Published on August 12, 2015

Don’t forget public in devolution rush

People & participation

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Simon wrote for the MJ on involving the public on decision-making around devolution.

 

The timetable set by George Osborne in his Budget for the first wave of councils to secure devolution is incredibly tight.

This raises the real risk that the public will be forgotten in the rush to reach agreement.

However, if the public is not placed at the centre of new decision-making structures there is a real danger that democracy will be weakened rather than strengthened.

This, in turn, risks councils storing up problems further down the line and widening the trust deficit.

Simon Parker of the New Local Government Network made exactly this point in his recent piece for The MJ when he said ‘devolution without democracy ought to be an oxymoron’.

He went on to suggest ways the public could help strengthen democratic control of devolved councils.

Specifically, he suggested that councils should set up citizen-led constitutional conventions to ask searching questions about how the public want to be involved.

Mr Parker is absolutely right that public involvement doesn’t stop with the election of a new mayor.

The pressure that austerity will place on public services means that deeper and more frequent engagement with the public is necessary if the service redesign required is to deliver what citizens really need.

A citizens’ convention is only one way – albeit a strong and sensible one – of achieving this: there are many different and innovative ways for councils to hear from the public and actively involve them, with different methods suited to the different questions being asked.

Our advice to councils looking for support on how to get public input into the important decisions around devolution is to begin by focussing on a smaller number of questions:

· What decisions have you made already?

· Is there anything the public can actually affect if they get involved?

· What evidence, assets and perspectives can the public bring to the table that no one else can?

The wider public is rarely directly interested in questions of democracy and how decisions are taken.

Their unique contribution to discussions about devolution relate to their experiences of, and future visions for, the public services they rely on.

However, picking an entry point to the debate that resonates can lead back to important insights about the public’s perspectives on devolution and offer a more effective way to achieve radical redesign of the way decisions are taken and services delivered.

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