Spawning a new local democracy
Simon Parker, 19 July, 2013

We need a different approach to democracy in local government. Councils should treat voter turnout as a key performance indicator with the issue discussed at senior management and cabinet meetings

There’s an apocryphal story that a frog put in a pan of cold water can be boiled to death without jumping out, as long as you raise the temperature slowly enough. The same seems to happening with town hall politics: a slow downward drift in turnouts and engagement, combined with the hollowing out of political parties, is putting the very legitimacy of councils at risk.

The New Local Government Network explores the fate of local democracy in a new collection called Future Councillors. It makes difficult reading, because it shows that if politicians cannot find ways to share power with citizens much more effectively, then the most likely outcome is either increasing irrelevance or public backlash.

Political theorists increasingly argue that we are seeing the death of hierarchical power – in which politicians can make decisions on behalf of the electorate – to networked power, in which councillors must work with and through their communities.

This requires huge change in the way that our politics is conducted – English democracy is steeped in John Locke, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, writers who told the citizenry that its job was to elect wise heads to make decisions on our behalf.

But in a world where the public is more highly educated and digitally empowered than ever before, the voters expect to be informed and involved in new ways.

The London Borough of Lambeth is one of the councils that shows how this shift can be achieved, with its aim being to devolve commissioning to neighbourhoods, and to have politicians working alongside citizens to determine what services should be delivered. Their model is still emerging, but it is an attempt to confront the dynamic of an emerging new democracy.

More councils need to engage with this challenge. A good start would be to view democracy as if it were a public service like any other. Councils should treat voter turnout and wider democratic engagement as a key performance indicator, with the chief executive the lead officer.

Flatlining turnouts should be an issue at senior management and cabinet meetings along with educational attainment and refuse collection targets. Ministers should take public engagement into account when they are considering things like city deals and community budget pilots.

One of the reasons why central government tends to win the argument about devolving power is that councils have such weak support from the public. Managing public engagement in a more concerted way is

photo credit: DonkeyHotey