In my local paper this week, councillors are complaining that Monmouthshire County Council have spent over a thousand pounds on a training gadget with the intention of helping to train councillors across the county. Predictably perhaps, phrases are now being bandied around like ‘waste of taxpayers money’, ‘typical public sector’ and exhortations for council officials to ‘join the real world’. And, naturally, the council has been trying to justify the purchase. So who’s right?
A slap in the face?
It’s true that like other councils across the UK, Monmouthshire is a bit strapped for cash at the moment. Trying to keep a balance between maintaining services without raising council tax and other charges to a level residents might struggle to afford isn’t easy. Inevitably as some services such as rubbish collection begin to be restricted, there are already complaints and yet the council has been firmly told that it must find further efficiencies from next year. Money and resources are stretched, that can’t be denied, so it’s understandable that to some, a thousand pound spend on one item with intangible benefits must seem like a slap in the face. But then again…
What’s all the fuss about?
The device in question, the Apodo System retails at £1250 and is designed “to build and develop various key skills and attributes that are paramount to any organisation, their people and their successes. APODO has eight core competencies that encompass these:
- Initiative and Responsibility
- Mindset and Motivation
- Decision Making
- Business Awareness
- Planning and Organising
According to the product information, it’s intended for use with managers and other key staff in organisations, to encourage skills and behaviours that can be applied across the business. Tree of Knowledge, the company behind the Apodo, doesn’t claim anywhere that this tool can only be used by councillors, and neither, to my knowledge, has the council. So it seems a little premature to assume that the council has splashed out a grand on a toy for councillors. Maybe a single Apodo is being used across all staff at the council? Maybe they’re planning to lend it, or even hire it out to schools and community groups – Tree of Knowledge is, after all, an education supplier at heart. We just don’t know.
A waste of taxpayer cash or value for money?
Even if they plan to use it purely for councillors, it might still work out cheaper than comparable alternatives. There are 43 elected councillors in Monmouthshire. That works out at £29.07 per head for training using the Apodo indefinitely. Let’s compare that to the cost of a comparable face to face course.
Modern Councillor, a subscription-based e-learning package for councillors, covering topics including Community Leadership, Public Speaking and Equality & Diversity costs £1000 per year.
Undertaking the Local Government Association’s Leadership Academy programme costs from £1000 per individual councillor.
There are also specialist courses available covering specific areas such as planning, but these typically cost from £245 per place, with travel costs on top.
Compared to the alternatives, the Apodo hardly breaks the bank. But do councillors need training?
Do councillors need training?
The Parliamentary Communities and Local Government Select Committee think they do. In a meeting held in January this year, the matter of training for councillors was specifically raised in a discussion about the changing role of local authorities. As well as discussing performance management for councillors, the The Association of Democratic Services Officers gave evidence that it wasn’t just essential factual knowledge that councillors required in order to fulfil their roles effectively. They also needed “the ‘softer’ skills necessary for successful community leaders such as communication, listening, networking, dealing with challenging situations/people, negotiating, facilitating, managing and ensuring change, plus team building skills.” In short, the skills that the Apodo is designed to deliver.
Hertfordshire County Council is already building these skills into the training programme they offer to new councillors: “member training had been re-examined in light of its councillors’ changing role and that ‘communication and consultation skills and techniques needed to engage with their local communities are being emphasised to enable councillors to be successful as social activists’.”
The Select Committee concluded that “Training should be seen as a benefit, not a cost, to local taxpayers.”
So what’s the verdict?
While the purchase itself may be ill-timed, I don’t think that it is a waste of money in principle. Do I think that the council could have explained their plans for the Apodo better? Yes – while I don’t think that councils should have to justify every single purchase to residents, the fact that the story broke and that it could be seen as controversial means that I think they could have made more of an effort to tell Monmouthshire residents more about the devices – what they hoped to achieve with them and how the training was going, what their future plans were. But, I think it’s a delicate line to tread as once you start effectively asking for approval on one thing, it can be seen as a slippery slope. Maybe the council could launch a campaign inviting community groups and other voluntary organisations locally to come up with innovative ways they could use the Apodo, lend it to them and film what happens next so people can be reassured of the benefits?
I definitely approve of the principle of training for councillors. There may be a view that if they’re elected then they should just get on with the job, but I think that residents deserve the best possible people representing them – and to get that, all councillors need to have training to help them do their best for us. Maybe there’s an argument that the cost of training should come from councillors’ own pockets or allowances, but I think the danger of this approach is that it privileges wealth over ability. The reason that allowances were brought in for democratically elected representatives was to ensure that people from all walks of life were equally able to be elected. If we start asking councillors to pay towards our effective representation, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we end up with our political organisations ruled by Bullingdon types with little interest in the electorate at large.