Government has named three areas that will trial citizen assembly style decision making in the form of new ‘democracy forums’
The new Innovation in Democracy programme, which is being run jointly by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, picked out three authorities out of the 70 which had initially expressed interest to take the scheme forwards in their areas. Learnings from these three will then be shared with other councils interested in running democracy forums in the future.
Dudley MBC will run a forum on the future of town centres, Greater Cambridge Partnership (Cambridgeshire CC, Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire DC)’s forum will be on improving public transport and tackling congestion, and Test Valley BC will conduct a forum on either the future of waste and recycling or the vitality of town centres.
But the initial plans drawn up last summer, which were for six experiments, have been watered down to omit the more controversial topics, - including one on tackling hate crime in Waltham Forest.
Original proposals for citizens’ juries and mass participation in decision-making on community issues via an online poll or app have also been scrapped.
A spokesperson for the Electoral Reform Society said that while it welcomes the launch of the new forums, “keeping only the least controversial projects on the table…sort of defeats the power of a citizens’ assembly” and so “rings a little hollow”.
Ideally, recommendations that receive the support of the citizens’ assembly “should be treated as binding”, according to a guidance document produced by the government.
Each participating area will get support from a ‘democracy support contractor consortium’ made up of various democracy experts, and up to £60,000 to cover their costs.
The councils involved will convene a “randomly selected but representative” sample of residents – in terms of age, gender and ethnicity - who are then given wide-ranging information and time to deliberate, weigh up options, reach consensus, and make recommendations on the issue at hand. Digital platforms will be used to increase reach, accountability and transparency of the process.
Dudley leader Patrick Harley (Con) said: ”We are looking at creating representative panels made up of members of the public to ensure councillors have more information than ever before when making important decisions about the future of our town centres. Following the successful bid to the government for this programme of work, we will ensure that local people are very much at the heart of decision-making.”
The government’s head of community action and giving, Miriam Levin, said that “many people feel disempowered and disengaged from politics”, and that the programme is ”an opportunity to get people involved in the decisions that affect their daily lives”.
The potential risks involved in widening democracy were outlined in materials handed out at workshops held to introduce the programme to councils last November. The materials warned of “reputation from bad participatory practice”, “stress, uncertanty and conflict” and “a danger of being seen as a publicity exercise if not followed by real outcomes”.
However, a big upside to the process was also highlighted; It can make council residents more willing to pay tax. The document claimed the process “can lead to a belief from citizens that civic institutions are working to their beneft, raising tax morale and making them more likely to pay their taxes, something seen in the Swiss cantons where direct democracy is prevalent”.
It was also suggested in the document that enabling people to participate in diffcult decisions on budget cuts “gives them more ownership over the outcomes, and greater understanding of the complexities and compromises around budget decisions”.
In another government move intended to boost democratic accountability, MHCLG has announced that it will develop a package of policy proposals to “help and encourage” councils to publish all the information they can as a matter of course – although this will not include personal or sensitive data.
The department says it will engage with the sector through a series of visits, meetings and workshops aimed at understanding the barriers to and opportunities of greater local transparency. The subsequent proposals will “drive further efficiency and innovation within the local government sector,” it said.
Why Greater Cambridge Partnership are holding a citizens’ assembly
A recent survey undertaken in Cambridgeshire showed that residents share the partnership’s appetite to ”radically improve” public transport, said the chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s Executive Board cllr Lewis Herbert, but he added that there are “tough choices to consider how we do this”.
The citizens’ assembly will be held in the autumn when a large panel - ”including parts of our community who sometimes find it difficult to get involved” - will meet to consider evidence about how to reduce congestion, improve air quality and transform public transport to improve people’s daily journeys.
“We are excited to be part of the programme and look forward to seeing what recommendations the Citizens’ Assembly puts forward to our executive board later this year,” Cllr Herbert said.