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Solace blog

6th July 2018

Building a more democratic, local economy

Just over two years ago, I commenced the work of convening a Citizens’ Economic Council, a group of
demographically diverse and randomly selected citizens working publicly and out in the open to define and describe some of the design principles for an economy that works for everyone. The programme itself launched against the immediate backdrop of the EU referendum vote, at a time when the quality of democratic debate was poor and deteriorating; and at a time where we felt that expertise had somehow missed the mark in contributing to that debate.

A team of RSA researchers embarked upon a Roadshow, travelling across Britain in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote – visiting Port Talbot in Wales, Clacton-in-Sea, Birmingham, Glasgow, and Oldham – exploring citizen views and perspectives on how best to create a more inclusive economy.

Findings from the final report of the Citizens’ Economic Council, Building a Public Culture of Economics outlined the scale of the problem – whilst citizens’ sense of trust and influence have often been low – they have reached rock bottom in recent years. Just 3% of the citizens polled felt they had ‘a lot of’ influence over the way Local Enterprise Partnerships made economic decisions; as unelected bodies designed to set local priorities on key areas like skills. And only 33% of those polled said they felt they had either a lot of or little influence over local councils.

This makes for sobering reading for local government leaders – placing an onus upon regional and local government bodies to consider how best they can respond. People’s loss of agency and sense of control over their own lives is affecting how they feel, not just about themselves, but about others in their communities, and about their political institutions – including councils. Trust is low in three respects; people’s self-trust has declined – exacerbated by economic insecurity, low levels of literacy, and a lack of transparency; so too has their trust in those in their immediate networks and communities (collective trust); and that in turn is affecting their trust in institutions, including councils.

The picture is not entirely grim, however; there is clear evidence that both regional and local bodies are also better placed to strengthen the relationship between citizens and institutions that make decisions about their lives. By way of example; people in the North East feel the least (13%) influence in the UK over central government, but the most (42%) influence over local councils. There is considerable appetite and support for strengthening the feedback loop between people and decision makers. Recent research (RSA/Populus poll 2018) shows that nearly half of citizens (47%) would trust economic decision-making more if they knew ordinary people like themselves were involved, as with the jury system. This marks the starting point for a two-way process: not only do citizens feel more confident
about economics and more able to influence the economy, particularly at a local level, but crucially, it means “experts” make more informed decisions that enjoy broader public support.

At the heart of the argument for deliberative democracy is the argument that democracy is more than just voting and elections, and that meaningful participation throughout is the way to re-establish both the trust and legitimacy of institutional decision making. Through engaging with a wider group of people than it would ordinarily engage with, meaningful, deliberative participation also has the potential to secure better outcomes, navigating trade-offs and tensions between increasingly diverse groups and perspectives – and in turn strengthening the quality and responsiveness of policymaking.

Some of the practical ways in which local governance leaders could seek to introduce more deliberative and democratic approaches to their governance include those listed below (although this is by no means an exhaustive list):

-More “double devolution” – giving local citizens a formal scrutiny role should be a condition of devolution of more powers to local bodies, inspired by movements like the People’s Powerhouse in the North of England.

-More councils and regional governments (including the London Mayor, as well as Mayors of Combined Authorities) adopting, investing in and scaling innovative measures such as participatory budgeting to engage citizens, as many like Newcastle and Edinburgh have already. The growth of participatory budgeting has strengthened the relationship between local institutions and citizens across the world; and is widely used in cities such as Paris and New York.

– Mayors of Combined Authorities, as well as the London Mayor, in particular, could be taking a strong leadership role in championing such approaches in the UK.

-Supporting the growth and sharing of best practice initiatives such as regional and local banking so that citizens can have more of a say on how their financial services and products are provided at a local level. Initiatives such as the Greater London Mutual and South-West Mutual show a resurgence of interest in localised banking services and;

-Local government and regional economic bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and councils taking steps to improve their transparency and accountability on complex issues such as social care, taxation, and financial planning through deliberative democracy measures such as local economic “jury service”.

Recently, parliamentary select committees have commissioned such approaches on the funding of social care; but arguably, local authorities are equally as well placed to engage citizens on the trade-offs and complexities of how care itself is funded at a local level.

Despite all of this enormous potential and opportunity for local government leadership, it is difficult to deny that it is incredibly challenging, at a time of diminishing resources, to realise the ambitions and potential of local government without the support and investment of skills and resources to do so. Much progress on deliberative democracy is being made at a national level in the UK – with the Bank of England, the DCMS Centre for Data Ethics & Innovation, and Select Committees all committing recently to undertaking citizen juries and assemblies. Building upon and learning from this momentum is critical – but so too is making the case for effective distribution of learning and resources so that local government can be on the front line of forging a new, more resilient and cohesive citizens’ economy.

That is why calls for a National ‘What Works Centre’ and a campaign for deliberative democracy, which
would support regional and local bodies, as well as national bodies, articulated by RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor at the very start of National Democracy Week should be taken seriously, and should be supported.

By Reema Patel, Democracy Commentator

Reema Patel led the delivery of the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council and worked on the RSA’s citizen juries on AI & Ethics. She is now working as a programme manager to create the Ada Lovelace Institute. (You can follow her on Twitter – @Reema__Patel)