Strengthening democracy and participation: routes to re-connection and engagement – a provocation

Catherine Durose

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


duroseDr 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.




Re-valuing The Public

Teresa L. Córdova

When we are on the ground getting the policies implemented, or perhaps even making the policies, we focus on doing what we can get done. One of our first questions is, “what are the constraints, the limits of what is possible (or probable), given current fiscal conditions, regulatory structures, or political dynamics.” In focusing on getting done what is more likely in our power to influence, we might also make the decision to leave the more difficult – or nearly unattainable – goals behind. Working under conditions of limited government resources, our focus might be to accept the constraints of the “changing times” and focus our efforts on budgets, minimizing as much as we can, cuts to vital services. We might implement strategies for “efficiency,” introduce new technologies, or shift organizational structures. We work with what we got; we adapt; we innovate. As politician, as manager, as innovator, as activist, we act with the best of intentions. It makes sense; it is a way for good-minded people to be engaged, to contribute.

Does it also make sense to evaluate our choices to engage in these ways? Does it make sense to ask about the implications of given actions as to whether they contribute to solutions or unintentionally exacerbate the problems? How might our choices with respect to local governance, for example, strengthen or weaken our mechanisms to govern ourselves in ways that promote the collective good? Because if we look closer, we can make the connection between the conditions that exist at the level of local governance (i.e. insufficient revenue and decreasing ability to deliver) as part and parcel of the same set of dynamics that are creating disparities that threaten the foundational fabric of our communities.

Though we may be at the ground level attempting to sustain both the public sector and its value to local governance, we might remember that the cuts to public sector budgets didn’t just happen. There are economic interests that with their power have directed wealth to themselves through tax and regulatory policies – thus depleting the revenue base of the public while adding to its costs. The concentrated wealth does not however, make its way to job creation and shared benefits. Instead, anti-government rhetoric makes government itself the scapegoat and further erodes the public’s belief that government should be valued. All of this makes way, for the further privatization of government functions and policies that serve, not the public interest necessarily, but the drive for generating profit through the administration of those functions, e.g. prison industrial complex in the U.S.

Under conditions of our stewardship with its limited power, how might we sharpen our abilities to get at the root cause for the conditions we face, perhaps change, but at least not make worse? We might ask, does our approach to democracy and local governance strengthen the collective good or take us to the door of furthering the demise of the public sector, or more to the point – the public’s commitment to itself. Hopefully, the desire to salvage from what is possible does not deliver us deeper into the entrenched logic of furthering the concentration and centralization of power, decision-making and wealth. The choices that we make in how to address conditions of reduced revenue streams, new technology and pressures for privatization will either reinforce the very forces that create those conditions – or challenge them. We need to pay attention to our policy choices, their logical extension and their implications. Articulating values of the collective good, making way for multiple stakeholders, working in coalitions and partnering with citizen organizations are among the strategies that we can employ to re-create – and strengthen the public, for the public.



Teresa L. Córdova, Ph.D. is Professor in Urban Planning and Director of The Great Cities Institute, representing UIC’s Great Cities Initiative and commitment to its Urban Mission.  Professor Córdova is an applied theorist and political economist whose focus is community development and Latino Studies.  She approaches her work as a scholarship of engagement in which her research, pedagogy and service are integrated.  She studies the impacts of globalization on Latino communities with particular interest in global/local dynamics.  Throughout the span of her academic career, Professor Córdova has engaged with communities outside the university and is an expert in community/university partnerships.

Democracy in The Circle: a route to reconnection and engagement?

Frank Hendriks

One of the theme’s at INLOGOV’s 2014 summer symposium is “Strengthening democracy and participation: routes to re-connection and engagement.” One of the possible routes is tellingly sketched in Dave Eggers’s recent novel The Circle (2013).

I will not try to summarize this rich, dystopian novel which is in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, brimming with ideas as well as fears. The vision of democracy presented in The Circle is what I focus on here. It is called ‘demoxie’, and it might be a better prediction of future democracy than many theorists would think.

In the book, demoxie is quite typically introduced as a hitherto unthought-of ‘next step’ in a development process. It starts with the idea to make everyone with a Circle account automatically a registered voter. In the brave new world of The Circle, virtually everyone has such an account, as it is the merger of all other accounts. Think of Google, Twitter, Facebook, and all that coming together in one big company, with a monopoly on the internet and all connected data. One of the company founders, Bailey, first sees this as an opportunity to perfect electoral democracy, to close ‘the circle’ between electors and elected so to speak. “Now think,” he says at a company meeting, “if we can get closer to full participation in all elections (…) As we know here at the Circle, with full participation comes full knowledge. We know what Circlers want because we ask (…) if we observe the same model nationally, electorally, then we can get very close, I think, to 100 percent participation. One hundred percent democracy.”

