Australia, England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, LGIU@40, Welfare and equalities

What if people really participated in local democracy?


Image: BrianAJackson via istock

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. He asks: ‘What if people really participated in local democracy?’ – one of the core provocation questions as we look to the future of local government.

LGIU’s 40th anniversary comes at what feels like a critical juncture for local government. Longstanding challenges such as finance and increased demand on services and infrastructure are butting up against more existential threats to communities like climate change, populism and unregulated, poorly understood technology.

Our LGIU@40 campaign, while utilising our unrivalled experience of working with local government is very much about the future. Identifying three core themes – participation, trust and finance – we have been working extensively with our members and the wider sector on a set of new ideas for how local government could work better in the future. A manifesto – to be published at the end of the year – will provide a blueprint for how we can move from aspiration to action and build the foundations that local government needs to navigate the challenging times we all face.

The challenges faced by local governments around the world are sadly familiar. We have seen pressure on council finances – to the point of failure for some councils in England and at the same time we have seen hugely increased demand across many of the most expensive core services that local government provides. Without effective participation, a partnership between citizen and state, we’re unlikely to solve these traditional challenges.

Yet the next forty years will bring new challenges to local government. Some are threats: populism and climate change. Some are double-edged swords: technology and a rapid pace of change, globalism, a more connected world while individuals can feel more isolated and communities more polarised.

Defending local democracy

Local democracy is essential to national democracy – it provides both the foundation and the mechanics of voting, representation, coordination and implementation of national policy. Critically it’s the aspect of democracy that each of us as citizens is most likely to interact with, but perhaps the least appreciated.  We must be able to engage with our communities to underpin trust in our local electoral administration even in the face of huge challenges and direct attacks.

We’ve recently launched groundbreaking new research on the impact of voter ID  in the UK on these vital systems of democracy and the people who run them. Feedback from electoral administrators has been glowing with feedback about feeling heard and our findings have been shared in Parliament and in the press. We’ll continue to work with our membership around the globe to highlight this vital work.

Building agreement on climate action

Scientific consensus around the impact of human behaviour on climate change is increasingly matched by public awareness of the problem.  This involves a recognition that while governments have a role to play, for example in negotiating international settlements, setting emissions standards and perhaps even using fiscal instruments to change behaviours, this must be matched by personal accountability for the way we live. Policy-makers need to win people over to support intervention, work with those who feel shortchanged, and persuade those who are unsure, while acknowledging those who disagree entirely with even the concept of climate action. This requires deliberation, debate, education, engagement, and empathy – the ingredients of building democratic consent.

We recently launched a new report on Building Democratic Support for Local Climate Action with outstanding examples of working with communities, a new case study from Oxfordshire about pioneering efforts in the face of fringe misinformation, and a range of work on climate governance and effective engagement highlight the challenges and ways ahead.

Technology, infrastructure and the pace of change

Even as local governments often deal with ageing infrastructure we’re also dealing with new ways of thinking about infrastructure – from broadband which helps people to be democratically and economically active to social infrastructure which helps people contribute to society through fulfilling and productive employment like childcare or support for people caring for ageing parents.

That means thinking about the total asset base of a community and the value in social networks and civic energy. It means thinking about early intervention, not just in terms of invest to save but as building capacity and resilience. It means considering how we structure incentives for action: for the market and most importantly for citizens. It means understanding the networks of social action already present in every community and aligning public services with them.

A new provocation piece by Ian Cowie the Chief Executive of the City of Gosnells looks at how technology could change the way we vote and our collection highlights how councils are using technology to support better engagement and participation. As we have always done, we will be working closely with our members and stakeholders on identifying innovation, testing and curating this learning to share with local governments and their communities worldwide.

Changing demographics

In a world that’s seeing rapid change, both positive and negative, our people are changing, too. As people move to seek opportunities, fill roles needed by an ageing population or flee calamity, we need to find new ways to help people participate in local civic life and knit together groups of people who may have different backgrounds but who live in the same neighbourhoods. In our recent Global Local on participation, we’ve looked at how local governments can encourage participation both in terms of consultation, but also how they recruit and work themselves.

We can also look at how we use new approaches to participation to bring healing to older wounds. At LGIU we have looked at how local democracy and engagement can help us find better ways ahead, from our focus on Indigenous peoples and local government or other questions around repairing the impact of inequality and ensuring wider participation. We will soon be looking at the role of local government in reconciliation between communities and we’re keen to hear your thoughts.

The power of participation

In other words, we can only meet the profound challenges posed to our current model of local public services through a new relationship between local government and the community and through a vastly increased element of citizen participation in the design and delivery of those services.

There’s a developing consensus around this. And there’s lots of innovation and best practice; there are citizen juries, participatory budgeting, digital engagement platforms and good old fashioned town hall meetings. But there are also pitfalls, setbacks and challenges to overcome.

At LGIU we’ve been working to support our members in developing thinking and practice around participation for more than a decade.

This edit brings together some of our best recent material across different aspects of participation. We know that local government works best when it is connected, informed and engaged and we hope that this edit will support that for our members.

Involvement is essential

We’ve highlighted examples of ways local government’s around the world are integrating, encouraging and utilising participation in their communities, including how councils in the UK and Canada are connecting locally through social media, the village of Asdee’s approach to rural participatory planning, ways Scottish councils are engaging with young people on key issues affecting them, and Fingal’s Migrant Integration Forum as a platform for the diverse voices of Fingal, as well as much more. All of which illustrate how participation is not a distraction from, but an integral part of local delivery.

Tools, techniques and support

Our collection showcases tools and techniques for encouraging participation, including practical tips for delivering participatory planning, improving democratic engagement particularly for young people, and using technology to improve participation. This collection also explores the purpose of participatory budgeting and showcases two LGIU LDRC research reports on participation.

What if people really participated in local democracy?

We know what we need to do. We need to move from a system that is geared towards acute intervention to one that is characterised by demand management, prevention, integration of services, multi-agency working and which is co-produced with, and designed around, the needs of service users.

That means recognising that the  challenges we face cannot be solved by the state alone – instead they require collaborative engagement from all parts of the public realm: a new relationship between citizen, civil society and (local) state in which each supports the other in contribution to the common good.


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