The buck stops where? By Chris Skelcher and Eric-Hans Klijn

14 Aug 08
Citizen empowerment is intended to complement local democracy, but the growth in partnerships can mean less involvement. Chris Skelcher and Eric-Hans Klijn explain how this circle could be squared

15 August 2008

Citizen empowerment is intended to complement local democracy, but the growth in partnerships can mean less involvement. Chris Skelcher and Eric-Hans Klijn explain how this circle could be squared

The year is 2010. Maggie Jones is an 'empowered' citizen, benefiting from legislation passed as a result of the 2008 Communities in control white paper. Last year, she attended an Active Citizenship Pathfinder Programme and took part in various consultations stimulated by councils' new duty to involve local people.

Recently, her local authority ran a campaign under its duty to promote local democracy. This encouraged her to stand for election as a councillor. Since winning her seat she has used the 'councillor call to action' to have local issues debated. She is now heavily involved in a participatory budgeting exercise with a neighbourhood council, shaping how spending will be allocated in the coming years.

But, somehow, many of the issues that constituents raise are just out of reach. Early years' education, social care for older people, reducing vandalism, regenerating the community and other issues all seem to be the responsibility of partnerships. The council is a member of these partnerships, but is only one of several players. As a councillor, Jones does not attend these meetings – it is left to officers. It's not clear to her how she can make things happen if the important decisions are out of reach.

Jones' concerns result from the way in which partnership working has become the norm for most areas of local public service. Our research in Birmingham shows that only 5% of the 311 members of partnerships were councillors. Officers, businesses and residents all have a voice, but the elected politician is rarely seen.

So does this mean that partnerships hinder local democracy by excluding those for whom citizens vote? Or does it open the door to new ways of making decisions that avoid the focus on political parties?

We recently studied partnership working in several European cities, and identified four ways in which partnerships relate to local democracy:

  • Complementary – creating new opportunities for involvement
  • Incompatible – undermining the authority of elected politicians
  • Transitional – a shift from representative government to new forms of deliberative democracy; and
  • Instrumental – giving politicians new tools through which to deliver their political priorities.

Partnerships complement representative democracy when they offer new and more inclusive arenas for citizens and service users to become involved in policy making and delivery.

The way partnerships are organised helps this process. Partnerships are usually unincorporated associations, that is, they lack a legal identity. As a result, they can be more flexible than a local authority in the ways they develop policy and make decisions. This flexibility means that citizens can be involved through different routes, and with the minimum of formality.

In Copenhagen, people talked about a partnership as a 'democratic nursery'. This was especially important in helping immigrants to understand the Danish form of democracy. Copenhagen's Integration Council, which advises the city council on its programmes for migrants, includes representatives elected by those communities.

They sit alongside people nominated by business organisations, sports and cultural clubs, and migration experts. The view is that this approach helps non-ethnic Danes to assimilate into the democratic norms of the country and so become good citizens.

On the other hand, partnerships can be incompatible with representative local government. Some councillors regard partnerships as undermining their authority and legitimacy, in particular where politicians are excluded from attendance. Partnerships create new local political communities, especially where – as in England's New Deal for Communities – there are elections for seats on the board. Their electoral legitimacy challenges that of local authority councillors, and confuses lines of accountability.

A third possibility is that we are seeing a transition from representative government to new approaches that reflect recent cultural, political and technological changes. In the Netherlands, experiments in 'interactive decision-making' between citizens and politicians can be seen as an evolution towards participative and deliberative democracy.

Participative democracy gives service users the right to make decisions, while deliberative democracy takes this one step further and suggests that careful, evidence-based debate can produce better decisions – as in the case of citizens' juries.

If there is a transition, this is not without its difficulties. Politicians are often ambiguous. In Rotterdam, city councillors have promoted new ways to involve citizens in debating choices. At the same time, they have been reluctant to use the results of these participative processes in decision-making, fearing it undermines their authority as elected representatives.

Finally, there might be an instrumental relationship between partnerships and local democracy. Partnerships provide a new mechanism through which elected politicians can realise their political objectives in a complex world. Bureaucracies were designed for a simpler world. Partnerships fit with the complexity of local governance, for example by co-opting stakeholders into the delivery of political objectives.

This can be observed when community leaders in Birmingham begin to speak the language of local government, and see the world in terms of outcomes, key performance indicators and bidding cycles. Partnerships enable elected politicians to influence public services at a distance.

What do these different models mean for Maggie Jones and the UK's other 20,000 councillors? First, partnerships have been introduced with little consideration of their impact on local democracy and the representation of citizens by councillors.

But, as we can see, they can have significant effects. These need to be understood if local democracy is to be strengthened and local representative government is not to be further undermined.

Second, each of these models suggests very different roles for citizens and service users. The incompatibility model suggests that, although citizens participate in public policy processes, their impact will be limited. Elected politicians ultimately make the decisions. This issue is clearly identified in the Dutch research.

Conversely, the complementary model suggests a stronger role for the public but raises questions about whether they become co-decision-makers with politicians. If so, this has significant implications for our system of local democracy.

The models also have implications for the role of officials. Traditionally, this is to gather and analyse data and make recommendations to elected councillors. Under the transitional model, managers become active players in reconfiguring the democratic processes from one where decisions are taken in politically headed public bureaucracies to more flexible structures.

National traditions seem to make a difference. In Copenhagen, there is no question that elected politicians are the ultimate decision-makers, despite extensive public involvement. It's less clear in Birmingham, where politicians have to influence partnerships at a distance.

And our colleagues in Belgium report that elected politicians and political parties have taken over partnerships, firmly anchoring them to local political processes. The Belgian case is particularly interesting. Because there are many layers of government in a small country, politicians become involved in all aspects of public policy. Partnerships are much more strongly rooted in local democratic processes than in England.

So for Jones, the challenge is to find ways of representing her local community when these issues have yet to be resolved, and are seldom explicitly discussed. It will be very difficult to increase public confidence in local government, or retain the commitment of new active citizens like Jones, until the relationship between partnerships and local democracy is fully debated and resolved.

Perhaps the solution is to follow Belgium's example and create more tiers of local government, and more opportunities for people to become elected politicians and engaged in partnerships, rather than fewer?

Chris Skelcher and Erik-Hans Klijn are professors, respectively, at the Institute of Local Government Studies (Inlogov), University of Birmingham and Erasmus University, Rotterdam. Their research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council


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