Citizen participation through the looking glass

This blog post is based on Catherine Jackson-Read’s MSc dissertation, which she completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Catherine Jackson-Read

My dissertation explores the experiences of local residents, elected representatives and local authority officers in Malvern, Worcestershire, as they negotiate the transfer of the management of a community asset from the County Council to a local community trust.

A series of themes emerge which may be symptomatic of the relationship between citizen and state today; the challenges inherent in the role of local elected members; the tension between representative democracy and citizen participation; the conflict between local needs and priorities at a district level and the broader strategic agenda; and the capacity of the state to facilitate active citizenship. These experiences suggest that new rules and norms are emerging and that citizens are creating new spaces for engagement and participation particularly in the form of alternative models of management of public services and facilities. The challenge is not so much about the willingness of the state to work collaboratively with citizens, the challenge is in their ability to do so.

Fundamental questions emerge about the efficacy of the current model of local government. There are inherent tensions and conflicts in the role of locally elected members and the challenges of acting in multiple capacities as committee members directing or contributing to strategic policy; representatives of a constituency, responding to the needs and wishes of a local community; and party activists with political values and a commitment to a party line. Elected members are caught between a rock and a hard place. Conservative District Council Members cannot both support the wishes of the local community and their party’s county-wide austerity programme. County Council Members have to juggle two potentially conflicting policies, supporting local service delivery and reducing service costs.

These tensions and conflicts are exacerbated by a diverse party political and multi-tiered local authority context that together create an adversarialism that makes meaningful and informed debate extraordinarily difficult. At the time of the study both Worcestershire County and Malvern Hills District Councils were Conservative controlled. However a Liberal Democrat councillor represented the electoral Division in which the community asset – a Youth Centre – is located. These tensions are not necessarily new. However, I would argue that the extent of the cynicism about, and mistrust between, citizens and politicians and the decision making processes are. As a candidate in the recent local elections where turn out for the Division was a paltry 26%, I felt citizen anger and frustration at first hand.

Multi tiered local authority structures and the opportunity they present for political point scoring add to the challenges of decommissioning and the tensions between localism and wider strategic priorities. Perceptions and priorities differ at a locality and county level. Services and buildings have different associations for local communities who may recognise the rationale for changing the former but are reluctant to let go of the latter. Distanced leaders of county authorities need to understand the local community story better and find ways of engaging constituents in dialogue if the decommissioning of physical assets and services is not to become a battle ground for localism versus strategic policy making or party politics.

Questions about the fit between local authority decision making processes and citizen participation in service delivery also emerge. Local community groups are expected to demonstrate behaviours and ways of working that model the local authority’s way of working and that potentially undermine the very flexible, informal and organic approach that engaged local people in the first place. The facilitative role adopted by local authority officers in this case suggests that they are adapting to this new scenario. Council processes and how elected members use them, however, still appear to be in need of reform.

The study offers some interesting insights into citizen participation and representative democracy. The community group in the study forge their own path. They utilise local government processes, but only in so far as working with the representative system of democracy will enable them to achieve their objectives. That they operate “without” rather than “within” the system suggests we are seeing the emergence (or re-emergence?) of a model of citizen participation that poses a challenge to prevailing behaviours and practices; members of a local community directly representing themselves and assuming community leadership and service delivery roles divorced from the structures and institutions of the state.

The real challenge facing the state is how to marry, and potentially harness, citizen participation which is predominantly protest based, localised and issue specific with local democratic processes which aim to balance a wider range of policy and political interests.


Cathy Jackson-Read is an experienced facilitator and organisational development consultant who has worked at strategic and operational levels with a variety of statutory service providers, regional and sub-regional agencies and voluntary and community organisations, to enable cross sector liaison and collaborative working. Cathy currently works as a senior manager with Onside Independent Advocacy, a Worcester based charity providing services and support to vulnerable and disadvantaged adults. She also recently stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate in the Worcestershire County Council elections and leads the local party’s Adult Health and Social Care Group.

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