Leeds Town HallAt last week’s pathways event on local engagement in democracy, conversation focused on how to overcome negative perceptions of formal participation and the dangers of not doing so.

Last week, the Pathways team held a seminar looking at the implications of their research for local engagement in democracy. You can see the briefing paper here.

A key focus was the negative perception of politics which ran through the stories of many Pathways interviewees. In one example, even a parish councillor was keen not to be seen as political. This trend is not news. Indeed, it’s a testament to how entrenched it is that the criticism ‘it’s all a bit political’ can often be heard applied to situations in social groups or organisations which have nothing to do with formal politics or government.

The pathways literature also suggests that when formal participation methods aren’t working, people can choose to express themselves in different ways. Talking about a consultation, one Pathways interviewee said ‘…it was so poorly done that you could say that’s why I went on the march in the end because I felt your voice wasn’t being heard as part of that [consultation] thing.’

Sceptics of formal political processes and government consultations might argue that this is no bad thing. A key role for citizens is to hold government to account, and this must include ‘uninvited’ participation such as marches or protests. However, one of the panellists Stella Creasy MP made the point that if this becomes the dominant way that people interact with government, democracy begins to imitate a consumer driven process in which people sit back most of the time until their favourite product/ library/ school is threatened. Only then do they engage to complain or protest.

While this form of participation is necessary, it’s certainly not sufficient, and can’t achieve many of the benefits of participation. If participants are in protest mode, the potential for their creative input at solving problems is often lost. For example, the government’s backtracking on the privatisation of forests in response to public and media pressure could be seen as a great example of citizen action. But because citizens felt forced into a protest mode of participation, they missed the opportunity to look behind the headlines at the reasons that the government had proposed privatisation – to cut the deficit – and to have a more constructive conversation about how (or whether) this should be done. Panellist Tessy Briton identified ‘creative-collaborative’ as the area of participation with the most potential to expand over the coming years. For this to happen, however, anti-political sentiments will have to be overcome in order that citizens are willing to work with government on these issues.

Protest is also a form of participation that is particularly susceptible to being dominated by the loudest voices. Last year, while local councils were developing new budgets, some local anti-cuts campaigns were successful in protecting certain services. Like the forestry campaign, this could be seen as a success for citizen participation. But because local councils were often reacting to local pressure, rather than proactively engaging, the danger is that it’s the interests of people with the loudest voices (and often the most resources) which are protected. Had more structured forms of participation such as participatory budgeting been used, citizens could have been encouraged to collectively weigh up interests in a more deliberative way.

It’s easy to say that the reason people don’t get involved in formal democratic structures is lack of trust. But there’s nothing more dangerous than trust when it’s unfounded. If government or political institutions aren’t working for citizens, they need to change. This is most clear in the Pathways research in the area of consultations, where not a single person from their 101 sample could describe a positive experience of responding to a consultation.

The Pathways briefing paper suggests a number of ways in which public bodies can improve local participation opportunities so that they are more positive experiences for participants. Core to all of them, however, is that they must focus on participants’ motivations. What’s really encouraging about the Pathways research is that it provides a picture of citizens who are active in a variety of different ways across their lives. If politicians and officials are going to effectively steer some of this energy towards formal political participation, they’re going to need to work out how to improve the experience of participation.

Image by slaine.