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Published on July 23, 2010

Duty Free Democracy

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

Duty Free Democracy…It seems that the recent Duty to Inform, Consult, and Involve will soon be an ex-duty. A letter to  Council Leaders sent by the Right Honourable Grant Shapps, Minister for Housing and Local Government states that it is the Government’s intention to repeal the duty and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act of 2007.

Since we share a name with the duty you might expect Involve to defend the Duty to Involve; it has after all only had since April 2009 to prove itself. However I am not so sure that the passing of the duty is such a bad thing.

In some ways the name is itself a paradox. It shows the tension between central government handing power to local communities and on the other hand feeling compelled to maintain control. Names such as the “Duty to Inform, Consult and Involve” the “National Empowerment Partnership” and the “Empowerment Directorate” are all paradoxical terms that on one hand point to central control and coercion, and the other of local control. There has always been a risk that the centrally mandated duty would have a perverse effect; leading to box ticking and focussing on quantity rather than quality. I do sometimes worry that councils are engaging more with an eye to the duty and avoiding litigation than towards the needs and wants of the people they’re working for. This obviously is not good for democracy.

Making government more democratic and accountable requires more than laws and regulations. It is an intricate interplay between carrots and sticks, aiming to change attitudes and cultures as much as mandate behaviour. Involve is currently carrying out work on culture change and engagement, exploring how to best make engagement meaningful. The messages surrounding the duty have been mixed at best. Some civil servants and ministers have presented it as a low cost requirement that most councils already meet, whereas others have presented it as a radical reform, demanding a shake up of power at the local level. We don’t know which yet as the Duty has not been tested in court. The minister clearly believes the duty is in the former category: his letter specifies that “councils need not incur any significant expenditure in these requirements” and also mentions “minimum cost” and “cutting out all wasteful spending”.

I’ve reached the view that abolishing the duty is probably the right thing to do. Five years ago when money was flowing and the economy was booming Involve said that bad engagement is worse than none at all. Today this is more relevant than ever. The Big Society rests on the belief that the public sector can’t do it all and that we need to refocus on quality not quantity. Blanket duties may get in the way of this by focussing our attention to activities rather than outcomes. So what do we lose without the duty? If we abolish the duty how will local communities keep government accountable for the state of local democracy between elections? In principle I am all for local communities rather than courts and central institutions holding local government accountable but this is difficult because one person’s genuine dialogue is another person’s manipulative ‘con-sham-tation’.

We need to acknowledge that there can be a tradeoff between empowering professionals and councils on one hand and strengthening citizens and communities on the other. Both still need to happen, but intelligently. We need to acknowledge that the shift from PCTs to GP consortia won’t necessarily mean more influence for patients. GPs vary widely to the degree that they are willing and able to listen to local people.

In place of a central duty we need new ways of holding government to account. This could include approaches such as recall, referenda, or naming and shaming using online tools alongside traditional approaches. Whatever is chosen it needs teeth.

The Duty to Involve has been both too vague and too wide ranging to be useful. It is important to remember that it has no value in itself; rather the question is how Government can best support citizens to hold councils accountable between elections.

9 Responses to “Duty Free Democracy”

  1. R Stewart
    July 26, 2010 at 11:44 am

    The problem is that from a practitioner perspective, if there are no carrots or sticks it is unlikely that local government would be willing to ‘share power’ if they haven’t done so before and understood the benefits to be gained – you can’t turn centuries of bureacratic top down working around to a more participatory and engaging democracy overnight, even less so if you send mixed messages by repealing legislation that are the begining of a process of change.

    • July 26, 2010 at 11:46 am

      I agree that if left entirely to their own devises many councils are unlikely to embrace engagement (with some honourable exceptions). However my problem with the duty is that it is not very effective, either as a stick or a carrot; it gives very little useful guidance to councils about when and where they should engage. If the duty is abolished the government needs to provide other forms of encouragement, that much is clear. The big question is what kind of carrots and sticks do we need?

