The multi-democratic council
Reimagining local democracy
This imagining, from Kerry Ferguson, of what we are calling a multi-democratic council is one of the scenarios that we are exploring as part of the new municipalism pillar of our Post-Covid Councils project looking at the future of local government. Listen to the podcast interview with Kerry Ferguson and Cllr Tom Hayes talking about Oxford city council’s Citizens Assembly.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into clear sight key challenges and issues that have been building for decades: structural changes in the economy and precarious work; social deprivation and health inequalities; funding crises in caring services, notably adult social care and childcare; and the loneliness epidemic. It has also accelerated trends that were already happening, such as the growing reach of digital technology into many aspects of our lives.
The pandemic has also and crucially impacted on democracy too. Most obviously, the 2020 English local and mayoral elections were postponed. The pandemic has also exposed some long-standing democratic challenges, such as the tension between central control and localism, with central government sometimes seemingly at loggerheads with local government over tiering, financial support and school closures. More insidious threats to democracy, including declining public trust in institutions and the increasing prevalence of misinformation and ‘fake news’ on social media, predated the pandemic but create an unfavourable context for authorities wanting to get their public health messages across and influence people’s behaviour.
Although there remains broad support amongst citizens for democratic principles, levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are growing. The uncomfortable truth for local government in its current form is that representative democracy is not in good health. It is beset by low election turnouts; political disaffection; lack of faith in traditional parties; and a sense of politics being remote from local people and unable to fix the problems that matter to them. The answer may lie in a reimagining of local democracy.
In the words of Oliver Escobar, public policy academic at the University of Edinburgh:
“….our current political systems too often struggle to cope with the pressing issues of our time. We need more problem-solving capacity, better policy and decision -making, and new ways of governing. In other words, representative democracy needs a substantial upgrade”.
In this paper we explore the ‘multi-democratic council’ where a revitalised representative democracy and party politics meet new and participatory forms of democracy, in which citizens engage directly in decision making and bring new perspectives into policy making. So what might this council look like?
Imagine this...A day in the life of a multi-democratic council
Councillor Ann Kerr, leader of Arborough Council, describes her work diary for a day:
8am: I start the day with a coffee and my emails. One email immediately catches my eye: it’s an update on the work of Arborough’s citizens’ assembly from our engagement officer. Arborough has used citizens’ assemblies to debate big issues affecting our area, come to a consensus and to make recommendations on the way forward. Citizens’ assemblies are made up of a representative group of citizens in terms of demographics and geography and are independently chaired. So far, we have held citizens’ assemblies on topics including climate change and the living wage/good work, and their recommendations have directly influenced council strategy and programmes. Often they come up with new angles that we hadn’t thought of.
The council provides officer support to the assembly, but the assembly calls the expert witnesses it needs to inform its deliberations and reaches its own conclusions. This time the assembly is looking at options for the strategic redevelopment of a major site in our city centre, which was left vacant when several major retailers went into administration during the pandemic. It is an important opportunity to do something different with the space, in response to changing priorities post-pandemic, and I am looking forward to seeing the outputs of the commission’s work.
9am: I meet with my councillor colleagues to discuss the council’s budget for next year. We review the findings from our online consultation app allowing citizens to tell us their priorities for service delivery and adjust budget lines to balance the budget. Once we’ve agreed a proposed budget, we will have a further public consultation both online and in person in the community, where people can find out more about the proposals and influence the final decisions.
Part of our overall budget is devolved to neighbourhoods for allocating to local projects through a participatory budgeting process. Local community and voluntary sector groups present their project ideas for consideration. A working group of local residents shortlists and prioritises ideas, with assistance from council officers on technical appraisal. Then there is a resident vote on which projects to fund. We have been using participatory budgeting for ten years and we have increased the proportion of the budget that is allocated in this way. The process gives residents direct involvement in tackling some of the issues that matter most to them, for example anti-social behaviour, facilities for children and young people and an improved public realm. The residents feel more involved in decision-making and have become well informed about financial issues and social issues facing their area. Ward councillors also feel more involved and feel they have a better insight into what residents’ priorities are. The range of ideas and quality of debate has got better and better over time. The council has also gained a deeper understanding of what matters to local people and the assets local people can bring to problem solving.
