The much-anticipated Levelling Up white paper was published last month, and with it the Government’s apparent desire to maximise the potential of every part of the UK.
One of the biggest revelations is that local authorities will now have more power than ever in shaping their communities; but if this is truly to work, it’s vital that they form a close relationship with residents and consider their input to make the best-informed decisions.
Local democracy can be a catalyst for positive change. Local authorities rely on the feedback of their citizens to make meaningful suggestions for the community and direct services from green spaces to bin collections, schools to voting. This reliance is especially apparent as the 2022 local elections approach – at a time where voter turnout is low and local leaders express their desire for more people to get involved in their democratic right.
During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we started to see a surge in the community taking an active interest in local issues, particularly those keen to support efforts to bring supplies to vulnerable people, engage with their authorities on pressing matters like business grants, or rally for local organisations in need. Suddenly it was also easier for residents to take part in activities like council meetings, as they could be joined via video link.
Most of us will of course associate this with Jackie Weaver’s plight to wrangle the unruly parish council meeting, but this arguably played a key role in reminding people they do have a say in what goes on in their community.
That’s why I was sad to hear doubt has been cast over whether video meetings can continue – if we have accepted that employees can work anywhere (a revelation people with physical or other impairments have long known and been fighting for), then why should it just stop as quickly as it was able to be started? It did however make me think about other ways councils can rebuild excitement for local democracy in their communities, and why it dropped in the first place.
Trust is an issue that covers all of government and politics, including local government. Often, only verbal encouragement for people to take part in local democracy is not enough. A large part of reigniting this interest is building a sense of trust for citizens, by reintroducing local authorities as reliable and trustworthy.
That trust also needs to come from people believing a consultation – or a request for people’s time, input and opinions, will be acted upon or at least considered. One of the biggest criticisms levelled against governments is that consultations are a ‘tickbox exercise’ meaning opinions are being sought purely because there is a statutory requirement.
When things go wrong in their town, city or village, residents will often turn to council representatives as the direct source of blame, whether that is channelled through a social post or word-of-mouth. However, when the problem cannot be easily addressed, residents feel understandably disillusioned with the process of local democracy and doubtful that if they were to reach out that anything substantial would occur.
Nonetheless, there are clear signals that residents are keen to engage with local issues. A new research based on a YouGov survey commissioned by SocietyWorks, Citizen reporting in the UK 2022, shows an appetite among citizens to utilise reporting tools to draw attention to issues in their communities. The survey findings demonstrate that 48% of citizens want to know where reports should be sent and 38% want to receive progress updates of their reports.
Having a local authority reporting service that is easy-to-use and effective, is no longer just ‘nice to have’, it’s an expectation from citizens. For councils, the question is how to apply this increasing interest in local democracy into their actions moving forward.
That doesn’t mean that every consultation or conversation will bind an authority to enacting the wishes of the public. But it does mean they need to approach the issues with a somewhat open mind. If there are reasons something can’t be done, explain it.
So, how exactly can local authorities create a system which meets citizen expectations, encourages local participation, and regains trust in local government simultaneously?
A recent Local Authority report from think-tank Demos has emphasised the need for more support from the Government when it comes to the digital efforts of local authorities, including funding to aid communications abilities.
Councils should continue to search for ways they can better engage and interact with their residents, and a way to ensure residents are at the centre of local democracy is through introducing a consultation system.
Consultation systems work by enabling two-way discussions between local authorities and the community within a central platform dedicated to public engagement and collaboration. For residents, this is an interactive way in which to get involved in local democracy. For councils, the responses can guide research and give them the views to make data-led decisions.
Transferring some of the resident communications online can also empower the individual to express local concerns in a self-service option such as an online form, without the need to seek out the correct number and wait in a call queue; another benefit is that it can quickly reduce the number of inbound phone calls for council call centres.
These communications, when done properly, help provide clarity on where to go if there is an issue to report and how long one can expect to wait for a response or resolution to occur – building that trust, providing time efficiencies, and proving to the resident that practising their democratic voice is a worthwhile endeavour.
Councils should also look to generate trust and inspire interest in local democracy by providing updates to their residents and keeping them in the loop. An email communications campaign is a simple way to deliver important and useful news to those who need it, automating the process of getting news to the inboxes of subscribers. This will also cut the effort residents would otherwise take to sift through websites to find answers to common questions.
As mentioned earlier, explaining why a particular decision has been made can go a long way to allaying concerns, fear and anger from residents – a one-to-many tool is a low-overhead way of doing this, but it could have massive benefits.
Without the say of residents, communities are at risk of failing to represent their people; without representation, levelling up simply won’t work and we are also at risk of driving a feeling of detachment from residents, who have the strongest voice in affecting change.
More than ever, councils need to prioritise fostering a sense of belonging, pride, and support for their residents by reminding them that they can enact change and by dedicating themselves to reigniting a local democracy that is approachable, accessible, and representative of everyone.