The case for civic and democratic engagement

The benefits for local government and combined authorities

Local government has much to gain from democratic engagement and citizen participation in devolution. In particular:

  • Help bring disengaged citizens back into the democratic process. The UK has been suffering from a decline in democratic involvement, particularly in terms of participation in elections. Effective engagement in devolution can help to reverse this trend.
  • Empower residents. 69% of citizens think it is important to feel they can influence decisions in their local area.
  • Support the development of locally focused devolution agreements that are informed by citizens and are better suited to the strengths, needs and aspirations of local people.
  • Help improve service design and outcomes. Public services that are shaped by citizens can potentially lead to improvement, in terms of effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Help increase legitimacy. Areas with devolved powers that develop a track record of civic and democratic engagement will help build trust and credibility between residents and government.

The view of councils

Cornwall Council said that "citizen engagement has to move away from simple validation to become an opportunity for people to actively influence and shape the priorities that councils set, with a healthy and mutually reinforcing balance between representative and participatory democracy".

Birmingham Council have said that "Ultimately, the whole point of devolution is to enable more powerful and influential local citizens".

Councils involved in devolution have reflected on lessons learned so far:

  • Many areas recognise that they have had to work to timescales not conducive to effective civic and democratic engagement and would encourage areas to start engagement as early as possible, so as to enable citizens to influence the shape first (and subsequent) deals.
  • Some areas noted that the most successful methods of engagement were those set 'in informal and interactive settings.' This made the process more accessible, less intimidating and represented a 'real world' setting.
  • Councils and combined authorities often know what approaches work best in their areas and will have existing local partnership structures that they can access. For example, Liverpool City Region issued a communications toolkit across the combined authority area and co-ordinated activity around this. However, each authority adapted the toolkit to fit their area and engaged citizens and staff in a manner that suited their organisation.
  • Areas have observed that deal negotiations can be highly technical and cover a large number of specialised areas. They would encourage careful consideration to be given to how and when citizens are engaged and the level of detail given to ensure that citizens can make informed contributions that realistically influence the process.
  • Areas recognise that effective civic and democratic engagement can sometimes be resource intensive. They would encourage engagement to be 'designed in' to devolution programme plans and work streams.

What has been done so far?

There are lots of examples of effective civic and democratic engagement that areas can learn from, outside of the devolution agenda. For example, many councils have changed their commissioning practices to give citizens more say in local service delivery including: shaping new contracts by commissioning for outcomes and incorporating co-production. Some areas, have allocated budgets to local councillors through 'Community Chest' funds. These typically consist of funds of around £2,000 from which councillors make local grants to assist projects run by voluntary and community groups in their areas. In some of the districts in Cornwall councillors use participatory budgeting with local people to decide how the Community Chest is spent.

Some combined authorities have already put in place approaches to civic and democratic engagement including:

  • Extensive consultation exercises prior to their devolution deals being agreed. These have involved a combination of on and off-line approaches, such as crowdsourcing which enabled people to comment, give ideas and vote on the implementation of devolution deals.
  • Developing structures to support engagement with residents including new devolution teams to formalise the process of engagement with community groups. For example, Cornwall Council's Communities and Devolution team focuses on the process of 'double devolution', from the County to communities and residents.
  • Developing the role that citizens play in scrutiny – giving a community perspective to inform decisions made by the combined authority and strengthening accountability. Some areas are exploring the use of 'open data' scrutiny toolkits for neighbourhoods and 'walking meetings' to involve residents in their Scrutiny Committees, both of which are methods inspired by guidance on governance from the Centre for Public Scrutiny.