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.

Budget cuts, outsourcing, council mergers: 12,000 miles travelled, but Cornwall’s ex-CE will find plenty that’s familiar

Chris Game

Even allowing for local government’s legendary Stakhanovite working practices, the sector can’t usually manage that many hot news stories on Christmas Eve, so you do tend to notice them, especially if they contain a strand of possible personal interest. I remember well, then, the BBC’s announcement this past Christmas Eve that Cornwall Council CE, Kevin Lavery, had accepted a five-year appointment as CE of Wellington City Council and would be moving to New Zealand to take up the post in March – oh yes, at an annual salary of NZ$400,000, which converted then into £203,000, but today into £219,000 (I note irritably).

The reason (for my remembering, not for his moving) was that I happened to know that England’s cricketers would be playing the second Test Match in their series against the New Zealanders at Wellington’s charming and historic Basin Reserve ground in March – and I was planning to watch it. How brilliant, I thought, if I could do a quick interview with Lavery, just a couple of weeks into his new job, about his first impressions, contrasts with Cornwall, etc. Unfortunately, it quickly turned out that – for, I have to concede, eminently good reasons – ‘March’ in fact meant 31st March, by which time I would be well back in the UK.

More recently – like this morning – it also turned out that the final day of the said Wellington Test Match would almost certainly be rained off. So, lacking anything better to do, I thought I’d report anyway on some of the stuff that the interview might have covered.
First, the contrasts and similarities. Wellington City has a population of 200,000 and the biggest of 9 and a bit elected councils (1 regional, 8 and a bit city and district – don’t ask!) in the Wellington region. The council has an elected mayor (currently Green), 14 councillors, employs 1,500 staff, and has a budget of NZ$400 million (£220 million).

Cornwall has a population of 535,000 and a 123-member council – roughly the number of councillors plus mayors in the whole Wellington region. The council employs 19,000 staff – not far short of NZ local government’s total employment – and has a budget of about £1 billion.

In short, Lavery’s new job represents an apparently significant drop in scale, but barely a drop at all in remuneration. I quoted his salary at the outset, partly because the NZ media (and possibly public) are at least as fascinated/obsessed with executive pay, pay-offs, etc. as ours are, but mainly because so far his financial cost is one of the very few things that most Wellingtonians, including most councillors, know about their new CE. He was head-hunted in a recruitment process that cost NZ$157,000, including NZ$12,000+ to fly him out for interview; he can claim up to NZ$40,000 removal costs, and is promised a ‘golden parachute’ payment of up to NZ$200,000, if the job disappears in the regional governmental reorganisation expected over the coming couple of years. As one councillor put it: “We don’t know what we’re getting, but he’s cost us a bomb to get and he’ll cost us a bomb if he goes”.

So it’s fair to say that his relations, initially at least, with some councillors could be as touchy as they were with some of those in Cornwall, where, it may be recalled, the Conservative leader, Alec Robertson, was deposed and plans for a massive Lavery-driven shared services joint venture project had to be halted after they’d failed to win majority councillor backing.

Reportedly, Lavery was first sounded out by the Wellington headhunters immediately following the leadership change and the resulting withdrawal of one of the two bidders for the shared service joint venture, leaving only BT, one of Lavery’s former employers. But whatever the detailed sequence of events, the reputation preceding him to Wellington has been that of a ‘Marmite (or perhaps Vegemite) bureaucrat’ – you either love him or loathe him – and one with an undisguised enthusiasm for privatising and outsourcing services.

From which you might suppose that the costly new appointment was perhaps a symbolic act on the part of a council whose leadership had recently taken a shift to the right, and was looking at one and the same time to signal its political authority and a major change in policy direction. You might, but you’d be quite wrong.

If party politics in Cornish local government is, by UK standards, relatively low-key, in Wellington – and indeed in NZ local government generally – it is barely visible and almost uninterpretable to the untrained eye. In the city’s 2010 local elections, only 3 of the 14 successful candidates had stood openly under party labels (2 Labour and 1 Green), and the Mayor, elected for the first time (like councillors, for a three-year term), though a Green party member, had campaigned as an Independent.

Celia Wade-Brown’s election as Mayor seemed to surprise her almost as much as it did pretty well everyone else. Born and brought up in England, she came to NZ only in her late twenties, and, with little prior public warning, decided in 2010 not to recontest her council seat, but instead to challenge the high-profile mayoral incumbent, Kerry Prendergast, seeking her fourth term of office. In the STV election, Prendergast was a comfortable 6% ahead after the count of first preference votes, was still ahead on the second, third and fourth counts, but was overtaken by Wade-Brown on the fifth and final count by just 176 out of more than 60,000 votes cast.

The mayoral and councillor results combined were interpreted as representing at least a modest move towards the centre-left, but if voters were looking for a significant leftward policy swing, most must have been disappointed. Indeed, the CE appointment, involving as it did the personally humiliating dismissal of the former CE after 15 years and for apparently nothing very particular, was one of the few visible signs of an intended change of direction. As far as the 2013/14 Draft Annual Plan and budget is concerned, the headlines must look as familiar to Wellington electors as they do to us: large-scale savings (NZ$240 million over 10 years), necessitating service cuts, job losses, increases in fees and charges, and ongoing outsourcing.

A major reason for Lavery not taking up his post until the end of the month is that there are three important events taking place between now and then, the consequences of which will take up a sizeable chunk of his in-tray. One is the Council vote on 27th March to approve the Draft Annual Plan, detailing the Council’s work programme and proposed rate and fee increases, following which it will, as required, go out for a month’s public consultation, before coming back to the Council for final approval in June.
This year’s Draft Plan cuts council spending by NZ$9 million and proposes a rate (property tax) increase of 2.8%, and several of the detailed cuts especially are controversial: restricted library opening hours, increased parking charges, “changing the operating model” of the aquatic centre crèche (unsubtle euphemism there!), reduced grants to the Zoo Trust and ‘Positively Wellington Tourism’. All can, of course, and doubtless will be compared to the new CE’s salary.

Before that, on 21st March, another public consultation begins – on three options for local government reform across the whole Wellington region. Two of the three are alternative ‘super city’ models, as favoured by the regional reform working party. The third is a minimally modified status quo, added by the Mayor and councillors who oppose a super-city solution and argue that the public should be presented with a wider-ranging choice. Lavery will be on familiar territory here.

Also on 21st March Wellington councillors vote again on the national Transport Agency’s proposal for a 300-metre long, 9-metre high concrete flyover to ease the perpetual congestion round the huge roundabout within which is situated the Basin Reserve cricket ground (where in fact I should be sitting at this moment). We cricket fans fear the flyover would seriously blight our spectating, to say nothing of its impact on hundreds of local residents. The Mayor – for whom almost any kind of road development is anathema – and a majority of councillors argue that the congestion can be resolved by a combination of other means. However, some of the Mayor’s phraseology is worrying. She talks rather vaguely of ‘fine-tuning’ the present roundabout, and of how Basin Reserve “must not be blighted by a naked block of concrete”, as if various forms of pleasingly attired concrete were available alternatives. And now there’s talk of a couple of the eight councillors who opposed the flyover in December maybe switching sides following a two-month council staff investigation. What a pity I couldn’t have given the new CE a short personal briefing on the issue.


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.