Councillors and the voluntary and community sector

… pulling to the left hand circle

When we talk of the voluntary and community sector it is important to be clear that this means a whole range of civil society groups and organisations; from small informal community groups (such as a parent and toddler drop in) through to highly structured voluntary sector organisations, such as a Development Trust, which employs staff and is involved in strategic development of an area.  We can think of it as a continuum – from the formal, structured and high capacity (skills, resources, knowledge time etc) to the informal, unstructured and much less capacity. There are clearly huge differences between community groups and voluntary sector groups along the continuum, in terms of what they can achieve and how influential they are in the local area, even if they are providing a critical service and support. This is something to think about if all communities are to be included in the localism agenda.

Many councillors sit on the Boards of local groups and organisations. This can bring additional skills, knowledge and influence to that organisation, as well as a direct link to the Council and other bodies. Issues around confidentiality can arise as organisations feel unwilling to hold frank discussions and councillors feel that their viewpoints maybe misrepresented outside meetings.  They bring their party political perspective with them and this can get in the way of working together. Some feel that their elected position gives them the legitimacy to be Chair and this can be a source of tension.

Councillors choose which organisations and groups to be involved with at Board level; this can trigger accusations of partiality and favouritism.Some councillors use their role to pursue their own interests and support groups and causes they personally feel aligned to. There is a concern that the way councillors use their community budgets is reactive – that this funding is given to those in an area who have the ear and approval of the councillor. Some councillors spoke to us about how this is used for vote catching.

Independent community and voluntary organisations can be perceived as a threat by councillors, especially if they take clear positions on issues. Councillors’ expectations of communities vary considerably with some having a fairly negative view of what people are capable of and others being more optimistic. There can be suspicion around their legitimacy, accountability and governance in terms of pursuing community interests. Councillors can feel that their power and role as the elected representative of an area is undermined by such groups and subsequently become critical of their efforts.

Groups and organisations can exert pressure on councillors to take particular positions on local issues – sometimes through lobbying and reasoned argument and sometimes through bullying and intimidation.

Councillors often deal with people and groups who prioritise their own self interest, often at the expense of others.

Community Rights have the potential to create issues for councillors and there is concern about how they can deal with the fallout from:

  • Communities not understanding these ‘rights’, the processes and implications and not being equipped to reap any benefits
  • The more articulate and high capacity community groups who take over and take advantage
  • Rivalry between groups and the potential for community conflict
  • Developers using community groups for their own ends
  • Ethos of groups who may challenge to run services e.g religious groups

It is useful for councillors to understand the range and breadth of the community and voluntary sectors. Building and nurturing positive relationships with groups and organisations in the constituency can support them to deal with difficult situations around prioritising local issues.

Councillors also have a role in brokering relationships between the local state and community / voluntary sectors, encouraging partnership working for the good of the area.  If councillors view community / voluntary groups and organisations as local partners, the councillor role can be strengthened.  However, it is important to remember that councillors also need to be talking with people outside established groups, particularly those smaller less formal groups providing all sorts of support and services to local people.

Although Councillors are often called ‘community leaders’ , some may think this arrogant as they are only one person and, it’s often helpful to think about the ides of ‘community leadership’ and encourage others to step up to the mark!   Indeed some community and voluntary groups /organisations carry out the same individual advocacy role as councillors, as well as other leadership roles.

Councilllors can be seen as a critical link to what is happening in their communities and constituencies through the following functions:

  • brokering
  • arbitrating
  • coaching/mentoring
  • asking questions
  • informing
  • signposting
  • constructively challenging
  • having an overview

Now have a look at what people said about councillors and councils