In January 2019, the Committee on Standards in Public Life published a report on local government ethical standards. This called on the LGA to create a model code of conduct to enhance the consistency and quality of local authority codes, and ensure issues such as bullying and harassment were covered.
It was a challenge we, and our members, rose to with enthusiasm.
The intimidation and abuse of councillors, in person or otherwise, undermines democracy; it can prevent elected members from representing the communities they serve, prevent individuals from standing for election and undermine public trust in democratic processes.
These harmful behaviours, whether occurring towards, between or by elected members are entirely unacceptable, and we are committed to tackling them.
We received more than 1,500 responses to our consultation, helping us to develop a model code that truly reflects the views and ambitions of our members. We will be publishing guidance next month to support councils and councillors to implement the Code effectively, and we look forward to continuing our discussions with councils on what more we can do to improve standards.
Of course, the Code on its own cannot achieve all of our ambitions for local government.
Last summer, I made a joint statement with my counterparts in the WLGA, COSLA and NILGA committing to promoting Civility in Public Life, positive debate and resultantly supporting the wellbeing of our elected members.
Together, the associations in the four nations have been working together to build a programme that meets the needs of our memberships.
Councillors have told us that abuse on social media is a significant issue for them. It ranges from annoying to threatening, has led to many of our councillors experiencing fear for their safety, and takes valuable time away from the vital work of representing our communities.
It can be difficult for councillors, as elected representatives, to block or refuse to engage with residents online, even where that user is being abusive or spreading misinformation. It can also feel that online queries should receive immediate responses, such is the fast-paced nature of social media – but no-one can be at their best 24/7, nor are immediate responses always possible, necessary or advisable.
We worked with Dr Sofia Collignon at Royal Holloway University to understand international best practice in relation to dealing with online harassment, and to find out from councillors themselves what they felt worked.
This led to our “Rules of Engagement”, published as an infographic to be pinned to a social media profile. These give councillors a framework for their online engagement. They are designed to give all users a clear ‘code’ by which they should operate, with a clear statement that users can be blocked, or posts deleted, if they fail to comply. And they emphasise the importance of formal channels for casework, and that some responses may take time.
We’ve also collated some of the top tips for handling online abuse into a quick reference infographic. This means councillors don’t need to spend time searching for advice, and can identify quickly how they might want to deal with the situation. Sometimes that will mean walking away, while other situations will need support from the council or the police.
Later this summer, we’ll publish a guide to digital citizenship and some more information on tackling misinformation, as well as updates to our popular councillors’ guide to handling intimidation.
We’ve been heartened by the response from those across the political spectrum and from those who engage with and support local and national democracy. This is really important work, and it’s positive that so many are keen to drive it forward. If we can get this right together, it will ultimately lead to better representation, better decision-making and more trust in the vital services our councils provide every day.
Councillor James Jamieson
Chairman, Local Government Association