There is applause, but the fatal heroine of the book, Mae Holland, has a brainwave and suggests to take the whole thing one step further. Why not oblige everyone to vote? “Everyone would agree that 100 percent participation is the ideal.” Until the requested vote has been cast, a circle account will simply be blocked. “And then we can take the temperature of everyone at any time.” The developers at the firm are so excited that within a week they have a beta version of what now is called ‘demoxie’ – “It’s democracy with your voice, and your moxie. And it’s coming soon.” The first try-out question is “Should we have more veggie options at lunch?” In no time the demoxie result appears: “75% of respondents want more veggie options. More veggie options will be provided.” The company’s founders are excited, they want more of these direct votations and promise to implement the majority ‘moxie’ within a day. Demoxie would be the best shot at ‘pure’, direct democracy the world ever had.

Is this unreal ‘science-fiction’, completely detached from our world? I don’t think so. Like everything in The Circle, demoxie is a radical extrapolation of developments already visible. It’s actually quite close to what the Five Star Movement, one of Italy’s biggest parties nowadays, envision. It’s very close to what pirate parties around the world call ‘liquid feedback’ – heeding the voice of constituencies on a permanent basis, feeding it back directly to political processes at hand. It’s an extrapolation of consumer polls, internet surveys, facebook counts, and the like, now with the promise of swift take-up, and response rates that can hardly be ignored.

I see ‘demoxie’ as a radicalized version of what I call, less poetically, ‘voter democracy’. I tried to give it due attention in my book ‘Vital Democracy’, but quite honestly it needs much more. Democratic theory is traditionally focused on the distinction between Westminster (indirectly-aggregative) and consensus (indirectly-integrative) democracy. More recently the attention has been extended to communicative and deliberative democracy of the directly-integrative type. Surely, these are routes to re-connection and engagement, and we should continue to study them. However, we should also realize that these routes are followed more often in theory than in practice. Democratic theorists are intrigued by experiments with mini-publics, deliberation days, and the like, but the wider public quite often just prefers to quickly vote, and see their votes aggregated directly and efficiently.

There is not only a popular pull in this direction, but also a strong technological push, which are two reasons to take this other, directly-aggregative, route to re-connection and engagement more seriously than we do. Because whether we like it or not as democratic theorists, it is here to stay and it is bound to grow.


Frank Hendriks is full professor and research director at the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, and co-director of the Demos-Center for Better Governance and Citizenship at Tilburg University. His current research is focused on the design and quality of democratic governance – on political leadership and active citizenship, on public decision-making and participation, on reform and innovation in democratic institutions – at the level of the city and the state at large. Frank is also a Fellow at the Montesquieu Institute in the Hague and Visiting Fellow at St Edmunds College, Cambridge University.

Building communities to bridge the gap

Daniel Goodwin

England is around halfway through significant reductions in public expenditure and heading for a ‘new normal’ at much lower levels, whilst seeing demographic and other pressures rise. Local Government is currently projected to see a £10.5bn funding drop between 2010
and 2020. Pressures on services are projected to rise by around £6bn, resulting in a £16.5bn total gap, under-resourcing services by around 30%. This average masks a wide variation – the LGA predicts that some of the poorest areas are projected only to be around 55% funded by 2020, whilst some shire districts will be 100% funded.

This shortfall is highly unlikely to be closed by efficiencies, voluntary redundancies, shared services, linking up with other parts of the public sector, outsourcing, or other changes on the supply side alone. New ways of thinking about the demand for public services are therefore needed. This challenge is political because it derives from what politicians and the media consider to be an acceptable level of taxation and the public service priorities of the national government; and it is cultural because it reflects the changing assumptions that people make about what it means to be a citizen, our overlapping roles as patients, taxpayers and citizens, and the ability of public service institutions to completely reconsider how they operate.

For ‘the gap’ is actually in the operation of society as a whole and what constitutes public service need. In looking to unlock resources to bridge the gap we should not just think of local government finance, but of the wide range of financial, logistical and human capital resources available in the public, private and civic spheres of society. That means that we cannot consider local government, or even public services in isolation, but we need to think more widely about the social contract and to look at what everyone’s contribution ought to be to the community. It’s a clear choice: personal tax to pay for services or time spent to build more resilient communities that need lower public service levels.

The big question for the future is therefore not simply about public services. In fact, there is a range of questions we need to answer about the deal between people and state. Who is really talking about it? How does it translate into personal, household, neighbourhood, city, regional or societal rights, responsibilities and realities? What are the respective (and respected) mandates of politicians at the national, regional and local level? How does all this relate to ideas of a good life in a good community in a good place? If it works at the individual level why should I engage at all? Isn’t that what politicians should be stewards of? Can we use the democratic system and the resources of the community to change the point at which publicly funded services intervene? Are we scared of having a view about what ‘good’ means, or of having a debate in a pluralist culture on what our underpinning societal values are?

