Australia, England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa Democracy, devolution and governance

How Local Government Can Save The World: Jonathan Carr-West’s ALGA Keynote

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First, an introduction to LGiU and LGiU Australia. LGiU is a global not for profit that supports innovation and best practice in local government. We’ve been operating in the UK for almost 40 years, and launched just over 2 years ago in Australia, where we work in in partnership with SGS economics and planning to deliver our services.

We are a global hub for the best information, ideas and insight about local government and local democracy – a global network of local authorities, public servants and politicians supporting each other to strengthen local democracy, improve public services and meet the complex challenges of the 21st century

Why do we do this?

Because we believe in localism: both as a democratic ideal and because complex challenges are often best met by local innovation. We believe in local government as the institutional form that facilitates and legitimizes localism. But  it is a connected localism that we believe in – connected across geographies, across service areas and across different parts of the public realm – and we believe that many of the issues with which local government is concerned have a global dimension.

If local government is at its best when it is informed, engaged and networked, then all our members will gain value from global perspectives, lessons and relationships.

Working globally we see the challenges faced by councils across the world: responding to climate change, promoting sustainable growth, planning places, caring for people, providing decent housing. These challenges vary depending on location and local govt competencies, but they have shared characteristics, complexity, scale, speed of change and they demand certain commonalities in our approach to them.

We know that the challenges of the future require innovation, civic engagement, a shift towards prevention and joined up networked approaches that work across the public realm. And we know that all of these things are best achieved locally

But what is local government’s capacity to drive this sort of change? I want to explore this via three interlinked stories.

  • local government as place leader
  • Local government as instrument of the state
  • A crisis of trust in institutions

One is about local government as government – as active shapers of place, governing, convening, representing. Giving institutional form to the aspirations of communities.

That story encompasses the great municipalization of the 19th century, driven by local government that was largely self-funding and that had the confidence and the power to drive through quantum leaps in education, healthcare, housing, and sanitation.

And it finds expression most recently in the extraordinary efforts that local government has made during the pandemic – protecting the vulnerable, coordinating aid, stepping in to make test and trace work where the central government failed – and in the responses to bush fires, cyclones and flooding that we have heard such powerful stories about throughout this conference.

But alongside this there is another story about local government – one that is rooted in an idea of it not as a site of real power but as a delivery arm of state or national government.

That’s particularly acute in the UK in which only two per cent of taxation is raised locally, and 72 per cent of all public expenditure is spent by national government.

But it’s a recognizable picture in Australia as well and again we have heard about this through out this conference: cost shifting, rate capping, amalgamations, constant negotiation on funding. It’s not helpful, but this model remains stubbornly entrenched.

Alongside these two stories about local government there’s a third story about the world, a story About politics and democracy in the 21st century. It’s a story that – to borrow from a recent book by Moises Naim is dominated by the three Ps of populism, polarisation and post-truth.

In part it is a product of technological change and the ways in which social media changes how we consume and, crucially, share information about the world.

A growing number of people access news though social media (six out of ten adults in the US) but social media is all about giving us more of what we like, that’s how the algorithms are set up, and about sharing within our network: generally, though not always, like-minded people.

Thus we get stuck in a filter bubble: we are not exposed to views that challenge us and the analytical muscles that weigh up, and adjudicate between, different claims about the world begin to ossify.

But it’s also about globalization, late stage capitalism and the feeling that many people have that their world is changing in ways which they cannot control and which leave them behind culturally and economically

This leads to a collapse of trust in institutions encompassing politics, big business and the media. Where we once might have thought about left vs right, politics is now contested in the spaces between a new set of oppositions: open vs closed; rooted vs cosmopolitan; local vs global; evidence vs emotional resonance and institutions vs networks. Around the world people who feel let down and left behind by traditional institutions are rejecting politics as usual.

This creates a profound challenge to our democracies

Some of the best and most depressing research in this area has been by Yascha Mounck and Roberto Foa at Harvard which shows declining faith in democracy across advanced economies. Less than one third of Americans born after 1980, for example, believe it’s “essential” to live in a democracy. Nearly a half of young Americans think that a strong leader who does not have to bother with elections would be a good thing.

Roberto Foa’s latest work for the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge uses a gigantic data set to show that dissatisfaction with democracy is at an all time high both globally in most countries – including Australia where it is not as bad as UK and US but heading in that direction, 19 percentage points worse than in the mid 90s.

How does this story map on to my other two narratives about local government? Imperfectly.

Populism, polarisation and post truth are all elements of an inward turn, which doesn’t drive localism but it’s evil twin – insularism. But as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine remind us, we are not and we cannot be islands.

The issues that local government faces, the challenges that face us all are global, so we need local action, global learning – a form of cosmopolitan localism – or what we at LGIU call connected localism. But that feels like the opposite of where our politics is right now.

How do we reconcile all this?

I think we need to go back to that first story – the one that’s about local government as government – the one that’s about place. So many of the really tough questions start to open up when we make them about place.

What do the people who live here now aspire to? How can we live together effectively? What is the relation of this place to the wider world? What are our priorities and what compromises are we willing to make to achieve them? What can we learn from elsewhere?

Our success as post pandemic councils will be about our capacity to adopt a dual lens – focusing both on place and connection, networks and strong local institutions. And some of this is already happening – recent work from LGIU’s local democracy research centre looked at the approaches to place shaping taking part right now in local government and we found some key characteristics of success.

There is capacity and appetite for strategic leadership in local government. Councils are building partnerships and networks, listening to local citizens and working out how best to use the policy tools they have.

There’s an emerging new understanding of the nature of power and how power can be used in local governance. Partnerships, collaboration and horizontal decision making feature in different forms at the local level. Meanwhile, other spheres of government still try to function on a more traditional model of power based on top-down decision making, centralisation and pulling the ministerial levers of state.

There is a need for a clearer understanding of what success looks like in place-shaping. To capture and demonstrate the commonalities will require stronger, clearer measurement frameworks.

There are fruitful approaches being developed for this. Diana Coyle, for example proposes replacing GDP- orientated measurement frameworks with efforts to measure the “assets” that exist in a particular place, while CLES have built a framework around “community wealth building”.

London Borough of Barking and Dagenham are developing a ward-level “social progress index” that measures the wellbeing of citizens in a particular locality across three dimensions: basic human needs; foundations of wellbeing; and opportunity. The aim is help build thriving neighbourhoods using ward-level data to make more informed decisions about priorities and policy.

So collaborative leadership, horizontal power, new ways of measuring what’s good – these are the things we need to invest in and develop

And I would add:

Do all of this with an uncompromising focus on participation and dialogue in everything you do  – citizens juries, participatory budgeting, online engagement platforms, good old fashioned town hall meetings – there’s loads of tools out there – but you need to commit to them and invest in them.

And here’s the other thing:

For too many communities the council is still the castle on the hill – it’s not enough just to open the gates – they won’t come in. You need to go to where they are – the parks, the shopping malls, the community halls. You have to go to them.

Finally: Reframe the narrative – local government is unique in the democratic legitimacy it brings. As I said at the beginning it is – and should be – the institutional manifestation of its communities. Not delivering to them, for them or with them – but absolutely part of them. Outward facing, forward looking, connected and engaged.

That’s a story we have to tell over and over and over again. That’s how we shift from a deficit story – about what state government will or won’t let us do, about what federal government will or won’t give us – to a positive narrative about what local government is and what it can be.

That’s how we begin to rebuild trust in our institutions

That’s how local government can save the world.



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