Three ways for councillors to shape adult social care
Dave McKenna (University of Birmingham)
Dave McKenna, Research Fellow at the Institute of Local Government, University of Birmingham, explores how local authority councillors can contribute to adult social care delivery.
In our review of the literature on adult social care we have found that councillors tend to be peripheral at best, with only a handful of papers or reports placing councillors centre stage. We think this is an important gap and we have been looking to address it through the NIHR SSCR-funded Councillors and Care research project. Specifically, we are interested in exactly how councillors might help shape adult social care and make a positive difference for those people receiving services and their carers.
Of course, there may be reasons why councillors are sometimes overlooked. We know that councillors are sometimes viewed as lacking expertise in what is often a very technical area of council business. There is also an argument that, because local voters are less interested in adult social care, so councillors might be too.
However, even if these factors do count against councillors being involved in adult social care, a powerful push remains – the fact that, for those councils responsible for adult social care, 40% of the budget is spent on this service area.
Perhaps more importantly, according to the most recent councillor census, the two most cited reasons given for becoming a councillor are ’to serve the community’ (85%) and ‘to change things’ (55%). As their communities and their constituents are affected by issues around adult social care, so councillors will want to get more involved.
So, what are the areas of impact that might be looked at when developing policy or conducting research? We have organised our research into three areas – the leadership, scrutiny and frontline roles of councillors.
The leadership role
Councillors in leadership roles, in other words executive or cabinet members, can be instrumental in shaping strategy, leading partnerships and deciding budgets. Their partnership with the Director of Adult Social Services is often a defining factor for the overall culture and approach that a council takes. While the director leads on service delivery, the executive councillor operates in the political arena – ensuring support and helping to promote a corporate approach with cabinet colleagues. The relationship between these two is also significant. Executive councillors can offer support and cover but also provide challenge – pushing officers to explore alternative approaches, for example.
The scrutiny role
Councillors in scrutiny roles can also make a difference. In some ways similar to parliamentary select committees, council scrutiny committees include non-executive councillors whose role is to act as a check and balance on the executive. These scrutiny committees make a difference by holding decision makers to account, by testing performance, by raising issues of concern and acting with, and on behalf of, people using adult social care services.
Scrutiny committees provide a valuable space where different service providers can share what they do with councillors and these committees will also often undertake in depth pieces of work on challenging topics – gathering evidence and presenting recommendations to decision makers.
The frontline role
Councillors in frontline roles, in their communities, are perhaps less visible when it comes to adult social care, but they are important nevertheless. Through casework they represent individuals who are experiencing issues with the social care system and provide a valuable source of advice, signposting and advocacy. Through this work, and through their wider community connections, frontline councillors can also spot patterns that suggest things are not working as they should be.
Councillors can also be found supporting organisations and local projects that directly and indirectly benefit adult social care. Indeed, many of the community activities such as luncheon clubs and fun days that do much help promote health and wellbeing, will feature councillors organising behind the scenes or cutting cake and serving sandwiches.
Our aim, through this project, is to identify specific, concrete ways in which councillors in these three roles can help shape adult social care and thereby make a difference for those receiving services and their carers. In our experience councillors are already making a big difference – even if they might not be getting the recognition that they should – and we want to build on that in our research. We hope that others will find it helpful to do the same.
D McKenna (2023) Three ways councillors can shape adult social care, NIHR School for Social Care Research Blog, 31 January 2023