Starving in the Midst of Plenty.
Democracy is not satisfying people. Governments and political institutions are being said to be facing a “crisis of trust”and public disillusionment, which has created a “democratic deficit” in which “citizens find themselves in disconnected isolation from institutions and processes that are supposed to represent them.” In other words, people do not feel involved or represented in the political decision making process that ultimately creates policies and services that affect them.
The most recent Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement shows clear evidence of such a democratic deficit and the public feeling of a lack of influence in the political process. Only around 8% of those surveyed had contacted a political representative about a particular issue, compared to 41% who would be prepared to do so. Similarly, only 4% have taken part in a public consultation, but 14% would like to participate. More, generally only 26% of participants felt they had some form of influence over decision making in their local area, whereas 47% would like to be either fairly or very involved in local decision making. There is also a clear majority of 78% that “prefer leadership predicated on widespread consultation and agreement rather than strong-willed instincts (15%).” So it seems that in terms of Democracy we starving in the midst of plenty. While broader citizenship engagement with the political process is particularly low, there exists a large untapped portion of people that are willing to be involved in local political decision making and are supportive of deeper use of public consultation.
There is now an opportunity for councils to make the most of this untapped desire for engagement by collaborating with citizens to create better policy and service outcomes. This means that there is a need to rethink how local governments interact with citizens, not only to address the issues of falling normative standards caused by disillusionment, disconnection and mistrust, noted above, but also to improve levels of approval and efficiency in local government.
Increasing Standards, Approval & Efficiency.
Scholars who specialise in the modernisation of local government suggest that increasing public approval in local councils can be achieved by encouraging:
“Active Citizenry… (which means) residents should be given the opportunity to (re)shape public decisions, service delivery and the influence on priorities, and to hold the local government… to account; this is intended to make all services more responsive to the diversity of local needs and to increase the citizen satisfaction.”
Furthermore, research on a Local Government e-participation tool in Seoul, South Korea, found that “satisfaction with government responsiveness is positively associated with perceptions of influencing government decision making.” Therefore, if Local Authorities become more open and collaborative in the way they make decisions, it could improve how citizens perceive local government and increase satisfaction in council services.
With regards to improving council efficiency, The Democratic Society has previously noted that deeper democratic engagement can cut the cost of government. This is because “involving citizens and users in service provision can produce better tailored services that operate at a lower overall cost” and gathering “better information on citizen needs and attitudes help(s) to target cuts and spending.” Joint research from Involve and the Local Government Information Unit on public engagement in local councils during times of financial constraints found that “giving power to citizens can also build the ‘internal’ capacity of councils to work more effectively… Good public engagement can be part of a way of working that helps councils to take tough decisions, find efficiency savings, and innovate through the economic down turn.” The research also highlights various case studies of councils using public participation to find savings. Examples included participatory budgeting at City of York Council and the use of deliberative conferences and a mix of online and written consultation in the island of Jersey. Other research into municipalities in the Netherlands found that participatory projects to increase citizen influence helped “people feel more responsible for public matters” which led to an “increase (in) public engagement.” The Dutch studies also found that involving the public in local decision making “contributes to a greater legitimacy of decisions” made by local authorities. Moreover, when discussing the challenges faced by local government in the twenty-first century, Warner stated that “citizens need to be reengaged in the local governance process to recognise the value of public services and to understand the need to balance service demands with revenue generation.” In other words collaborating with citizens in local political decision making can generate increased awareness, legitimacy and respect for how councils use funding and make decisions. Collaborative local policy making can also generate savings through using the input from the connected community to shape efficient and high quality services. In sum, increasing efforts to engage with citizens can help increase a council’s approval and efficiency which in turn could redress the fall in normative standards and increase reputation and trust.
Genuine Involvement & Improved Representation.
However, despite the potential positives of using citizen collaboration in local government policy making, outlined above, various research has also highlighted the importance of genuine involvement as opposed to the tokenistic “pseudo-participation.” This is because the Dutch studies also found that although “most citizens take part in participatory policy making projects with enthusiasm… A common pitfall is the disappointment that can ensue, due to excessively high expectations… leading to citizens giving up during the process or deciding not to take part in future projects.” Therefore it is recommended that councils “make balanced decisions on why and how they want to use the input of citizens and to make absolutely clear what contribution is expected from citizens and how this input will be used.” This theory is also supported by political communications scholars Coleman & Blumler who note that “governments should only enter into forms of dialogical-listening consultation if they are at least to some extent open to learning something new and arriving at policy positions other than those with which they started out.” So, while the gains of increased satisfaction, savings, public trust and engagement are obtainable via local authorities using collaborative decision making; problems can be exacerbated if councils merely pay lip-service to public opinion and do not make a whole hearted shift towards dialogue and displaying clear outcomes of the efficacy of public contributions.
