There is national guidance for employers around the principle of allowing reasonable time off for public duties. It is in fact mandatory in the case of jury service, where an employee must be allowed the time to perform this role. For other types of public service, such as being a councillor, an employee can get reasonable time off. This of courses raises a question of how much time is reasonable.
I would like to think that employers generally would wish to embrace the advantages that their staff can gain through participating in public service. On the face of it, there is potential for a win-win situation here, with staff acquiring new insights and skills which are portable, so benefiting their employer as well.
By adopting such an attitude, employers can make a positive contribution to the good government of our country. Equally, they can have an opposite effect and discourage their people from participating. This is easy to do. For example, there is the obvious method of not giving reasonable time off or more subtle signals can be sent through the employer’s appraisal system. People could find that their career path is less sure-footed if they happen to councillors, and that would be quite a disincentive.
In broad terms, meetings of Crawley Borough Council tend to be in the evenings while those at West Sussex County Council tend to be in the day time. Regardless of actual timings, it is the amount of hours spent in a working week that count, and it is this commitment that needs to be supported through best employment practices.
If employers fail to acknowledge the value of public service, we end up with a representative democracy that is insufficiently diverse. Councillors will tend to be from a particular demographic, especially in terms of age and current employment. This can have a profound impact on the decisions that are made, putting aside all party politics.
There is also less potential to attract people of the highest calibre because they are unable to participate. The best local government needs people who have both the time and capacity – not just the time. Local democracy should not be some kind of exclusive club whose membership fee is the forfeiture of a life outside of its confines.
In Crawley, we have benefited from some fine examples of employer practice, for example in support of the heavy commitment involved in the Mayoralty. Such initiatives could perhaps be highlighted by a national recognition scheme for best practice. Employers could then take some pride in this particular method of supporting their communities.
If this approach stimulated more widespread good practice, it could only assist the good governance of our councils throughout the country.