Councils need to do more to improve local engagement with their communities, according to the chief executive of the thinktank Local Government Information Unit.
Jonathan Carr-West told the District Councils’ Network on Friday that officers needed to spend less time behind desks and run more citizen assemblies in order to bring more local people into the decisions that affect their communities.
“We need to think about what democracy is and what democratic institutions are. That’s not a very comfortable question right now because around the world we are seeing a resurgence of political populism,” Mr Carr-West said.
Democratic institutions are currently witnessing a “process of evolution” that has been forced by the invention of the internet as an unprecedented network of sharing information, said Mr Carr-West. This change is also running in tandem with a breakdown in public trust in institutions that had to be addressed through greater engagement, he added.
“What makes local government so special is there is a direct democratic mechanism by which the concerns and needs of communities are hard-lined into the decision-making made by representatives,” he said.
While recognising that democracy was “great at responding to crises”, Mr Carr-West said it was also “really bad at adapting to long-term challenges” which had led to a rise in populism.
“Populist politics isn’t called that because it is about doing things that are popular, but because it claims to uniquely represent the will of the people,” he said. “The British have always been sceptical and against the idea of a single, uncomplicated will of the people.”
Councils must learn to “function as a network and not as a bureaucracy”, said Mr Carr-West.
“I think we will succeed and find ways to drive engagement and reframe local democracy, due to the hard work of local officers,” he said.