We were present at the “Innovation in Local democracy” event in Manchester organized by the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Govt and Luminate. Below share a brief recap of our main insights from this event.

Manchester has been the scene for major changes in the country’s political landscape, from the Peterloo Massacre to Women Voting Rights. The People’s History Museum, therefore, proved to be the perfect place to gather for a new and urgent political need: innovation in local democracy.

Politics today is too often characterized by polarization, populism, and pessimism, as was pointed out by Miriam Levin, Head of Community Action for the UK Government. This sentiment of pessimism, unfortunately, was reiterated in a recent report from Cambridge University which indicates that global dissatisfaction with democracy has reached a record high. Moreover, this study also concluded that the UK is at its highest-ever level of dissatisfaction with democracy; after a recent plunge, three out of five citizens are unhappy with the political system.

Among the public servants there seemed to be a consensus that democratic change is massively needed in the UK. Institutions should be redesigned in a way that gives the community more of a say. Finding new ways to involve citizens in local democracy helps to rebuild trust within communities and may very well be the key to prepare local democracy for the future. But where do local councils start?

1. We need to experiment

Innovation is, unfortunately, not a straight line. When citizen participation is new to your local council, it may require some testing (and time) before your citizens and the council itself will get the hang of it. There are different methods of citizen participation for your local council to consider, so give yourself time to experiment on which one works for your community.

A citizens’ assembly is one of the great deliberative engagement methods which is increasingly popular in the UK, but potentially another approach works better for your local council at first. If there’s no previous experience to build on, you can always start off with small, tangible and achievable projects to start building this trust step by step. Rome wasn’t built in a day either.

2. Participation and deliberation can reinforce each other

Deliberative processes deliver value to decision-makers by “public judgments, not just public opinions” as stated by Claudia Chwalisz, who leads work on innovative citizen participation at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Deliberative democracy can hereby offer great depth, even to polarizing debates. There has been a recent uprising of Citizen Assemblies illustrating the value this deliberative form of democracy can bring in involving (local) communities.

Participatory democracy, on the other hand, offers breath and allows for more people to be involved and feel ownership over local policy. A large portion of the community gets the opportunity to engage, especially when taking participation projects online. These two types of democracy should thus not be seen as either-or; they can complement each other perfectly, as was the case during the groundbreaking Irish Citizens’ Assembly on abortion. For both types of democracy, local councils should aim for inclusiveness by engaging with different community-groups (if your local council is looking to set up an inclusive participation project, make sure to check out our free guide).

3. Trust is a two-way street

Local councils clearly understand the need to engage with their community in a new way and are open to this as long as they don’t lose a sense of control. Governments always have the authority to set certain boundaries to citizen participation. With Citizen Initiatives, for instance, governments still hold the strings on which actions will follow once a set threshold is reached. Within these clearly set-boundaries, however, it’s important for governments to remain flexible towards the input from your community! Participation projects can have surprising results, and once your local council has committed to the project you should take input seriously. If your goal is to push a specific policy decision forward, a participation project may not be suitable. But is your ambition to include the voices of your community and create more support for your council? Then citizen participation is the way to go! 

Citizens don’t need to be experts to contribute to a constructive debate or have relevant ideas. Their opinions, ideas, and voices should be part of the deliberation, even in the case of complex policy issues. Moreover, if people feel their opinions are being valued, they are likely to take their responsibility seriously. In the end, trust is a two-way street: if you want your community to trust you, you should also trust them.

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