All through February, we are revisiting some of the 150-plus projects we have undertaken since 2010. Today, Anthony Zacharzewski looks back at our very first one.
Lurking still in a remote corner of our website is the output of our very first project – Democracy Pays, a short white paper commissioned by Public-i on the financial benefit of opening up local government to greater participation, published in spring 2010.
It seems an obvious question – does participatory democracy result in cost efficiencies that offset the cost of doing it? – but it surprised me how little research there was on the question. Certainly, my two weeks in the British Library didn’t bring up many examples with clear evidence. It’s also notable that even today, we see people citing the paper, which is, with no false modesty, a brief review at best, and has had no publicity since it came out.
Perhaps in 2020 we wouldn’t ask such an hard-nosed question. A decade ago, we were in an era when British local government still had money, but saw austerity on the horizon. It was an era, too, where every participation initiative had to be fought for against a sceptical management.
The importance of the question hasn’t gone away though, even in an era where participation is seen as an essential. The proliferation of citizen assemblies and other processes is reminding us that a lot of the costs in democratic engagement come in the setup and audience gathering phases – which all go to waste if you then disengage from the audience afterwards. As we’ll discuss over the course of this month, if participation is going to be cost-effective in the future, it is going to have to understand how to build for the long-term, not just for the immediate project.