If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? And if a council meeting has no members of the public, does it make a difference?
Public engagement in local government is something many councillors and officers are grappling with as central government pushes for residents to be given free rein in the town hall. The empowerment agenda goes well beyond providing more community forums; within five years all English councils will be expected to offer some form of participatory budgeting.
And now opposition politicians are upping the ante by promising local referendums. The era of member committees and full councils draws to an end.
In this rush for processes of devolution the question of purpose goes unanswered. And growing concerns about cost and commitment to the outcomes of any consultation mean it is fast eroding the will of both the public and policy makers to work together at all.
As the authors in Participation nation agree, this would be a missed opportunity. They argue that if moves towards direct democracy are to work, councils must learn public participation has to be more than a rubber stamping mechanism for decisions already made.
At present citizen engagement is promoted because it is seen as a panacea to institutional concerns whether in response to protests at policy direction, a method for challenging ways of working within the public sector or a lack of trust in politicians. No process of participation will secure the support of every citizen for policies, no matter how well planned. The public will disagree about how best to use resources and it is rightly the role of politics and politicians to navigate and mediate between those competing interests.
So how does citizen engagement make a difference? Done well, public participation not only enriches democracy by helping strengthen accountability, it also encourages and empowers citizens to work with the state and each other to meet the challenges of our time. Debate and dialogue with service users can reveal new knowledge about how policy created in town halls and Whitehall is working out on the ground. That kind of intelligence is vital to making sure the intentions behind policy become a reality.
No strategy document can compensate for such real-world information about what is making the difference and why. And there is growing evidence that where local councils take the lead in working with the public both parties benefit. Examples such as Wigan MBC’s In Control programme, which gives social care users individual budgets and a greater say over what it is spent on, offers proof that involving the public can improve services provision and encourage individuals to contribute to their own wellbeing.
This shows understanding why involving the public makes a difference is as important as how it’s done. Unless local government learns to value the contribution the public can make, the benefits of any form of public engagement will continue to elude our councils and our communities. For the sake of services and sanity, citizen engagement must be more than another form of customer complaints.