The UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government has published a guidance document on creating local charters (also called community contracts). These are arrangements between local communities and public sector service providers, containing promises from both sides on service standards and tailored service provision. In other words, charters are deals between the state and its agencies on one side, and some group representative of the People on the other side.
This initiative – one pilot is just down the road from the Society in Brighton – is of a piece with the Government’s wider agenda around making services more responsive to local wishes. On a philosophical level, this is obviously the right thing to do, but there is a risk that the consumerist approach to local government has over-reached itself here.
There are two problems. Neighbourhood charters are written documents, and as such need to be drafted and amended, and the question arises: by whom? It’s not realistic to expect more than a tiny proportion of an area’s population to get involved in detailed issues, or even to participate in meaningful consultation. This is not an enormous problem on the scale of a town or city, where even 1% of the population might be several hundred people, and where resources exist to manage focus groups, citizens’ panels, and so on. When the area of coverage shrinks to a couple of thousand, you can get serious problems with how representative the representatives of the community really are. In Groucho Marx mode, the people who want to draft the charter are the last people who should draft the charter.
Second, what will the charter do? There are a few examples in the Government’s guidance, but they are quite technocratic and the claimed benefits are either “improving understanding of how services are delivered”, which is not the same as changing them, or gaining support for the drafting process itself, which is not the same as delivering change that people can recognize.
It’s early days, of course, and this might work well in some areas. The worry is, though, that by setting up consumerist expectations that just can’t be delivered, charters will increase disillusion with government rather than reduce it. “Don’t promise what you can’t do” should be the motto of all government efforts at citizen service design, and this initiative is a standing invitation to do just that.