The Commission on the Future of Local Government produced its final report this week. Involve made a number of submissions to the Commission, which you can see here. The Commission sets out a series of calls and commitments to action, built around the vision of local governance as a civic enterprise. It seeks to recapture the spirit of the great 19th century civic entrepreneurs such as the Josephs Chamberlain and Rowntree, describing civic enterprise as “a new leadership style for local government, where councils become more enterprising, businesses and other partners become more civic, and citizens become more engaged”. It is, in the words of the report’s foreword, a “statement of our ambition for local democracy”.
The report recognises that citizen engagement is fundamental to this ambition and that new approaches will be needed to do this successfully – utilising less formal social networks and participative democracy, for example. Two of its conclusions are that local democracy must be revitalised and that councillors must be more engaging and enabling. The report also faces the thorny question of remaking the social contract, with citizens contributing solutions and taking greater responsibility for their own lives. In respect of troubled families, it says that “those in positions of authority should do things with families rather than to or for them”.
There is plenty of commitment across local government to engaging more actively and openly with citizens, and many examples of both innovation and solid good practice. The Commission’s report recognises this. But I would argue (and I don’t think the Commission would disagree) that most councils are some way off from the ideal model of a relationship with citizens that is consistently open, responsive, and participative. The chronically woeful turnout at local elections is but one indicator of this. A recent report from the Wales Audit Office concluded that “councils undertake a great deal of public engagement, some of which enables citizens to help shape services” but that “most councils have not yet fully embedded and mainstreamed public engagement into their organisational culture and partnership activities”.
For me, this point about cultural DNA is key; the challenge for councils is to go from having pockets of good practice and innovation in some service areas, to the whole organisation working coherently and consistently in a way that actively and openly engages with residents and service users. Commitment and leadership on this from senior officers and (all) elected members is vital, because operating in this way will not be easy.
This point about culture was recently exemplified for me in looking at a council’s engagement strategy for a major and highly controversial change in service provision. Whilst public meetings were planned as part of the consultation, the programme management structure was entirely internalised and it was not clear how the public could interact with the decision-making process itself (other than attendance at open cabinet). Good governance – which includes the role of councillors in making and being accountable for the decisions – is vital. But good governance also requires an open, public engagement that will command the respect (if not always the contentment) of residents.
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