Most democrats will agree that increased popular involvement in the political process would strengthen the credibility, direction and execution of governing institutions. This applies to every layer of government. However, given the closer geographical proximity of local authorities to those whom they govern, it should be much easier to allow for greater public participation here than at the national level. I believe this could be done by making the local political process less partisan, more democratic, more effective and less time consuming. As a result, many more people might be prepared to become involved in local administration on a ‘pro bono’ basis, leading to a significant improvement in the quality of oversight. Here are some suggestions for how this could be achieved.
- To make local politics less partisan, candidates should not stand with party labels against their name. There should be more co-opting of specialists and other potentially useful contributors on council committees. For example, a couple of teachers on a council education committee should lead to much better-informed decisions.
- To make local politics more democratic, compulsory voting (as in Australia) should be introduced for elections. Those who did not like any of the candidates would be at liberty to spoil their ballot papers. This would hopefully incentivise councils to be more responsive to the local electorate. No council would want to be highlighted as having one of the highest percentages of spoilt ballot papers in the country.
- To make local politics more effective, councils would employ an ombudsman (reporting to a directly elected Provost) to deal, in the first instance at least, with routine complaints such as council house/road repairs, refuse collection, and the state of public lavatories. This would allow local councillors time to focus on broad policy issues rather than on the mundane.
- To make local politics less time consuming, fewer council meetings would take place and, when held, would be at times in the week that the vast majority of councillors could make. Their role would mirror that of a non-executive director on a company board — providing an interface with shareholders (the local public in this case) as well as strategic vision, but above all ensuring day to day administration was in competent hands.
As such a role would be much more interesting, status enhancing and compatible with their day jobs, there would be plenty of candidates keen to participate even if, as is proposed, the vast majority of them would not be paid but only receive expenses. A small minority of councillors, elected by secret ballot of their peers, would be remunerated and at higher rates than at present. These would be responsible for chairing council committees, as well as coordinating relationships with the council executives, the local ombudsman, other councils and organisations. The considerable savings, resulting from not paying most local councillors, would be used to fund the ombudsman’s office. Furthermore, pro bono councillors are likely to act much more independently than if paid.
As well as improving the quality of local authority democracy and governance, such a change to the political process would provide a natural career path into national politics. Councillors would normally have their public service credentials tested through a stint as an elected but unpaid public representative, before being elected to a paid post. Paid councillors would gain substantial administrative oversight experience while in this role, and hopefully learn the benefits of a less partisan approach to politics too. Few will probably want to become MPs or MSPs, but those that did might well be able to contribute more, and much more quickly, than the average prospective candidate for Holyrood and Westminster.
There will of course be considerable opposition from vested interests to these proposals. Those councillors, previously remunerated but not voted into paid posts, may well not wish to continue in public service and some compensation might be in order here. Council executives may well prefer the cosy relationships they have developed with local party leaders to the less predictable oversight of more independent- minded councillors. However, if these changes produce more open and vibrant local government, as I believe they would, the public at large would be much better off in the quality and value of services provided.
Angus Tulloch is former Joint-Managing Partner of Stewart Investors