11am: I have a meeting with the head of democratic services who briefs me on preparations for the forthcoming local elections. This year will be the first year we use online voting, alongside in-person and postal voting. The local government sector is hoping this will increase turn out, particularly from young people who are less likely to vote at local elections but, clearly, security is paramount. During the next few weeks, would-be councillors will be gearing up for the election campaign. My political party will be crowd-sourcing ideas for our manifesto to ensure that it reflects the aspirations and concerns of local people. I’m proud of our track record in office but I take nothing for granted. These days, established parties often face challenges from community-minded candidates running as independents. Ultimately it will be for the voters to decide!
As well as the local elections, several wards will also hold local referenda on adopting a neighbourhood plan or neighbourhood development order. If they are approved, our borough will have neighbourhood plans across the piece. Arborough has embraced neighbourhood planning because it gives local people control over the future development of their areas, setting out where new homes, shops and offices should be built, what the new buildings should look like and what infrastructure should be provided.
1pm: There is a lively demonstration outside the council building from local activists from a social justice protest movement. They are opposed to the redevelopment of a dilapidated social housing estate into a mixed tenure development. Many people who would not get involved in traditional party politics are involved in looser social and political movements and campaigns. Often these movements are national or international in scope – for instance, Extinction Rebellion or the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) – with local networks coordinated via communication apps and social media. Such movements are an increasing part of local politics and councils often find themselves the focus of local action and need to respond to them. I am not going to say this is always easy but politics is about weighing priorities, listening to diverse groups, and having to make hard decisions sometimes.
2pm: It is our Full Council meeting. Since Covid-19 all our council meetings have been livestreamed and allow remote participation from councillors who cannot attend in person. Modernising council business has helped the council become more inclusive, particularly for people of working age and those with caring responsibilities. The new format of council meetings has helped increase public and media interest. Local citizen-journalists cover the proceedings in real time on social media.
The first item on the council agenda is the presentation of petitions by local residents. Petitions are a long-established way of citizens calling for changes and we have taken steps to make it easier to get petitions onto the agenda. Like many councils, we host e-petitions on our website, and any petition (electronic or paper) attracting the signatures of two per cent of the electorate is guaranteed to be the subject of a motion at full council. Petition organisers have the opportunity to introduce the debate and present their arguments for change. Today we are debating a petition instigated by local cyclist groups on expanding the network of cycle lanes across our area.
Arborough residents also have the right to instigate a citizen’s initiative. If these get the signatures of 10 per cent of the electorate they can result in a local referendum on a proposed or existing council policy.
5pm: I have been invited to attend the Arborough Youth Council meeting. Youth councils are forums that represent the views of young people at a local level and give them a voice in the decision-making process. The youth councillors are elected by young people in our area. Today they want to discuss services for young people and the proposed council budget. Young people are under-represented in most forms of democratic engagement, so it is great to get young people involved in politics and policy making. Youth councillors use a range of creative and innovative ways of gathering the views of the young people they represent, including social media and wiki survey apps.
7pm: Home at last!
Could the multi-democratic council become a reality?
This scenario shows how a council could adopt a wide mix of democratic innovations and blend representative democracy with more participative and deliberative forms of democracy. Although this ‘day in the life’ is stylised, all of the examples of democratic activities are real and part of democratic life in various places in the UK, Europe or the USA.
Participatory budgeting (PB) is probably the most widely adopted form of direct democracy. It is used in many different countries and has been adopted by numerous councils in the UK (it was a government aspiration in 2008 that all local authorities would use PB by 2012). The PB Network provides many practical resources and case studies aimed at promoting PB across the UK.
Crowd sourcing of policy ideas has been used to good effect in Reykjavik, Iceland. Citizens can submit ideas and solutions to municipal-level issues through the Better Reykjavik online platform. Thousands of ideas have been generated through this process, many of which have been taken forward by city authorities, as described in this LGIU briefing.
