In Conversation with Councillor Katie Hagmann, COSLA Resources Spokesperson
As part of LGIU’s series on local government leadership, COSLA Resources spokesperson, Cllr Katie Hagmann, tells us about the challenges facing local government finance and workforces and how COSLA is delivering for the local government sector in 2023.
To get us started, it would be great if you tell us about you, your role at COSLA and your work as a councillor in Dumfries and Galloway.
I was first elected to the Dumfries and Galloway Council in 2017, and following my re-election in 2022, I was nominated as the COSLA Resources spokesperson. I was delighted to be nominated and taken forward as COSLA spokesperson, especially since my role is wide-ranging, covering from pay deals to digital.
Prior to that, I had five years of experience in administration, and I was the joint budget lead in Dumfries and Galloway Council and the joint administration lead for Finance, Procurement and Transformation.
It would be good to understand what attracted you to becoming a councillor and how best councils can attract a more diverse representation
I was first attracted to politics during the 2014 independence referendum. As a firm believer in Scottish independence, I was interested in local politics, particularly as I am of the belief that if we cannot demonstrate fairness and equity at a local level, how can we demonstrate this at the national level?
However, what really attracted me to the role of COSLA spokesperson is its unique position as a collective voice for Scottish local government. For example, I get my mandate from all 32 local authority leaders, and while other spokespeople have thematic boards with representatives from each of the local authorities, I speak directly with Leaders, which is a slightly different take on my role. I thoroughly enjoy my role, and it is a real pleasure to work cross-party and represent local politics right across the Scottish Government.
In terms of the makeup of Councils, I am particularly keen on increasing the representation within our local democracies. I am a woman in politics, which unfortunately is a rarity, and I am also dyslexic, I do not hide from that fact, and will talk about it often. And on this, I think it is really important to stress that if people cannot see it, sometimes they do not think they can do it themselves. So, in terms of attracting a more diverse range of people to come forward for local Councils, it is so important we show how accessible local government can be.
COSLA is involved with a special interest group that’s looking at barriers to elected office, but also Scottish Government have set up their Scottish Local Authorities Remuneration Committee (SLARC) to look at how our local democracies can best reflect the societies and communities we serve. While primarily that committee is looking at the pay of Councillors, which for some is, of course, a barrier, the committee is also actively looking at other aspects of the role of a local Councillor.
Related to this is the growing and changing role of a local Councillor. For me, it is fascinating to represent my community, but more generally, I think people are not always aware of how expansive and important the role of our local governments is. Because of this lack of understanding, for large portions of the population local government wouldn’t be considered “exciting politics”. But politics does not stop at the national and devolved level, and in actuality, local government is often the heart of participatory democracy.
COSLA’s Budget SOS demonstrated the need for a collective defence of local democracy. Looking long-term, where and how do you see your role at COSLA making the most impact?
first and foremost, SOS was a budget lobbying campaign to get Scottish Government to recognise years of underfunding, direction and control and it filled a twin purpose. Part of it was about defending local democracy and highlighting the real threats to local government finance, and the other was about communicating to people, the areas in which local government is on the frontline.
As mentioned above, the powers and financing of local government are not always well understood, and part of my role is about giving a local government perspective on the budget to Parliament and MSPs, so they can fully understand the real threat to frontline services and the sustainability of local democracy itself. In this way, Save Our Services was as much about educating as defending.
Moving forward from the campaign, I am hopeful that through the input of Scottish and local government, we can work in a much better way. There is work ongoing, and there is a real desire from both parties to have a new way of partnership working, which is essential. From the perspective of my role, part of this new way forward needs to have a new fiscal framework to make sure that it is fair, it is equitable and allows us to do what we need for local government in the long term.
Unlocking this potential of local government in the long term is a real focus for me. If we are financed and empowered properly, then we can get in there and work preventatively. The opportunities are there for the taking, and local government is standing ready to deliver. We need to be properly recognised and properly funded to do that, and the Save Our Services campaign was a step towards this direction. And when looking at the digital role for local authorities, the pandemic was a real accelerant of change. Even after the pandemic, online meetings are set to stay. For me, this has opened up so many spaces. Based in the southwest of Scotland, it is over 3 hours for me to drive to COSLA so online options open up opportunities and allows me to be in spaces that otherwise physical distance would not allow.
(Interview continues below)
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Pressures of rising inflation and stagnant wages have created a recipe for industrial action. What was the role of COSLA in navigating workforce disputes and what were your reflections from balancing discussions with Unions, the Scottish Government and Councils?
The phrase “straight into the fire” captures my 10 months coming into the role! Within a few weeks of being appointed into the role, we were facing industrial action, and over the last 10 months, there have been strikes across local authorities in terms of waste colleagues and teacher strikes.
In Scotland, we have four bargaining groups covering the local government workforce and the Scottish Joint Council (SJC) covers the largest proportion. We meet regularly with our partners on the SJC, and although it has been challenging, there has never been a point where we, the employer have refused to meet. In these discussions, we have taken forward the work on pay and workforce disputes, and there are other elected representatives from local authorities sitting on our steering group too.
It hasn’t always been easy, there have been real challenges, and a large part of this comes down to financing. Through partnership working, we were able to secure additional funds from the Scottish government that enabled us to resolve that issue. In terms of the discussions with teachers, that’s slightly different in Scotland because the Scottish Government sits in a tripartite agreement with local authorities and the teaching unions as part of the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers (SNCT). But again, we met regularly, and we were in regular dialogue to ensure that we could find a solution. Again, it wasn’t easy, and not everybody was able to get everything that they wanted, but we did get to a resolution.
Ultimately, we want our workforce across local government to feel valued. It’s not about pitting one trade union against the rest but valuing each with their own merits, and we value everybody within that. Coming into this role, it’s been an incredible learning opportunity for me and actually building those relations with our trade union partners. Those relationships are crucial, and the longer I am in this role, those relationships will build, and at the end of the day, we are there to take care of our workforce. Local government is nothing without our workforce. As elected councillors, we live in our communities, so we know our Council officers, our waste collectors, our teachers and everyone who works across councils. Especially in a rural context, you are seeing them on a daily basis so it is about respecting everyone and understanding that classroom assistants, teachers and janitorial staff are all interlinked. Looking at that bigger picture and respecting everyone individually is my biggest takeaway from the last 10 months.
Finally, how has digitalisation and changing work styles impacted your time in local government, and where do you see it going for the sector?
The potential opportunities from digital are enormous. Obviously, even since 2017, my role as a Councillor has been completely transformed by online working and the variety of things I can do online. In terms of local government, the offer of digital is about working smarter, not harder. We have huge talent across local government, and building those digital networks and sharing that experiences means we can share best practices to advance the sector as a whole.
So there are real opportunities, especially in education, where you’ve got education collaboratives that are working together. My ward is very rural, and for some of the smaller high schools, there is a real challenge in providing subject choices. However, with the advance of digital working, students are able to access courses that they otherwise would not have been able to. And with the unique collective role of COSLA, we can bring all 32 local authorities together around the table and set a strategic direction for digital. Everyone can feed in. Leaders can make decisions where they need to, and experts in thematic boards can come together to have those discussions.
Digital will impact every area of how local government works, from how we repair potholes to smart bins! The possibilities are there for the taking, but local authorities individually may not have all the resources to take advantage of all of the opportunities, and that is why COSLA is so important to local government in Scotland and why, I am looking forward to my role in the COSLA team.
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