Points of View 1st December 2018

Discussions on developing participation in local government

by Andreas Pavlou

Many open government innovations and reforms across the world happen at the local level – a level that is much closer to the citizen and is critical in delivering public services.

Recognising this, the OGP Local Program aims at harnessing the innovation and momentum demonstrated by local governments and civil society partners across the world. Their commitments help to make the local level more open, inclusive and responsive, modeling the values and principles of the Open Government Declaration and processes.

Scotland is an active member of the OGP Local Program, and is close to completing its second action plan. That is not to say that the rest of the UK is left behind. Wales is developing its own action plan for open government, and DCMS’ Innovations in Democracy programme seeks to find ways of involving citizens in decision making at the local level through innovative models of participatory democracy, particularly in England.

Public Square, Manchester

Earlier this month, democracy activists took part in the first meeting of Public Square – a programme of research and action to push forward participation in local government across the UK – to share good examples of what is already going on at the local level in participatory democracy, explore the challenges that remain and think about what is needed to make participation easier and more meaningful.

These discussions in Manchester provided food for thought about where we were at the moment, the kinds of things people found interesting, and what examples from around the UK could be used to inspire change elsewhere. Participants shared the vision for more transparent, participatory and accountable local institutions. The question now, is how to get there.

CONSULCon18, Madrid

On 22-24 November, global participation and democracy activists and practitioners came together at CONSULCon18 – two days of collaborative work and technical conferences around CONSUL, the largest participation platform in the world based on Ruby on Rails.

This is the same free and open source software pioneered by Madrid city council, and now in place in over 100 jurisdictions worldwide. As a tool, CONSUL has allowed cities across the world to develop processes that put decisions around urban infrastructure into the hands of citizens, the budget of the city or priorities in municipal management.

At CONSULCon18 in particular, we heard from participatory democracy practitioners from around Europe, learnt how cities are putting participation at the core of implementing their SDG agendas, and practical examples of successful implementation of participatory methods at the city and regional levels – including examples came from Ireland, Oregon, South America, Spain, South Korea and Somali.

What can be learnt from all this?

Local government in the UK has a lot to do to catch up with developments elsewhere in the world when it comes to democracy and citizen engagement. Cities around the world are already experimenting with different methods to increase and enhance citizen participation using offline and online tools for deliberation, direct democracy and participatory budgeting. And in many cases, they are succeeding in transforming their cities and empowering their citizens. Could you imagine a UK city giving its citizens direct control over £100m worth of public spending? That is exactly what is happening already in Madrid, Paris and elsewhere around the world.

The timely introduction of DCMS’ Innovations in Democracy programme can help to bring the local level in the UK to the forefront in reforming local decision making. If UK cities and local authorities are transformed so they are open, transparent, inclusive and responsive to their citizens, they will go a long way in winning back trust from citizens and dealing with the issues they find most important. It might not be appropriate for cities to copy what is done abroad, but inspiration for bold action should be taken and implemented so that cities can give back to citizens the control over their local areas in ways that fit the 21st century.

We do not know yet what we might see come out of these innovative methods and reforms, but there is much inspiration already out there. Next year promises to be an interesting period ahead for developing more open local government in the UK!