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Citizen involvement can be confusing

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Councils gained a legal duty in April to ‘inform, consult and involve’ citizens. The new duty, contained in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, presents an opportunity to demystify, simplify and co-ordinate citizens’ involvement in local decision-making.

But councils need to be on their guard for factors that could, instead, create confusion and disillusionment. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, Citizen involvement in local governance, highlights the challenges anddilemmas facing councils, their partners and communities in local governance.

It is critical to avoid confusion over the involvement of citizens — is it to gather knowledge to improve decision making, or is it to include locals directly in decisions?

  • If it is the former, the solution is outreach work, open forums and listening to different groups and individuals.
  • If it is the latter, local representatives need structures to consult their communities and be held accountable.

Lack of clarity on this issue undermines the legitimacy of community involvement and stirs up tensions. Councillors, caught between cabinets, local groups and partnerships, can feel they have less influence over decisions than community groups. For their part, community groups report mixed experiences of councillors’ willingness to improve their involvement, but want to work with them to gain influence in their area.

A place-based approach is the only rational way to achieve community empowerment and accountable decision-making

Jane Foot

New communities or marginalised groups turn to councillors to help them make links in the area, so representative democracy and participation needs to be seen as interdependent, not in competition.

The skills and goodwill of councillors and staff are important, but changes in attitude are not enough.

Organisational moves, such as the alignment of targets and timescales that take account of community processes, are also needed. In addition, councillors need new skills and support if they are to become decision-makers and ‘connectors’ — which might call for a change in the way political parties and local councils work.

A paradox often emerges when discussing community engagement: a key driver is to take account of diversity,
migration and mobility, but policy and practice often assume that neighbourhoods are homogenous.

Neighbourhoods have varied populations, often with divisions of ethnicity and wealth, and individuals have
many identities. This makes it a challenge to design inclusive, representative and welcoming structures.

Community engagement and cohesion strategies must be developed together to avoid conflict between
communities. Trust can be lost if voices are not heard.

Many councils have invested in engaging their citizens. The new duty challenges them to embed energy andcreativity in the approach, and the comprehensive area assessment sets demanding standards for local strategic partnerships’ engagement with local people.

A place-based approach is the only rational way to achieve community empowerment and accountable
decision-making.

Jane Foot is a policy consultant and researcher

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