Top tips for new councillors


By Cliff Dalton, Head of CIPFA Commercial Networks

For new councillors, nothing inspires the level of dread as getting your head around local government finance. 

Many will have started their political careers as local campaigners, and will know more than most about council budgets. They know about the trade-offs involved and are familiar with a number of the principles that underpin how councils manage their money. 

But the scope and complexity of local government finances – in a world where councils plan, manage and deliver services in increasingly different ways – can take even the well-prepared by surprise. 

New members are often likely to find themselves on scrutiny committees. It is through involvement in such committees that new councillors will have their first full-on encounter with the inner workings of their authority’s budget. Tomorrow’s cabinet members and leaders will cut their teeth on this work, and it is never too early for new members to begin developing an awareness of the key issues with the support of officers and their fellow members. 

That isn’t to say that we only need to give new members the rundown on financial issues because some of them will one day sit on the cabinet. 

There is an increasingly vital role for scrutiny councillors to play across the piece. CIPFA and the Centre for Public Scrutiny, along with the support of the Local Government Association will, in the coming weeks, be publishing a comprehensive guide for councillors on these issues. 

However, there are particular steps that the newest councillors can take now that will stand them in good stead for the longer term. Such learning will eventually lead to a mastery of all things local government finance. 

With that in mind, here are our top five tips for those new to the business of local democracy in town and county halls around the country, now that local election fever is over:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. This is perhaps one of the most common things that a new councillor will be afraid of doing. In truth, no question is stupid. But to new members, coming into what can be an unfamiliar and intimidating environment, it may seem so. 
  2. Get a sense of the current context. How are the council’s finances looking right now? Is there cause for concern? What are the big national and local trends which may influence your financial position in the future? Officers will be able to support this thinking, but councillors, fresh from an intense round of local campaigning, are likely to have immediate insights into the local psyche. How do you make that insight and perspective meaningful? What does it mean for the budget?
  3. Don’t get overwhelmed. As your understanding develops, you’ll begin to recognise just how much information is out there. This begs the need to be discriminating. It’s not possible to absorb absolutely everything – so consider what information and data will help you to get to the heart of an issue.
  4. Take your time. Demand the time and resources you need to be comfortable in your understanding of these issues. The budget cycle can feel like a steamroller – but the sense shouldn’t be that the process will continue irrespective of the members that may come and go. Councillors need time to understand, to digest, to reflect and consider – in order to play an active role. It’s wholly right to challenge finance officers to reflect on whether the way that they work meets these needs. 
  5. Don’t underestimate yourself. Don’t underestimate the vital democratic role that you can play in your community. In many councils, the process by which councillors other than the cabinet have an opportunity to review and influence the budget before it is formally agreed, can seem like a limited and perfunctory affair. The budget can appear to emerge, fully formed, from nowhere in the New Year. The inscrutability of the process that surrounds this can put members off, and give them a sense that there’s nothing constructive they can do. But there is. The period after elections, with the turnover of members and the political resetting of the council’s policy and budget cycle, is the perfect time to think practically about how financial systems and processes can be opened out.

While we’ve pitched these tips for new councillors, they also form the fundamentals for councillors returning to their positions after elections. There is always scope to keep learning, which is why, in the coming weeks, CIPFA and the Centre for Public Scrutiny will launch the Councillor Advisor Service. The aim of this service is not only to improve the financial knowledge of councillors, but to strengthen dialogue and mutual understanding between councillors and officers. 

So congratulations to all councillors, both new and returning, following local elections. Take pride in your participation in our democracy, and know that CIPFA stands ready to support you in the service of your communities.

Article first appeared in Local Government Chronicle

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