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Local action key to national results

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For the last month or so, I’ve been working on one issue – how to take decisions openly – in two different projects, one in Whitehall and one in Lewes. The contrasts are fascinating.

With the Cabinet Office I’ve been running a discussion about open policy-making on a new blog at http://openpolicy.demsoc.org- where contributions from local government would be very welcome.

At local level, I’ve been working with Lewes DC to create a statement of principles on how they involve their citizens in decisions.

Compare and contrast Lewes’s local involvement principles with central government’s, and the differences between central and local attitudes jump out.

The centre starts from policy and the local starts from people. The centre thinks about input into policy and constructing the process that can best obtain it. The local thinks about a citizen’s relationship to their council, and how it can be made better.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of Whitehall – central government is dealing with a potential audience of 65 million, after all – but it’s been a reminder for me of how much easier it is for local government to support citizen action than it is for central government.

Councils can plan on involving local people in designing and supporting solutions, while the centre works at such a scale and distance that it can do little more than encourage. In Lewes, the participation principles are part of a transformation programme called “Project Nexus” that has citizen action as an essential part – central government initiatives such as “Your Square Mile” have struggled to support citizen engagement at a national scale.

For all the differences, there is a central point in common: all visions of citizen action and involvement require interested and capable citizens, with good information and good opportunities to participate. It is a challenge for both central and local to build that environment. The recent announcement that citizenship is going to stay in the school curriculum is a start, but politics and policy is still arranged on a twentieth century model of mass parties and lobbyists rather than a twenty-first century model of networked, personalised activism.

The networks in which citizens can act extend nationally, but they are strongest at local and hyperlocal level. If Whitehall and local government can build it together, the democracy infrastructure the government is looking for is there in every town hall and community centre.

Anthony Zacharzewski, Democratic Society, www.demsoc.org

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