On 2 May, millions of people in the UK will be going to the polls. No, I'm not predicting a People’s Vote or snap General Election. I am talking about voters in almost 300 English and Northern Irish councils who will be choosing who will represent them in their local councils.
On the doorstep, candidates are likely to find citizens asking the kinds of questions you would expect at a local election - on local services like schools, social care, road maintenance, bin collections, and probably one or two questions about Brexit.
I wonder however, will anyone be asking about how candidates will ensure our democratic structures at the local level are more open, participatory and deliberative? At the national level, opinions abound on what changes are needed to make our national politics more democratic - like House of Lords and electoral reform - but what about reform at the local level?
What could a more open, participatory and deliberative local council look like?
Deliberative innovations in local councils - from Somerset to Spain
“Flatpack democracy” has made a substantial impact in Frome, Somerset - turning local politics on its head and bringing decision making much closer to residents. Council meetings have been revamped into deliberative workshops where locals actually are able to shape and influence decisions.
Could that model work elsewhere in the UK? I’d be keen to see that happen, but with the reality that some UK councils are larger than Frome, it’s worth casting the net a little wider to see what else is going on abroad.
One place taking huge steps in testing democratic innovations is the city of Madrid, Spain. Since the citizen-led ‘Ahora Madrid’ (Madrid Now) coalition came to power, this Spanish city council has pushed for structural reforms to make it more participative and bring residents right into the decision-making process. Direct democracy has been the focus of much of this innovation, including local referenda on a range of local issues and participatory budgeting (giving Madrilenians the power to propose and vote on local infrastructure projects worth over €100m during the last few years).
This year, however, the Council has introduced its most ambitious innovation for deliberative democracy - an Observatory of the City - a scrutiny body made up of 49 citizens chosen at random to review the council’s policies and activities, make proposals for improvement and propose city-wide consultation on issues raised by local residents.
The Council sent out invitations to 30,000 random households, from which more than 1,000 people responded. Last month, 49 of these individuals were selected to serve a one-year term, as a representative cross-section of residents in Madrid.
Their work to scrutinise municipal activity and to make proposals will be supported by information from the Council and public bodies, as well as from input and question-answer sessions with experts. The Council is obliged to respond to all recommendations made by the Observatory and present a plan of action.
The first meeting was on 30 March - far too soon to make any conclusions of course, but this experiment in local democracy (and others) is worth watching closely as we ask what can be done to improve and enhance local democracy in the UK.