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Practical ways to improve local council representation

By Mark Randell - posted Thursday, 4 December 2003

When a local council member is elected, they are full of promise for the good of their 'patch', their electorate - in most cases, genuinely so. They are full of energy, and ready to mend and initiate on behalf of their community.

Gradually, however, over the course of their term(s) as community representatives it is not uncommon for the community to feel their representative start to change, to speak in a different language, to be more hesitant about the prospects of this initiative, that plan.

This process is one in which the representative is gaining access to 'the bigger picture' - the overall needs of a region or municipality - and is discovering the hard task of balancing the needs of all with the wants of all. It is also a process in which the representative is being soaked in the culture of the local council organisation, and is beginning to live within that culture, to speak its jargon - in the process becoming almost incomprehensible to the 'outside' community.


Both processes are necessary to the success of the municipal enterprise, but it may be worth asking how the representative can be kept more within 'the bosom' of the local community, while still being effective within the council organisation.

In order for this to occur, several things need to happen:

  • The local council organisation needs to become more 'permeable' to its local community;
  • The local community needs to provide more effective support to its representatives; and
  • The representatives need to be more accountable to their local community.

The idea of a 'permeable' organisation is not a new one. The notion is that of an open organisation, one that positively welcomes the flow-through of outside influences, ideas, people. This - it must be said - is somewhat antithetical to the approach of many local councils, which close themselves up, outsource all their activities, and huddle in the bunker in case the community hurls rocks. The virtue of an open organisation is that it maintains its form and structure while effectively incorporating outside influences - the organisation more easily becomes a part of the community, rather than remaining outside the community and acting paternalistically on that community. The permeable organisation is more organic, and subsequently easier to manage. In this context, the permeable organisation does not draw as far away from its community, reducing jargon, remaining more in touch with local ideals.

Support is a big issue for local representatives. The typical local council member spends 4 to 5 nights a week on council business, and the effect on the household is marked. Typically, things that used to get done, don't: For instance, the car doesn't get serviced, the dishes aren't done, that cake wasn't cooked, the kids don't see their mother/father as much, the cleaning is not done as much, and so on.


In past times, in smaller communities, natural support systems (also known as 'friends') may have helped ease the burden for local members and their families, but we have become disconnected from the political process, by size of municipalities, by the demands of jobs, by the very structure of modern life.

What is needed are mechanisms that revive the support system for local members, that encourage communities to think of local candidates as 'theirs', and to help them in practical ways. It is easy enough to imagine that someone might prepare a meal one night, and drop it to the member's family, or that someone might service the car, or do the cleaning, and so on. All that is needed is some coordination. The 'structure' that gives rise to the candidate should undertake this.

Lastly, the candidate should remain within their community, and resist the lure of the bureaucracy, the organisation, the power. Easier said than done. Perhaps the trick here is that the community should 'pre-select' the candidate. That is, rather than someone running because they want to be important, or have influence, the community should recommend candidates who have been living with them for some time, and are thought by the whole community to be 'worthy' to be put on the local council. This 'preselection' process is an informal one done by the community on the basis of human judgement - and in such cases, the judgement of the community is rarely wrong. Having identified their candidate, they can approach him or her with their support offer, making it easier for the person to accept the role.

To bring this somewhat idealized dream to fruition, a community needs the 'structures' that support these notions. Two kinds of structure are needed: a structure to encourage community participation in local affairs, and a local community 'political party'. Most communities have neither; some have the elements of the first; I am moving, in my community toward having both, putting - you might say - my money where my mouth is.

The remaining issue is how the local council organisation moves toward a more 'permeable' position. To some extent, this relies on the natural properties of a well-structured system - in the jargon of complex systems science, it is an 'emergent property'. What do I mean? Well, once you have your community candidates in place, it will be much more likely that a natural state of the organisation is to embrace community ideas, to more rapidly respond to 'nudges' from the community. This, then, is the final piece of the puzzle, not the first. (To achieve change effectively in any complex system, first study its natural states, and then 'nudge' it at an appropriate time to a state nearer the target state.)

As in all things in life, the key to better local representation is to first choose or build the appropriate structures to support appropriate candidates - and to get the timing right.

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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