Professor John Stewart.
To face the future is no easy task for local government. There are deep uncertainties in society challenging government generally. The unknown impact of continuing austerity, the revitalising of the economy barely begun, the neglected issues of climate change and growing inequality all demand a response from government in what could be an increasingly troubled society. These uncertainties make it impossible to specify with any confidence the policies required so government needs to develop a capacity for learning with the public and for using that learning in action.
The role of local government is crucial. One does not learn easily from the uniformity of centralism except sometimes that a mistake has been made everywhere. One does not learn of society generally in the enclosed villages of Whitehall and Westminster. It is the diversity that comes from local choice and the potential for public involvement in those choices that should provide learning for the whole of government in dealing with the uncertainties of the present and the future.
The future may be unpredictable but local government can build resilience for the challenges ahead. Local authorities can best prepare for the future by rediscovering and reasserting those principles of local government; collective choice based on representative democracy and justified by public accountability.
Representative democracy has to be strengthened for current times. Participatory democracy can be a means of strengthening representative democracy but that requires understanding of the relationship between them. Advocates of participatory democracy and community involvement too often neglect the need for strong representative democracy as if the principles of representation and participation are opposed. A complex and changing society requires representative democracy to achieve accountable and effective government.
Effective representation requires new modes of interaction between the council and public and between councillors and citizens. Councils and councillors should develop new approaches to interaction with citizens enabling learning, explaining listening and hearing. Participation supports and informs representative democracy but the public rarely speaks with one voice and there will always be voices unexpressed. The task of the councillor and council is to seek out and balance differing views through political judgment.
Local government should recognise its task is to sustain the public domain in which the public interest is sought through collective choice for which councils and councillors are accountable to the public as citizens. There is a dangerous fallacy that local government and public services should be managed in the same way as the private sector. Managing for public accountability differs fundamentally from the market accountability dominant in the private sector. Many of local government’s relationships with the public are not with customers. Local authorities at times have to inspect, regulate, refuse a service, even enforce and compel and prosecute in pursuit of the public good. The public are citizens whose views are entitled to be heard even when they are not customers. Local government has to balance needs, demands and interests in ways beyond the scope of the private sector. The management of scarce resources is at the heart of local government. The private sector provides no guidance since price is its dominant means of rationing. Local government can learn from the private sector where tasks and conditions are the same, but where they differ, then the private sector has much to learn if they operate in the public domain. In the public domain, politicisation trumps privatisation.
A new emphasis is placed on choice in public services and that is taken to mean individual choice. Local government can enable or deny individual choice but should recognise individual choice has limits. Many choices are not individual choices but collective choices. Policies are decided, parks planned, buildings designed, planning decisions enforced and budgets adopted on the basis of collective choice. The challenge is to increase the capacity of local government to make collective choices well, by strengthening representative democracy and public accountability.
The era of uncertainties requires local authorities not to deny their principles by adopting a private sector model but to work out how those principles can be strengthened so that they can best face and meet the challenges of the future.
John Stewart is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Birmingham. His is a former Director of INLOGOV and Head of the School of Public Policy. He has written widely and lectured to many officers and councillors on the politics and management of local government, on the case for local government and on public management generally. In 2007 the Society of Local Government Chief Executives gave him the inaugural Presidents Award for an outstanding contribution to local government.