In 2019, mySociety was involved in several projects working with local councils around using participatory or deliberative democracy to address a local issue (Public Square and the Innovations in Democracy Programme). Something that kept coming up at the fringes of these projects were the political considerations that led councils to find the idea of alternate forms of democracy appealing in the first place.
Understanding more about this seemed important to the future spread of these ideas, and so as part of the Public Square project, we set out to find out how local councillors viewed ‘new’ forms of democracy, and how these views varied by the political situation of the councils and of the councillors themselves.
Using a survey of local councillors, we tried to learn about different awareness and attitudes towards deliberative or participative exercises. We found that partisan and structural factors shape the perceptions of local representatives of citizen participation, and a wide-range of views among local councillors. Some were supportive of more weight being put on citizen participation, while others argued that if decisions are made by elected councillors there is someone to hold accountable. Both awareness and support for participatory methods increased if there was local experience of an exercise. Even opposition councillors tended to be quite supportive (76%) of participatory processes when run by the current leadership of the council.
Where there is more disagreement was in how the outcome of processes should be handled. Very few councillors favour approaches where the result is authoritative or binding. Councillors in councils where there is no one party with an overall majority are more likely to give greater weight to participatory exercises (59%) than those where there is a single party majority (38%). Every policy area except Children’s Social Care had over 50% acceptance that a participatory exercise could be appropriate. Programmes related to environment and cultural programmes rated highly, while programmes concerning social care scored lower. For all categories except planning and public health, councillors rated these activities as more appropriate if their council had previously engaged in such an exercise.
Overall, this survey told us that councillors make personal evaluations of participatory exercises based on a mix of political and practical factors. While there is a tension between participatory and representative democratic structures, in practice this tension can lead to a variety of outcomes. The success or failure of future participation requires understanding about how this tension affects not just the form of deliberative exercises, but how results will be interpreted and implemented.
Image: Lucas Benjamin