Citizens’ assemblies have been adopted at national level in Ireland and Scotland. A UK-wide climate Assembly recently made recommendations to Parliament on the path to net zero carbon emissions. In the UK, Oxford City Council is holding a climate change assembly to shape the city’s response to the climate emergency. Belgium has citizens’ councils in some of its municipal areas. In Austria, Voralberg state has a citizens’ council involved in an ongoing process of participation and decision-making. Timisoara in Romania has neighbourhood consultative councils, which put forward priorities for neighbourhood services in structured, regular engagement with the city mayor and department directors.
Citizens’ initiatives and local referenda are common in Swiss cantons, German länder and around half of US states. They typically require a vote on a policy proposal or a change to existing policy and can be binding or non-binding. In the UK, local referenda play only a limited role. In England, the Local Government Act 1972 allows non-binding local referenda on any issue to be called by small groups of voters, known as the “parish poll”. This power exists only for parish councils. The Localism Act introduced local referenda for neighbourhood planning and – controversially – for “excessive” council tax rises. Local referenda have also been used in England to decide changes to and from the mayoral model of governance. Making local referenda or citizens’ initiatives a significant part of local democracy would be a radical departure and require changes in legislation.
As for innovations to improve representative democracy, remote council meetings have become a reality in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the arrangements are (at present) temporary. Even before the pandemic there had been unfulfilled plans to allow remote attendance at council meetings but it took the pandemic to remove the obstacles to it: it will be interesting to see whether these emergency arrangements become permanent.
Electronic voting is used in many US states. E-voting via touch-screen was trialled in the 2019 English local government elections. However, remote online voting (via smart phone or home computer) is rare worldwide, mainly due to concerns about security and verification of identity. Estonia is the exemplar of this and numerous other digital government innovations.
The Arborough Council scenario presented here shows how participatory forms of democracy might be integrated into (modernised) representative structures. Advocates of direct democracy argue that it improves the quality of democracy by making the people sovereign; redressing the ‘accountability deficit’ of representative institutions, especially between elections; and increasingly participation in the political process. Inevitably it requires elected representatives to cede some power to citizens though, as conceived here, this tends to be strictly regulated and limited in scope.
Arguably, direct democracy is most effective for specific issues and decisions, whereas representative democracy works best for broad programmes. Direct or participatory democracy has practical and philosophical limitations, which would need to be considered by the multi-democratic council. Chief among these are representation/inclusivity, reliance on technology and the issue of resourcing.
Participatory mechanisms can broaden opportunities for citizens to be involved in decision making. However, not everyone can be involved in every decision, so the issue of selection arises. Different models are available, from ‘mini-publics’ selected to be a representative sample of the broader public, to self-nomination by participants. Done well, participatory options can involve people who do not normally get their voices heard in local politics, however, if done badly, participatory forums can suffer from the same social biases as representative institutions and be less accountable to the community than elected representatives. Public Square is an action-research project that is working with local councils (including Frome Town Council, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council and Glasgow City) to test new ways of involving local people in democracy, co-designed with residents. This blog for the LGIU introduced the research.
One theme in the Arborough example is the way technology is woven into different aspects of local democracy. It seems inevitable that as digital technology plays an increasing role in our lives, it will be integrated into local democracy too. However, there may be a danger of relying too much on technology in the multi-democratic council. For the foreseeable future, there will be a sizeable minority of the population who cannot access democracy digitally.
Experiences of e-democracy in other countries suggests that technology will not necessarily solve problems of inclusion. For instance, in Estonia e-voting did not increase participation amongst younger voters, and online crowd-sourcing of legislation resulted in less diverse participation than in-person opportunities to influence legislation. Successful, inclusive participation is likely to be achieved through a mix of different channels – online and in-person – using innovative methods alongside tried-and-tested engagement and communication techniques.
Finally, the multi-democratic council will need resourcing. Effective engagement with citizens takes time, effort and money. Embracing new direct and participatory democratic approaches could be particularly challenging at a time when council finances are severely strained. However, the benefits could be considerable – better-informed decision making, more effective policy and a new relationship between residents and councils.
It is worth remembering that representative democracy is also costly (in this article the BBC gallantly attempts to estimate the costs of elections). Reforms aimed at improving the quality of local democracy will have a price tag: local government will want carefully to consider the return on investment and how new activities can be sustained.
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