Is there a paradox in a global approach to local government? Last week I was in Sydney and Melbourne for the launch of LGiU Australia, the newest (and by a long way the furthest flung) member of the Local Government Information Unit family. What I learned from local government colleagues in Australia reinforced my belief that a global perspective takes us to the heart of the local – and that localism and globalism can, indeed must, go together.
At the LGiU we have argued for more than 30 years that localism is important both as a democratic principle, the belief that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people they effect (what we used to call subsidiarity), but also as a practical public good. We know that many of the challenges faced by local government require innovation and we know that innovation needs to be locally specific and to draw on the creativity and civic energy of local people.
This is a familiar argument. And it can seem to take us inwards, towards a limited conception of place rather than outwards, to a global perspective. But localism is not parochialism and no council is an island. We need connected localism; connected across service areas, across different parts of the public realm and across geographies.
It’s true of course that every place has its unique character and it’s true that local government has different structures and responsibilities. So here in Australia for example, local government is not generally dominated by party politics and is governed by state not national Government. And everywhere has specific challenges, for example many councils in Australia are still at the forefront of recovery from the devastating bush fires.
But there are also common issues that unite councils across the world both by virtue of our shared humanity and, structurally, because many of the challenges local government faces are global in their scope. Climate change, demographic shock, affordable housing, community resilience, big data, AI, economic development, technology shifts to name but a few: all global trends that come home to roost in local communities across the world and all issues that councils across the world are grappling with.
In that context it makes sense for local government to pool its collective intelligence and learn from the experiences of others. Recent LGiU work has shared stories about community engagement in London, urban densification in Johannesburg, combatting illegal dumping in West Sydney, digital government transformation in Estonia, early intervention on domestic abuse in Scotland and many, many more.
But these lessons are hard won and are not always obvious. It’s not as simple as just sharing best practice (is there even such a thing as ‘best’ practice?). Instead we have to attend to the hard work of unpicking the skeins of similarity and difference. Sometimes, it’s not about the solutions, but the structure of the problem, the methodological approach, or the questions asked en route to a different solution.
There are no easy answers. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said, ‘If we wanted home truths we should have stayed at home’ – but if local government is at its best when it is informed, engaged and networked, then we will all gain value from global perspectives, lessons and relationships.
Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of the LGIU. This article first appeared in The MJ.