Watering the seed of a stronger local democracy

By Carl Whistlecraft | 28 June 2017
Updated: 20 July 2017

Over the past year, the all-party Kirklees Democracy Commission has debated how to strengthen local democracy with citizens and others. It has heard evidence from more than 1,000 participants, including citizens, community organisations, young people and councillors across Kirklees.

Leading figures country-wide also took part. Some 43 witnesses gave evidence during a series of public inquiries and evidence-gathering sessions and several other councils gave evidence.

The commission’s report includes ideas for working with active citizens and making the most of digital technologies and culture; suggestions about councillors, decision-making and elections; and ideas about how we can get local voices heard in regional devolution. These recommendations could help shape how both local and national democracy could develop over the next decade.

Early engagement activities included public events where citizens could discuss their ideas and experiences, an e-panel for gathering residents’ views and discussion groups with local organisations.

These activities revealed an appetite from citizens for getting more involved in local democracy and particularly in decision-making. The commission also heard a strong message that councils must communicate better and help to build capacity in our communities if we want more citizens to be able to participate and actively engage.

The commission’s report, Growing a stronger local democracy, from the ground up, has several key themes and proposals which have implications for local democracy beyond the boundaries of Kirklees.

Active citizens in civic society

In Kirklees, we are seeking to make the idea of active citizenship a shared goal. We want to work with our partners in wider civic society and take shared responsibility for supporting and developing active citizens. Young citizens will be pivotal to the redesign of local democracy and if we can develop a lifelong approach to active citizenship, young people will have a much greater stake in civic society.

Councils often only engage with citizens when they have problems or challenges.

Local democracy in a networked society

Digital technologies enable ordinary citizens to get their voices heard and to create social good through collaboration. Strong relationships can be built both online and offline.

The Democracy Commission strongly supports the notion of networked citizens (not customers), moving away from a purely transactional online relationship to one that encourages active citizens. There are opportunities for councils and councillors to work with existing civic networks and active citizens online.

However, to be a useful participant in these local networks, we need to improve our democratic information and make it more accessible and relevant for our citizens.

Councillors

The role of councillor continues to change and is now more about being an enabler, a change-maker, a networked leader and more. The commission has learned that citizens very much misunderstand the role. We need to provide more support for councillors so they can work more effectively with the citizens and the communities they represent, in their wards. Also, fewer people want to become councillors. Attracting the next generation of councillors should be a priority for which political parties need to take responsibility.

Decision-making

Councillors make decisions that affect every aspect of people’s lives. Public consultation needs to have a stronger focus on genuine dialogue and engagement with citizens on an ongoing basis.

Citizens need a menu of options for how they can get involved in decisions, so we can gain knowledge and insight beyond ‘the usual suspects’.

It is vital for citizens to know how decisions are made and not just what those decisions are, as this helps to build trust. Our meetings also need to be more engaging. We need to say: ‘We’re open for business and you’re welcome’.

Elections

Recommendations include early registration of young citizens and providing better information on candidates (especially about ‘where they stand’).

Based on the overall evidence, the commission believes the Government should legislate to lower the voting age to 16. Councils also need to do more to tell the story of why local democracy matters and to improve people’s understanding of the local political system and its importance.

Regional devolution

If devolution is done well, it can provide opportunities and potential solutions to the challenges we face. However, devolution must be rooted in local communities and we need to get away from the top-down, economic focus of regional devolution.

Local identity matters to our citizens. We need a democratically accountable and transparent kind of devolution which has relevance for our towns and villages and the citizens who live there.

The report will be launched at the University of Huddersfield tomorrow marking the beginning of the practical work to redesign local democracy in Kirklees.

The commission has already seen strong interest from organisations and citizens who would like to get involved and it is keen to start bringing the innovative ideas from this report to life.

Carl Whistlecraft is head of democracy at Kirklees Council

For more information about the Kirklees Democracy Commission, to watch the launch event live or to review the evidence for yourself, visit here 

You can also find the Democracy Commission on twitter: @kirkdemocracy

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