Individually, and collectively, many tragedies and crises have been faced since the pandemic struck this country.

Most of us yearn for a new beginning. Others fear the storm has not passed. Maybe we’re just in the eye of the hurricane? A moment of false calm, awaiting the next onslaught. It’s not just Covid19. Issues around racism and inequality continue to be more prevalent than ever . The looming threat of climate heating remains. The uncertainties of Brexit lie just round the corner. The calm after the storm sounds like a pipe dream.

 "this too shall pass"
Photo Credit: Jamie Whittaker. Previously used here: https://sharedfuturecic.org.uk/10-useful-questions-for-those-organising-...

“How do men act on a sinking ship? Do they hold each other? Do they pass around the whisky? Do they cry?” 

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger.

More hopefully, in the early days of the lockdown we all saw a massive up-swelling of mutual aid groups. Kindness, neighbourliness and community action raised our spirits and brought some relief to the fearful and the vulnerable. Covid19 also taught us problems once thought insurmountable could be quickly achieved. For just one example, gathering in the homeless and providing them a temporary shelter from the storm.

Whether in terms of jobs, housing or education, in our mental health or young people’s life chances, inequality is forcing all of us to re-evaluate what matters in life.

I’ve been thinking about the international lessons of rebuilding following crisis, such as after Storm Matthew struck Haiti in 2016. These show us that local people usually have a very good idea of what they need and given the right tools and some resources can get on with the job.

Our own collective journey towards recovery has begun. But we are beginning to appreciate just how far the gap has widened amongst those that live, learn and work in this country. Whether in terms of jobs, housing or education, in our mental health or young people’s life chances, inequality is forcing all of us to re-evaluate what matters in life. Citizens’ acceptance of unfairness has reached its limit, forcing our leaders into taking wasteful U-turns, as the exam results fiasco has shown.

Covid19 has brought endless questions. Why was ‘business as normal’ insufficient to prepare us for the pandemic? What might guide us traversing the uncertainties of the next weeks, months and years? Can we adjust to ‘our new normal’? Have we the resources and the trust to act ‘in community’ with others? Or most worryingly... might we learn that there is no such thing as society, and it really is every person for themselves! I don’t think so, and I’m not alone.

“All governments are deceitful--they're deceitful because it's easier than being honest. Most of the time, it's no more sinister than that.” 

A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger.

When a crisis strikes there is a reason to be decisive and interventionist. Early on even the harshest opponents may offer support for a time. As the immediate threat subsides difficult questions start to be asked and without good answers the risk is that this democratic consensus fractures. When stepping up and working together once seemed a sensible approach, our new reality becomes ever more complex. The well known process of ‘forming, storming, norming and performing’ moves into its second phase. Recrimination, anger and distrust can develop, causing progress to slow. But, if the democratic culture is set aright, and leaders are able to shift from command-led towards listening and responsiveness, I think we can rebuild faster.

Across the world, in many different forms, participatory budgeting has been working successfully to improve how government operates and as crucially, how government is perceived.

As a long-time advocate for participatory democracy, I believe we need more local responses. Centralisation becomes a blockage. That is the learning from many years of building back better. Given that, what are the new democratic norms that might help us take us beyond forming and storming?

I’ve been part of conversations about how Participatory Budgeting (PB), a form of collective, direct decision-making, can play its part in Covid19 recovery. For those new to participatory budgeting, the principle is simple. Gather together some financial resources. Hold collective conversations in communities on how to use that money. Then, working together as citizens, vote on how our taxes are shared out. Not voting for representatives to decide for us. Voting directly where the money goes. Sounds a bit utopian maybe, but across the world, in many different forms, participatory budgeting has been working successfully to improve how government operates and as crucially, how government is perceived.

"The truth about a city's aspirations isn't found in its vision. It's found in its budget."  

Brett Toderian

Done well participatory budgets are a positive example of high performing, responsive and open government. A mechanism for distributing some of our collective wealth in fresh, citizen led and innovative ways. It sounds easy, but there are always inevitable complexities. There always will be when thinking about devolving power and money. Without getting into all of those now, here are some ideas about how participatory budgeting might contribute towards building back better.

At neighbourhood level: A mechanism to support and solidify mutual aid. When the demands upon the state increase it’s really helpful to enable people to look after themselves. Participatory budgeting could be a way to connect up mutual aid groups, to share ideas and to work together. If you want to know more about how this happens, read my blog on tackling social isolation through PB.

At Local Authority level: A way to build consensus on how to invest limited public money. As rebuilding continues councils are re-planning their capital and revenue investments. I believe what is known as mainstream PB, where citizens directly shape public services, could have an important role in maintaining trust and fostering engagement through ensuring investments respond to the needs of local communities.

Embrace civic tech: A Covid-secure way to have sensible and informed public debate. Nationally there has been concern that the pandemic has led to less scrutiny over public spending and this risks further eroding public trust in Government. But there are many ‘off the shelf’ online PB platforms that could be used to engage people in budget decisions, and lots of research on how to do it. At least locally the upcoming spring 2021 local government budget consultations offer a window for councils to ask citizens how they would direct spending on initiatives to build back better, as called for by Fiona Garven of the Scottish Community Development Centre. By using civic tech effectively this could happen even without holding face to face meetings.

Nationally: For sparking a democratic culture that supports local resilience. Few national governments use participatory budgeting on their own budget. Portugal is one notable exception. Nevertheless national government can play an important enabling role, providing encouragement and capacity building, or by offering guidance. It’s worth looking at how Scotland has a national programme for participatory budgeting, which has the support of all its local authorities. Scotland offers us a model that I think could be grown across the UK.

What is most exciting of all is how flexible a deliberative and participatory democracy can be. We have already seen initiatives for public deliberation on building back better. Might we take it one step further? Add a mechanism for turning citizen-led recommendations into large scale resource allocation? Our leaders need to embrace change now. Need to let go a bit. Help us perform better, locally, to become more empowered, less dependent and better prepared citizens. Let’s remain confident we can meet our democratic challenges. I started this blog with a rather bleak quote. I’ll end with a more upbeat one:

“Never be afraid to fall apart because it is an opportunity to rebuild yourself the way you wish you had been all along.” 

Rae Smith

If you are interested in these ideas, and want to have a further conversation, get in touch.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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For over 25 years Jez has worked in diverse communities, facilitating deliberative and participatory democracy processes and delivering research and policy work. A founding director of the social enterprise Shared Future CIC, and a Greater Manchester resident for over 30 years, he specialises in participatory budgeting, co-production and social enterprise. He has written many how to guides and research papers on what might be called ‘practical democracy’ which is about how people can get involved and exert democratic influence beyond elections.

To find out more about Shared Future CIC or Jez's work click here.