England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Democratic wellbeing and local government – an opportunity to rebuild trust

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Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

Attitudes toward democracy, trust in decision-makers and distrust of media have featured heavily in public discourse recently. Last week Carnegie UK published new data on these issues: GDWe: A spotlight on democratic wellbeing.

The report, from our Gross Domestic Wellbeing team (GDWe) provides new data gathered by YouGov from a representative poll in England on the extent to which people feel that they have a voice in decision-making.

Three findings are of particular note for local government:

  1. Local government has not escaped the distrust plaguing central government

We found a stark lack of trust in MPs and the UK Government. Only 17% trust MPs and just 20% trust the UK Government to make decisions that will improve people’s lives. Local government fares slightly better, with 32% saying that they trusted local government to make decisions that would improve their lives and the lives of other people like them.

These low levels of trust are concerning. In order for people to feel positive about participating, through both representative and participative mechanisms, it is essential that they first have trust in government.

  1. There is an interest in taking part in decision making locally, which is not matched by involvement

We found that a large majority were not involved at all or were only slightly involved in local decision making (89%, of which 74% reported being not involved at all), for example by taking part in consultations, focus groups or discussions about local services.

We also found an even split between those who were fairly or very interested (45%) and those not very interested or not interested at all (43%) in taking part in local decision making. However, of those who reported that they were not involved, 43% reported that they were very or fairly interested in taking part in the future. This offers potential for future involvement.

  1. The majority of citizens are not aware of being invited to participate

80% reported not being invited to take part in any public engagement mechanisms by government or public services within the last 2 years, with a further 7% reported that they did not know if they had or not.

Our findings depict a turbulent time for democracy in the UK, and an urgent need to increase public trust in institutions, as well as knowledge about the ways that citizens can increase their voice in decision making.

For those in local government who are looking to promote and increase the use of participative democracy, the gap between knowledge in the sector and the awareness and experience of the majority of citizens is something that warrants more attention.

There is no doubt that there are a variety of initiatives underway, but our work shows these are not yet reaching a tipping point in terms of public awareness and involvement. There is a clear need to promote why having a voice matters and the crucial role which we see as an important role for local government can play in rebuilding trust in our institutions.

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