In the current mood of ‘take back control’, do residents have an appetite for taking back control – and do councils want to give it up?
I’ve been working on resident and citizen participation at The Democratic Society since 2010 and although I can only speak from my own experience, the desire among councillors and council staff has certainly increased, but I’m not sure people understand all the implications. Where once we had to go out and convince people of the importance of resident engagement, now we see great participation projects happening all around the country, and the phone rings almost every day with people looking for support or advice. There are not many places, though, that have understood the scale of the change that participation brings.
Some are starting to. We have seen a move from participation as a series of disconnected projects to participation as a system changer and an ongoing conversation as a way of doing things. This is essential if we are ever going to build a truly participatory local democracy, and a system in which residents not only can participate in, but want to participate in.
Councillors and staff build relationships with residents every day. Sometimes deep and long-lasting, sometimes brief. When it comes to resident participation in decision-making, too often the relationship is consumerist – seeking opinion without offering influence, and without offering follow-up or continuity. Like a self-service checkout machine, it’s bright, chirpy, efficient, and amnesiac. A good consultation event, a good participation project, and then the screen blanks, and it’s “next issue, please”.
No-one gets enthused about such fleeting engagement. There are no political dramas or romantic comedies about automated checkout machines. Residents are citizens, and need to feel like their involvement is driven by their agenda not just the council’s, and that their whole worldview is valuable – not just one idea, one attitude or one piece of information.
This is why the shift from projects to systems is so encouraging. We see many good examples.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities are working with councils and partners to take participatory budgeting from a model of individual, project-based interventions to a ‘mainstreamed’ participation model. This means doing more participatory budgeting, so citizens are more familiar with the process; undertaking bigger projects to widen skills and experience; and moving beyond participatory budgeting in its classic form to use the same approaches for non-budgetary issues.
Some councils, such as Camden LBC in London, have undertaken citizen assemblies and other high-level strategy setting initiatives. Because these use random selection, any citizen can be involved and everyone can see themselves in the group of citizens deliberating. To be successful, however, such exercises need to be the start but not the end of a programme of participation that uses that citizen assembly as a foundation for further thinking. Outside the UK, this is what we are seeing in East Belgium, where the regional council holds a citizen assembly every year not to take any decisions, but to identify the five most important issues on which citizens should be further involved.
In the Public Square programme, which we are undertaking with our partners at mySociety and Luminate, we are trying to understand whether there could be a common practice for local democracy. Starting where we know there is an appetite for doing things differently, including places as different as Calderdale, Glasgow, and Frome, we will then expand to other places in the next 12 months.
A common practice goes far beyond a single tool or a single process. It combines commitment, attitude and culture within the council and communities, along with the skills to choose the right engagement tool and method at the right time. It requires good information, confidence and networks among residents that can ensure people turn up, in the right numbers and not just from those groups who will turn up to anything.
A common practice also requires the right tools and methods and the right digital support for participation processes so that a cycle of shared agenda setting, shared strategy setting, open idea generation and public development of plans and services can be a consistent experience, for residents, staff and councillors. Residents need multiple opportunities to be involved, and staff and councillors need to understand when and how they can engage in the right way. Both sides also need to ensure that on those occasions where they do not want to be involved, they can still see what is going on.
Building a participative local democracy is a long-term project that needs consistent commitment. This project also needs to ensure that it moves at the right pace whilst using the methods that are relevant to the local context.
Nobody wants to participate in every decision, but nobody wants to feel like they never can. Nobody wants to sit down and read through the education committee agenda papers, but everyone wants to know what’s happening. No one wants a citizen meeting in the town square every week on every detail, but they do want a voice in taking the decisions that impact their places and lives.
Finding the balance that’s right for each community and council is the essential element in developing engagement that lasts and brings relationships with residents in for the long term. That long-term participation needs to be balanced by long-term commitment to the structures and culture change on which good participation depends.
At the Local Government Association conference in July, we will be part of the ‘Democracy Hub’ stand where we will be talking about some of these initiatives and how this agenda is developing. I hope to see you there.
Anthony Zacharzewski, founder, the Democratic Society