The Modern Democratic Services Officer – Get involved

We hosted a thought-provoking webinar on Friday 8 March 2024, exploring the role of the Modern Democratic Services Officer.


Catherine Howe, Chief Executive of Adur & Worthing Councils, gave a fascinating presentation. She highlighted the importance of democratic services officers being at the centre of reshaping governance processes and approaches to citizen engagement, so that we can keep pace with digitalisation and other challenges for local democracy, whilst maintaining transparency and accountability.


Catherine also highlighted that many things have changed (and will continue to change) since the role of Democratic Services Officer was created. In her own words, we should be an “enabler of change” and be proactive to “reshape decision making pathways”. We should not be “passengers” in the process.


This is such an important issue for democratic services that we are seeking to develop a strategy to map out what ADSO can do to help our members meet these challenges and take the opportunities which Catherine quite rightly highlighted. This will impact on many of the services ADSO offers, including our training programme, our consultancy work and the content of our qualifications.


The Modern DSO - Get involved in the next steps

How to get involved

The project will be led by Carl Whistlecraft, one of our non-executive Directors, and we are seeking expressions of interest from ADSO members who may wish to work with Carl to develop a strategy for consideration at the ADSO Board meeting in July 2024. Please contact Carl if you are interested.



Watch again

If you missed the webinar, you can catch up on the recording (register to view), see the presentation slides, or read on for some more of Catherine’s reflections on the role of The Modern DSO.

Webinar recording:
The Modern DSO webinar


The Modern DSO presentation

extension: pdf


Highlights from ‘The Modern DSO’

reflections from Catherine Howe

The world we live in is very different from the world we were designed to serve. Think about how different the world is, compared to the way the world was when your job was invented.


Every part of local government is having to think about how it organises itself. This needs to be done in partnership between officers, members and citizens. We’re all navigating rapid change together. Change is also an opportunity for reinvention – including reinventing democratic services.


Networked citizens expect to be able to act and be listened to. Citizens expect openness and to be able to access and use data. What does technology mean for how we make decisions? In today’s world, with so much information available online, we will never have “all of the information” ever again – there is infinite possibility for research. It’s about judging how much is “enough” data to enable good decisions.


How we make decisions is fundamental to democracy. It’s a foundation of trust. The challenge is not just to make sure information is robust enough to make decisions, but also being sure that the decisions are happening fast enough to support our organisations. Scrutiny can help to build confidence in the process, especially where transparency is hard – for example, in initial phases of work during intense periods of change.


The job of a Democratic Services Officer involves creating safe spaces, culture and relationships, to enable people to understand each other and come together to make decisions. There is an opportunity for us to adopt more participatory methods – approaches which connect members, officers and citizens – to enable change.


In your role, you are able to shape and anticipate decision making pathways. Think about how you’re building citizen voice into what you’re doing. We need to able to use data effectively – or we can’t support others to do this. We can also help people understand where the key points are in decision making processes. It’s helpful to see yourself as the voice of the citizen in this process.


AI is unlikely to lead to a robot army of democratic services officers – think about your value as a human in decision making processes. However, we can perhaps think about AI as a really good companion and help to high quality work.


Virtual meetings are about having the ability to choose. Members who are balancing a job and their councillor role can find virtual meetings much easier. Use of digital in meetings also improves access and record keeping. We should bear in mind that teams who are good at working together offline are also good at working online. You need time to create the relationships and the safe spaces.


The interface of councillor, officer and citizen is powerful – if you create spaces where all three can be seen, this is really positive. We can avoid the collision of citizen participation with the formal decision making processes by joining things up from the outset. If you do things in collaboration, you join up these two circles.


To support councillors to engage more with digital, a good tip is show don’t tell. Think about what you can do to immerse people in different experiences. Help members see examples of working alongside citizens, using data and insight well. Pointing outside your organisation to good examples of what’s happening elsewhere can also be helpful – it can awaken interest.


To include the voice of citizens more, look everywhere that citizen voice could be made louder in your organisation. Look in your Constitution and equality statements for leverage points (there is always one in Scrutiny). Design-in citizen voice to working groups. Opportunities are already there and can be maximised.


People also need the confidence to go out and meet citizens and work with them. Take decision making to people rather than forcing people to come to you. The main thing is to build support within your organisation. There will be people who already care about this, but who perhaps don’t think of democratic services as part of that citizen focus. I’ve never been in a council where people aren’t passionate about citizen voice.


ADSO has a role in highlighting and developing the skills we all need for the future. Our professional spaces need to start to adapt to the new normal, and we have an opportunity to work together to achieve this.


From Catherine Howe (extracts from The Modern DSO webinar)


Interested in taking part?

If these reflections have sparked your interest, and you’d like to help, please get in touch with our non-executive Director, Carl Whistlecraft.






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