Development events on an annual basis.
It will then be for the officers of their Councils to devise a diary of seminars to put all Councillors – and all communities - across the country on an equal footing.
Kevin O’Keefe LLB is a Solicitor and a Director of Excela Interim Management & Consultancy Ltd, which provides comprehensive member training solutions to Councils throughout the UK.