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.