This post is based on a provocation which I posed at INLOGOV’s recent Summer Symposium. It is an attempt to move on the conversation about engagement between local government, other public institutions, citizens and communities.
It is unlikely that anyone attending the Symposium – or indeed, probably reading the INLOGOV blog – has not had a conversation about either the desire or difficulty of re-connecting government and other public institutions with local communities and citizens. We may agree that this is an important conversation to have, but why is it one that we keep having? Why despite years of this issue being high on the policy agenda and the subject of so much academic research, why does it feel like little has changed?
A common response is that this lack of change is the fault of citizens: there is little appetite from citizens to engage, they are apathetic.
What is often neglected, is that apathy (which we could question in and of itself) is generative, it is a response to opportunities to participate which are often what Arnstein calls ‘empty rituals’ but it is also caused by a repeated undermining of citizens’ sense of agency and efficacy: as one activist said to me recently, ‘we felt we were being done to, over and over again’.
The reason that many of the attempts to ‘re-connect’ that come from local government feel stale, over- and misused, cynically applied, ineffective, and superficial; is because they often are, it is an appropriate reaction.
So how can we shift the conversation, using the words of Archon Fung, what are the ‘vision and grammar’ of alternative ways to re-connect: what are the principles and design that may move the conversation on a different way?
We may want to think about:
- Principles: how do we see democracy and accountability working in localism, it is about building consensus or allowing space for contesting power and creating alternatives? What are the underlying values that we are seeking to advance? What kind of world do we want to create?
- Intermediaries (boundary spanners, civic entrepreneurs, community organisers, deliberative practitioners, active citizens, 21st century public servants): who are those individuals who are able to build ‘vital coalitions’ to make things happen and get things done in neighbourhoods and communities? How can we support and facilitate their work?
- Organisational change: How can we challenge a culture in local government that often struggles to let go, where officers and members thinks they’re in charge, second guesses, patronises the public, but also to find a starting point for a conversation that resonates with people?
- Institutional design: What are the democratic potentialities in institutional design? Do we need to start with a perfect design or can we work it out along the way? Can we mix, match and merge?
- Tools: Can a different medium be a different message? Can using spatial or visualisation tools, geo-apps help to change the parameters of the conversation and let citizens shout a little louder?
How can we use these different ideas to go from the inspiring, yet marginal, to the ‘new normal’?
Related blogs from the Summer Symposium can be read here
Dr Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer in INLOGOV and Director of Research for the SChool of Government and Society at the University of Birmingham. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, ‘Re-thinking public policy: why co-production matters?’ for Policy Press.