Discussion of increased citizen involvement in local policy making and services can also raise issues of “tensions between representative and more direct forms of democracy.” This is because there are concerns about a reduction in the amount of power held by elected representatives, such as local councillors. Although this transformation in local political decision making does require a shift towards dialogue and deliberation; this does not mean replacing traditional representative democracy with direct deliberative democracy. Rather, innovation within local authority decision making could create what Coleman and Blumler define as a “more deliberative democracy” where “governments… would operate on the basis that… there is room for public discussion to feed into the process of policy formation … in a trusted space.” On a similar note Burall and Carr-West note that “Councillors are central to the whole agenda… while there (is) a democratic as well as a practical benefit in greater participation in decision-making, this (does) not invalidate the role of elected councillors.” Therefore, a more collaborating and citizen centric council does not wish to undermine existing elected representatives, but rather strengthen the legitimacy of councillors by assisting them in making better informed democratic decisions, which in turn, makes for a stronger representative democracy.
Digital & Listening.
So, what is the most effective way of realising the potential of collaboration in local government? More and more there is a focus on the benefits on new Information and Communication Technologies in government and it is claimed that “in the coming decade emerging technologies will continue to change radically the nature of both the possibilities and challenges facing government.” The reason for this attention on digital technologies is because of digital’s evident virtues of being interactive, economical and connective which have created the possibility of a “Networked Public Sphere” that allows the construction of the “active, creative and vocal citizenship” required to carry out successful citizen collaboration with local authorities.
Now, although digital undoubtedly provides the opportunity to facilitate a new way of doing local government, that could contribute to increased savings, satisfaction and trust; digital alone will not achieve the desired effects. As eluded to above, successful integration of citizen collaboration into local government will not happen if the public are engaged in a tokenistic manner with little influence on final service and policy outcomes.
In order for digital technologies to reach their potential within local government there must be a significant cultural shift within council’s customer service strategy from being merely a provider of services towards being a provider of citizen support. Moreover, political actors within the council must also be prepared to engage and interact with citizens. As Coleman & Blumler confirm, in order for digital citizen collaboration to be successful “politicians must enter into the debate, as opposed to merely being the subject of debate or a remote respondent to public deliberation. Listening from afar… is unlikely to convince participants in the discussion that they are being taken seriously.”
One other factor that must be considered by councils wishing to embrace digital to increase citizen participation in local decision making is the issue of the “Digital Divide”, that manifests itself in localised democracy via lack of access to digital tools because of either diminished economic means or absence of digital literacy. It must be noted that any council wishing to embark on experimenting with citizen participation and collaboration must take offline methods of access into account to ensure that all citizens have an opportunity to engage. Furthermore, the aforementioned data from the Hansard Society shows that there is varying levels of willingness to engage; therefore any civic platform for increasing citizen influence must provide multiple degrees of influence. These could include simple one off reporting of issues; deep deliberation and debate of council policies and services; and various intermediary forms of participation in between.
Key Lessons for Lewes District Council:
- Evidence suggests that there are a significant portion of citizens willing to be involved in local political decision making and are supportive of deeper use of public consultation.
- Previous research into local authorities providing the public with greater influence on decision making has led to increased satisfaction and respect for councils and services and legitimised council decisions.
- Citizen-centric collaboration has helped councils target savings and work more efficiently.
- Pseudo-participation is not an option, a sincere effort must be made to engage and provide feedback of outcomes to citizens.
- Involving both members and officers in the process is vital. If there is not collaboration between both arms of the council then there cannot be effective collaboration with citizens.
- Involving the public in policy decisions does not weaken political representatives. In fact in strengthens them as they are able to make better informed and understood decisions.
- A civic platform must not be used on a few isolated projects. A change in council outlook from customer service based to citizen based must be implemented across the organisation in order to realise the potential of collaboration with the public. Of course experimentation must take place in order to locate challenges in implementation.
- A digital civic platform is an incredibly useful tool but using online technology must not ignore the use of offline tools to reach a broader spectrum of the public.
- The council must offer a range of opportunities to engage in order all citizens to participate as much, or as little, as they like in decision making.
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