Democratic Services – the Heart of the Council

I have spent a fascinating day today with two colleagues, Graeme Creer of Weightmans LLP and John Austin the chair of ADSO and John Austin judging the Democratic Services Award as part of the MJ Awards which will be announced in June.

I do this because I am the Member Champion for the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO).  Not a lot of people know that! I agreed to be the member champion for one very, very good reason. I am a crawler. When I speak to newly elected councillors I always proffer this advice, “Never mind the Leader or Chief Executive – get to know the Democratic Services Staff. They can make your life either heaven or hell”.

I have always found that Dem Servs staff (or committee clerks as we used to know most of them) have been a great source of help and knowledge. Their work brings them into contact with every part of the council and many of our partners. They know who to go to for most things and know how to find out what they don’t know. They remember why a decision was made 15 years ago, who made it and can turn up necessary material. Perhaps IT can do this but not in the way with the interpretation that many Dem Servs staff can do. Mind you that’s not always a good thing. When they remember it’s you who made the decision, why you made it and that it turned out to be a mistake you are not so pleased with all those razor sharp minds!

Today I really did understand why a good democratic services department is at the heart of every council. We heard from 6 great teams about the work they do in making democracy work inside the political part of the council; the council as a whole; the community and within partnerships.

We heard about the support they give to Councillors in a variety of ways. We heard how they bring old fogies like me into the 21st century encouraging us to use IT and new ideas. We heard how they are reaching out to young people to encourage them into the democratic process and become the council leaders or officers of tomorrow. We heard how they arrange for democracy to matter to excluded members of the community and to scattered communities in rural areas.

We heard of them arranging fun events for kids and encouraging people to ‘design their own councillor’. Bad news folks the design rarely turns out to be a white, late middle aged, middle class man! We heard how they work with all departments of their council to effect delivery of democracy and democratic ideals. In many councils they also lead on consultation and participation issues.

So I am pleased to be their Member Champion because they are well worth championing. Next time you go into Dem Servs and take their services for granted just remember how hard they work, how committed they are; how difficult it must be to spend most of their time dealing with politicians and just say one word – THANKS. It costs nothing but will be well appreciated.

So the winner of the award is……………………..  No I am afraid you will have to wait until June!

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About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. UK representative on UCLG Finance Committee, Executive Bureau and World Council. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperon on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and three grandchildren.
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