  2. JG
    September 15, 2010 at 11:47 am

    s it any wonder local authorities take forever to achieve anything when the goalposts are fluid? Constant change in requirement and direction leads right back to square one. Regardless of ‘duty’ or encouragement (or lack of either) we MUST act in the interest of our residents, and according to Grant Shapps’ words “the case is strong for any consultation now about future governance arrangements to be the minimal cost option. It will be for each council to decide, but in our view no more than a small newspaper advert/article or press release on your website may be proportionate and right in these circumstances” are totally contradictory. A small article in a newspaper or on a website is NOT consultation. It’s slipping under the door and avoiding the issue.

    • October 14, 2012 at 7:59 am

      I’m obviously gonna buy beucase I’m a die hard COD fan. But really why do we have to pay I mean YOU ACTIVISION owns this epic franchise and earns a couple BILLION a year, thats a shit load of zeros (4 000 000 000$) . And you want more?!?! One question. Why?

  3. September 17, 2010 at 11:48 am

    The bigger the issue the more important proper engagement and consultation becomes. I agree with you that big issues deserve serious consideration. My point was rather that the Duty to Involve perhaps hasn’t led to the changes many people hoped it would.

  4. April 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm


    I completely disagree with you on this.

    I have been inundated with emails from people all around the country who feel that this will make their job within local public services much harder. Of course, top-down empowerment is a contradiction in terms. But the fact is that certain key democratic and egalitarian rights have to be enshrined in law to have any meaning. The right to be informed, consulted and involved is one of them.

    • Edward Andersson
      April 14, 2011 at 5:53 pm


      I met with a French academic yesterday who was an expert on the Aarhus Convention. He said the first few years the new laws meant that campaigners got a number of mayor developments overturned in the courts. However over the years the court cases showed developers what boxes they needed to tick in order to avoid court cases, and as a result the law is now much less effectual as a citizen challenge tool.

      I agree with you that legal frameworks are useful tools for practitioners to force reluctant institutions to engage, but I’m not convinced that they are as good for citizens. The duty to involve is broad enough to cover almost everything (meaning that engagement budgets will be spread thinly) but is also vague enough to ensure that it very difficult to prove whether a consultation or engagement exercise is meaningful or not. That would seem to be a recipe for authorities emphasizing quantity and not quality.

      I don’t know if you agree with me, but I’ve often sensed that citizens seem most cynical about the consultations that are the most procedural and structured according to legal requirements, for example in planning. The 12 week rule in the consultation code was meant to be a minimum; in practice it has often become a default maximum. These are some of the challenges of legislating around democracy.

      I share your concern that some councils will stop doing any engagement without the duty and I am just as worried about councils inundating their residents with hundreds of disingenuous and pointless consultations on matters already decided (in the process using up budgets that could be used for community development and meaningful engagement).

      I am sympathetic to the need for democratic rights to be spelled out in law. A Duty to Involve could play a key role in improving democracy -but only if we also win hearts and minds within institutions and manage to shift the focus away from the box ticking, risk minimising and PR-centric approaches that all too often dominate. In my view laws without culture change and enforcement are unhelpful.

      Perhaps we need to take the initiative; rather than defending the existing duty (as if it were the be all and end all of engagement), we should articulate a demand for a better, clearer duty -with teeth!

  5. April 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Just to flag up that the Institute is considering its posotion on this development recognising that there are two strong arguments being expressed. One says that it was a pretty feeble and ineffective ‘duty’ anyway and made little difference. The other is that it gives the wrong signal to public bodies at a time when they definately need to carry the public with them. We have to be conscious of the views of practitioners and it seems thast many of them fear that it will undermine the local imperative to consult if this duty is dropped.

    • Edward Andersson
      April 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm

      Yes, it is not an obvious choice. I’ve just written a new blog on this and we’re hoping to gather a diverse range of views from practitioners. Feel free to weigh in -it would be good to get the Institute’s perspective.

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