Three years on from the formation of new councils and with just over a year to go until a fresh election, Chair of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association’s (NILGA) Elected Member Development Working Group Stephen Martin talks to agendaNi about the progress that has been made.
Spawned out of the reform of local government and creation of 11 new councils in Northern Ireland, with new powers, competencies and responsibilities conferred upon councillors, the NILGA all council member development team has been efficiently working behind the scenes to ensure that all members across Northern Ireland are equipped with a suite of core competencies, skills and confidence building tools to deliver in an increasingly complex, time consuming, and accountable landscape.
The group is representative of all 11 councils and the five main political parties and brings together elected members and council officers to outline common issues affecting councillor development, design high-quality, cost-effective training and to support the building of their knowledge and capacity. Each council then has an elected member development group, consisting of a representative team of champions, where again all parties are represented, and practical training is applied council wide.
Stephen Martin, an Alliance Party councillor on Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, has chaired the NILGA group for the past three years and outlines its importance.
“From the beginning there was a massive job on to assess the landscape of what skills sets existed. There were councillors who had served on the legacy councils and been through extensive training programmes but there was also a host of new councillors (over 150) coming on board.
“We wanted to make sure that every councillor had been through the core induction trainings, ensuring competence and confidence at both corporate and constituent level. From there we have been able to build out individual development programmes.”
The group’s focus is to build on skills in key areas such as:
Compliance: Ensuring councillors understand and adhere to areas of compliance such as the code of conduct. This issue has been particularly useful in local planning, a newly devolved power from central government.
Democratic leadership: Ensuring that councillors recognise the best way to represent the civic, commercial, social and environmental interest of their whole district.
Scrutiny: Encouraging councillors to effectively manage their scrutiny role, especially within committees, and to effectively utilise the knowledge of council officers, while also being able to constructively critique recommendations.
Time management: Educating councillors on time effectiveness and efficiency within their political and social role.
Resilience: Supporting councillors to ensure that they are prepared for the full scope of the various roles carried out by a local councillor.
Martin adds: “The reality of the situation is that the criteria for being elected on to a local council is that a candidate must be over the age of 18 and live or work in the area. You wouldn’t expect a new employee to walk into a new job and hit the ground running, so what the member development training offers is that support and learning potential, equipping elected councillors to fully deliver on their powers.
“You wouldn’t expect a new employee to walk into a new job and hit the ground running, so what the member development training offers is that support and learning potential, equipping elected councillors to fully deliver on their powers.”
“The budget for this is miniscule, because we train trainers internally, bulk purchase, and source from a collective skills base of providers often running ‘task and finish’ sessions driven by need, using elected members from peer councils here and across the water. So, in terms of value for money, the returns are immense.
“Following on from the early progress in empowering councillors to manage their new powers, we wanted to build upon this with personal and professional development. As a result, the first ever regional councillor development programme has been established for 2018/19, with the added benefit of tailoring this for the new intake of May 2019.
“This will ensure that as the councils start to flex their muscles and take different paths, set local strategies in terms of community development and investment and forecast what additional priorities lie ahead in the political instability we are in in Northern Ireland, the skillset of councillors will remain the same in key areas such as governance, scrutiny, the ability to chair meetings, developing an entrepreneurial approach to investment in our communities, and in terms of planning.
“The collective feedback from councillors hasn’t been one of training and development fatigue but rather a desire to build and develop their skills further and avoid ‘death by PowerPoint’.”
As he moves into his final year as Chair, Martin is delighted with the progress that has been made to date. Currently all 11 councils have either achieved or are on the cusp of receiving a Charter mark, the national standard for elected member development. Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK where all councils have committed to Charter, with four out of the 11 committed to Charter Plus – which adds a further assessment level of performance from the local community.
“Getting all councils to the Charter mark has been a priority but we’ve also got a strong focus on getting the induction programme for the 2019 intake ready to roll out, to ensure that those newly elected councillors are equipped to hit the ground running. This will be reinforced from those lessons learnt in 2015,” he explains.
“One of those lessons learnt and something we have put a good deal of work into is the development of the co-opted councillor. It was recognised that those who were joining part-way through a mandate were facing a difficult process of integrating into an established workflow. We aim to ensure that those people don’t get lost in the fog and are afforded the same opportunity and support to best represent their constituents as everyone else.”
Martin sees it as a positive that interest in taking on his position as Chair is likely to increase for the next mandate. “One of our basic aims was to raise the profile of the work of the group and highlight its importance. I think the programmes that we have rolled out to date have created a greater level of awareness and understanding of the value of training and improvement and as a result a lot more people have taken an interest in it.
Looking to the future, Martin says: “The current aim is a focus on ensuring councillors are competent and innovative in their decision-making and are equipped with the skill base to deliver on what people want to see from local government. We’re already seeing a push for greater exploration into community planning, as councillors get a handle on the newly devolved power and in the future and I see more pressure being put on central government for further devolution of powers.
“The Member Development Working Group will work to ensure that the competencies are there to work in tandem with officers and partners to take full value of those existing and new powers. There is an ambition about local government moving forward, and Northern Ireland needs as much ambition as it can get “