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OPINION - ONE RULE FOR PARTICIPATION

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The drive to encourage public participation has been a feature of New Labour's policies for local government. Guida...
The drive to encourage public participation has been a feature of New Labour's policies for local government. Guidance, statutory requirements and a great deal of exhortation have been used to build on councils' innovation.

Over the last few years, the number and range of participation initiatives has expanded greatly, offering citizens wider opportunities to take part in local affairs. The drive and commitment comes in various forms and reflects considerable council ownership.

There is still a place for traditional methods, such as public meetings. There has been a great rise in consumerist methods, which are primarily customer-oriented and are mainly concerned with aspects of service delivery. These might include customer satisfaction surveys or users' groups.

There are forms of what might be termed group consultation. This would include activities for residents of a particular area, people concerned with specific issues (for example, community safety) or those with a shared background or interest (for example, minority ethnic groups), on a regular basis.

There has been a growth in deliberative innovations such as citizens' juries or visioning exercises. These encourage citizens to reflect on issues affecting them and their communities through giving them information and engaging them in a deliberative process. Finally there has been a growth in the use of referendums or lower key panel surveys to test majority public opinion on major issues.

Local government has more experience of participation than anyone else. Yet that experience reveals difficulties as well as advantages. Top of most lists is the dichotomy between justifying expenditure on democratic activities when specific services are still in need of resources. Among many councils there is a perception that there is little public enthusiasm for enhanced participation, particularly among those traditionally excluded from political participation.

Citizens are clear about how to evaluate public participation. Succinctly, the issues for them are: (a) Has anything happened? (b) Has it been worth the money? and (c) Have those in authority carried on talking to the public?

The doubts of councils and the public's criteria point to one shared principle - don't do it unless you are serious.

Participation will convince no one if it is about public relations or manipulation but, if it is part of a process in which real decisions are made, it will help reconnect the governed with the governors.

Gerry Stoker

Chair, New Local Government Network

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