A number of books have been written in the past year warning of the demise of liberal democracy, particularly pointing to the rise of populism and “illiberal democracies” around the world. In the UK, the EU referendum has revealed some deep divisions within society and a palpable sense of lack of control.
Quite simply at the moment, democracy is not working as it should. Decision-makers are struggling to get things done. People are frustrated the system isn’t working for them. People everywhere are feeling divided, distrustful and powerless.
This is particularly an issue within our national politics, but it also affects our local democracy. Only 27% of people feel influential over decision-making locally according to the Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement.
Many of these issues are not particularly new. There were no halcyon days where everyone felt powerful and trusted government. But while this was sustainable within times of rising living standards, there is good reason to believe that the public’s tolerance is wearing thin in an era of austerity and low growth. Democracy relies on people feeling a sense of agency, otherwise the legitimacy of institutions and the decisions they make are undermined.
While the outlook may seem bleak, things can be different. We can learn a lot from the approaches local governments are taking around the world to reconnect with residents. Here are just a few examples.
Participatory budgeting has been used across the globe by local governments to give residents control over local spending and help to unlock other assets in the community. Currently, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon and New York are among the cities worldwide running significant participatory budgeting processes. In 2017, 168,000 Parisians voted in their participatory budget, allocating a total of €92 million to projects from greening Paris to supporting migrants and the homeless.
Citizens’ juries bring together groups of randomly-selected, but demographically representative, residents to learn about an issue, deliberate among themselves and then reach recommendations for decision-makers. They are used regularly at a local and regional level in Australia and Canada to help politicians address complex and challenging issues. A four-month citizens’ jury with 100 randomly selected people was held in the City of Greater Geelong to address the question - "How do we want to be democratically represented by a future council?". It made 13 recommendations to the State Government of Victoria, which adopted 12.
Citizens initiatives enable decision-makers to tap into the priorities of their residents by giving communities the power to propose new laws or programmes in their local area. The City of Madrid has a citizens’ initiative process which allows residents to make proposals to the City Council. Any proposal that receives support from over 1% of the population is put to a public vote. If a proposal receives a majority of support, the City Council commits to publish their plan to accomplish the proposal and residents can track its progress.