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Local lessons from far afield

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We are notoriously bad in Britain at looking to other countries to see what we can learn about ourselves. To be fair, this is partly because consistent information is hard to come by, particularly on issues such as views of local quality of life and local government.

Ipsos is one of the very few research groups that does significant local government research internationally, and we’re releasing one of the first studies we’re aware of that looks at views of local councils and feelings of empowerment globally - One World, Many Places.

The first pattern that strikes you from the varied set of 22 countries in the study is that there is a pretty strong relationship between satisfaction with local government and satisfaction with areas: where there is greater satisfaction with the local area there is generally more satisfaction with local government.

This mirrors the pattern in hundreds of studies for individual UK councils, and while we can’t be sure from this simple snapshot which way cause and effect runs (or whether other factors are affecting both), it suggests a close inter-relationship.

It provides weight to the view that local government has an important place-shaping role across very different national contexts - and that if we want citizens to be positive about us, local government needs to be absolutely focused on what makes people happy about their areas.

The report also shows just how similar people in different countries are in their priorities about improving their areas. Given the global downturn, it’s not surprising that citizens across the world are asking their local authorities to focus on economic factors, particularly jobs and affordability of housing. Crime and traffic congestion are common problems too.

This comparison of priorities highlights that the UK is far from alone in focusing on apparently mundane things such as road and pavement maintenance; in fact, this is the second most important priority for local improvement across the world.

However, there are some uniquely British obsessions. We are the only country of the 22 in the study to say that more activities for teenagers is the top priority locally; Germany is the only other country to have it in its top three. We see this issue raised so often in survey after survey in Britain that our “terror of teenagers” seems normal - it turns out it’s not.

But the most interesting finding, in light of current debates around the Big Society is the pattern when we compare feelings of influence over local decisions with satisfaction with local government.

For those of us who believe that giving people more direct control over local decisions should be a key focus, it is disappointing that this shows virtually no relationship between the two measures: on average, countries with high feelings of influence are no more likely to be happy with their local government (or, in separate analysis, their area) than those with low feelings of influence.

In particular, while citizens in Latin American countries (which have pioneered a range of approaches to more meaningful citizen involvement) have incredibly high feelings of influence, their satisfaction with local government is among the lowest measured.

But there are important caveats to this. As with any international research, there are such varied contexts that these comparisons need to be treated carefully. For example, other studies show a general distrust of government structures in Latin America (one reason more participatory approaches were introduced) which will affect these perceptions.

Indeed, we cannot tell from this single survey whether ratings of local government would have been even lower if the focus on local involvement and control had not been developed as much as it has.

And, building on that, if you look at a more similar set of western developed countries, where the comparisons are perhaps fairer, there is a very strong relationship between feelings of influence and how people feel about local government. In this context, it’s also vital to note that this study is conducted online.

Responses in developing countries (especially India) should be seen as representing a more affluent elite, which are interesting in their own way, but different from the responses from developed countries.

For Britain, this pattern highlights some of the challenges and opportunities for the Big Society. We are in the top third for satisfaction with local government, but 16th out of 22 countries on feelings of influence: we have clear room for improvement in giving people a better sense of local empowerment.

We do however need to understand where people are in the UK. When we ask in surveys what sort of involvement people want, it is more of a Christmas tree shape than a ladder, as we can see in the chart. Large proportions of the population say they just want information and for services to get on with their jobs.

But again, we shouldn’t take this too negatively. Even taken at face value, this still represents a huge number of people who say they want more active involvement or more of a say in local decisions.

We know not everyone who says they want to contribute actually will - but even if only a fraction does, that still represents an enormous untapped resource across the country.

Willingness also clearly depends on what is at stake, the ways in which people are asked to get involved and crucially how this is communicated to them. The trends in empowerment under the previous government suggest success will be hard to achieve.

Despite many initiatives, feelings of influence and involvement remain virtually unchanged. However, there are reasons for cautious optimism.

First, there now seem likely to be several flagship projects that people are more likely to notice. Our new polling shows some of these - such as the National Citizens’ Service - have huge support among the public (even among young people themselves), and this is unaffected by whether the service is voluntary or compulsory.

People are also very positive about checking public spending online - three- quarters say this is something they would do.

Some measures, such as parents running schools or elected individuals holding the police to account get a more mixed response, and a lot depends on how this is presented: for example support for the policing proposal falls when a simple line is added that senior police officers object to the approach.

And, secondly, the Big Society could benefit from having a label that ties different aspects together in a way that people can grasp. This might seem odd, when it has been widely asserted that, as an over-arching principle, it was a bit of a flop during the election, confusing people more than helping.

But our new research suggests that may have been overplayed. When we simply ask whether people remember talk of the Big Society, 42% say they do, which is a very high proportion for a manifesto theme that all involved admit is still being formed.

Of course, it is easy to claim that you remember the term, and when asked how much people remember, very few people say “a lot” and most have only just heard of it or know a little. But when we probe in detail on what people think it means, responses suggest many concepts have stuck - in particular the need for personal responsibility and communities taking greater control.

Clearly, it is early days, and the Big Society approach should be judged on what it achieves and how it makes people feel, but it is not wildly optimistic to think it could help us close the gap on the many countries more locally empowered than us.

One world, many places is available from www.ipsos-mori.com

Bobby Duffy, managing director, Social Research Institute, Ipsos Mori

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