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Matthew Taylor: Councils must do more to engage citizens

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Key challenges of the modern world – complexity, the pace of technological change, greater diversity, new attitudes and new forms of communication – make meaningful and functional democratic engagement much more likely at the local than the national level. 

That’s not just my conclusion but also that of Bruce Katz, one of the world’s leading experts on urban policy, in his recently published book The New Localism.

Yet, from the British perspective – with only limited inroads into centralism and with our municipal politics arguably becoming more factional – we should see this as a possibility, not yet a reality.

A recent RSA report Building a Public Culture of Economics offers some insights into what needs to be done to change that.

Three years ago, I announced that the RSA would be convening a Citizens’ Economic Council – a demographically diverse, randomly selected, group of citizens working publicly to define and describe design principles for an economy that works for everyone. As part of this work we also embarked on a roadshow across Britain in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, exploring citizen views on a more inclusive economy.

Figures from a survey we recently commissioned have confirmed the scale of the engagement problem. While citizens’ sense of trust and influence have often been low, they have reached rock-bottom.

For example, fewer than three in 100 citizens we polled felt they had significant influence over the way local enterprise partnerships made decisions. This is surely a problem for bodies that were established to set local priorities on key areas like skills. And only a third of those polled said they felt they had influence over local councils.

Yet there is evidence that both regional and local bodies are better placed to strengthen the relationship between citizens and the institutions that make decisions about their lives, particularly in areas and regions dubbed ‘left-behind’.

By way of example: people in the north-east feel the least (13%) influence in the UK over central government, but the most (42%) influence over local councils. This leads to a conclusion we have heard often before – decentralisation of decision making is necessary but not sufficient to empower people.

The work of the Citizens’ Economic Council has built upon early findings from the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission. As well as making the case for measures of growth and economic success that look beyond GDP to more accurate indicators of people’s own experiences of the economy, we propose that councils, local enterprise partnerships and other regional and sub-regional bodies could seek to strengthen their transparency and accountability in three key ways.

First, by using participatory methods to give local citizens a role in the development and approval of local policy making, building on movements like the People’s Powerhouse in the north of England.

Second, we contend that more councils and regional governments should adopt measures such as participatory budgeting to engage citizens. The growth of participatory budgeting has strengthened the relationship between local institutions and citizens across the world, and is widely used in cities such as Paris and New York. We propose that elected mayors could be taking a strong leadership role in championing such approaches in the UK.

Finally, we see a need to support initiatives such as regional and local banking so that citizens can realistically have more of a say in how their financial services and products are provided at a local level. By way of example, the RSA is supporting the development of a network of regional community banks.

And while trust in economic institutions is low, this isn’t inevitable. Our survey demonstrated that there is considerable appetite and support for strengthening the feedback loop between people and decision-makers. Nearly half of citizens surveyed (47%) said they would trust economic decision-making more if they knew ordinary people like themselves had been involved, as with the jury system.

In these challenging times, democratic innovation and experimentation might all sound a bit difficult or risky. If so, we should be inspired by the response of the Bank of England to the Citizens’ Economic Council report. It has agreed to act on our recommendation to establish citizens’ councils to work with its 12 regional agencies.

As chief economist Andy Haldane said at the launch: “This is, for the bank, the next rung in our ascent of the engagement ladder. I am confident our view of the economy, and our setting of economic policy, will be greatly enhanced by this wider panorama.”

Isn’t it time more councils started climbing that ladder?

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, the RSA

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