Local government has a vital role to play in shaping this debate. For the responsibility for the development of a new discourse on the strengths, warp and weft of a community and its public service needs (and responsibilities) must surely be with its leaders and set within the political mandate. I consider that this mandate should logically extend to all public services and other activities that impinge on the locality.

Such a mandate also carries with it the responsibility to ensure that a community is in turn playing its part in wider society. A traditional view of the role of the politician is one of holding public services to account on behalf of the community. And yet the value of what people should be bringing through their own strengths and abilities, to benefit the common good, suggests that there is a need for politicians to engage in new ways and to develop a dialogue with the community to hold it to account too. That is the trickier dimension of the political mandate, one which is perhaps understated. It is a very tall order for the many politicians of goodwill who came into local politics to sort out bad planning decisions or because they were the only one prepared to be a communication link with the council.

These thoughts point me towards some new form of social settlement based upon ideas of community and prosperity, which is adaptive, emergent, co-produced, strength- or asset-based, and where local government is not a byword for the dead hand of bureaucracy. This cannot be a technocratic solution – it requires astute political and managerial leadership which helps to form truly meaningful communities that play their part in national life, and public services which support the development of social strengths rather than papering over the gap.

Know your local Councillor Photographs - St Albans - May 2008

Daniel Goodwin’s career has mainly been in local government, starting in libraries and cultural services and progressing through policy and corporate services. He is particularly interested in policy into practice issues, largely relating to local leadership and the politics of communities and place, and is a regular contributor to journals, conferences and seminars. Daniel was chief executive of St Albans City & District Council for 2006 to 2012 where he oversaw significant corporate improvements and budget reductions. He was Executive Director of Finance & Policy at the Local Government Association from January 2013 to March 2014, where he oversaw the LGA’s Rewiring Public Services campaign and the refinement of its public finance strategies. He is currently on sabbatical having decided to return to an operational leadership role and is pursuing personal projects, consultancy assignments and writing. He plans to return to a chief executive role in 2014.



Towards a people-centred language of demand management

Gavin Jones

I’m regularly asked to make presentations to groups of people (the last one being to 22 Deputy Lord Lieutenants!) to set out the issues and opportunities facing local government in the light of increasingly painful budget cuts. Of the pictorial slides I use to tell the story, the one guaranteed to have the greatest impact and make people hold their heads in their hands and mutter depressing words of despair is my ‘motivational’ slide that alarmingly shows demand outstripping resources at a frightening pace – often known as the ‘’ or ‘Map of Misery’.

I’ve often thought that the word demand in this context seems very impersonal and almost dehumanising, whereas what lies behind much of this demand are real people, many of whom are vulnerable and in need of our help. When I am in need (and it is possible my time will come) will I simply be an input to someone’s demand curve? An unhelpful driver of financial pressure? Or instead could I be seen and valued as a human being with capabilities but also in need of some help and support? This, I believe, is the danger of expressing difficult financial circumstances in impersonal corporate speak. Too often the emotionless language of costs and reducing budgets facilitates a culture that ignores or forgets that at the heart of this technically phrased conundrum are human beings – increasing numbers of whom find themselves at the heart of diminishing resources.

This use of de-personalised language, with the current issues often only framed as a financial problem, creates enormous and unnecessary organisational conflict which puts the bureaucrats (tasked with the corporate objective of cutting spend) at odds with the service professionals. One sees it as a financial problem, the other a social one. A dangerous knock-on effect of this is the internal friction that is caused with the resentment of other Council departments that see themselves as financial victims of ‘uncontrolled’ spend by the demand-led services.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that bureaucrats (financial or otherwise) are any less caring or empathetic towards the plight of vulnerable people, but a more intelligent use of language and a considered framing for tackling the issue of rising demand and reducing resources, is more likely to build a sense of organisational collaboration to tackle real issues of how public services can continue to help people to cope with vulnerability with more dignity and independence.

Doesn’t it feel better to talk about the need for organisational change in terms of how a smaller state can be more creative in helping people to age well and to retain their dignity and capability, rather than with a negative rhetoric of cuts and declining spend? I think the former is so much more engaging and invites us to think creatively and positively as opposed to the more defeatist approach of reducing spend and squashing demand.

At the end of the day, using a more people-centred language and approach to ‘managing demand’ is far more likely to result in the design of collaborative sustainability solution to support an ageing population that ‘how do we get the money out and fast?’!


Gavin joined Swindon Borough Council (SBC) in 2004, having previously worked in a variety of private sector organisations and market sectors and has been Chief Executive since 2006. Gavin was listed as one of the top 50 New Radicals in the Sunday Observer’s national campaign for Britain’s most innovative leaders and voted one of the most influential leaders in Local Government. Gavin is a Board Member of the national think tank the New Local Government Network, (NLGN), a Trustee of the Prospect Hospice, a Board Director of Forward Swindon Ltd and a Board Director of SOLACE Enterprises,.