Saturday, 8 July 2017

Giving people real influence in decision making

Have you noticed - democracy is changing?

In the UK our democracy is centred on MPs and Councillors - on elected representatives.  For those who study these things this is called 'representative democracy.'  It is very much the 'old school.'  There is now an increasing push for direct democracy - where decision making is in the hands of the people.

If you look around the world there are an increasing number of examples where real decision making power is being given to people.  Communities are given the opportunity to propose projects and then vote to decide which of them is given funding.   Portugal is leading the way - with 1000s of projects being suggested by people and with the people deciding which projects to back.  There are many examples in Portugal where more people vote on which projects to fund than vote for their local Mayor!

Clearly you can't set an entire council's budget this way - but it does strike me as a really good way of engaging communities in decision making and in choosing between competing projects and competing priorities.

This week I've been in Ukraine taking part in a Council of Europe forum on local democracy.  I was asked to talk about what the experts call 'Participatory Budgeting' in the UK from a practical standpoint.

From my personal point of view there are few success stories in the UK when it comes to these sorts of initiatives.  Just think how few people get involved in the CWaC budget consultations.  Out of our Borough's population of a third of a million people very few people get involved.  In Frodsham we had far more success with our Town Survey - when more than one-third of households responded.  In response terms this is one of the leading whole town surveys in the UK by the way!  I knew we had to rely on door to door deliveries if it was to work.  Just compare what we achieved in Frodsham with the pathetic responses to CWaC's budget consultation and Peel's Windfarm consultation - both measured in hundreds of responses where the populations were 330k or 18k respectively.  The Frodsham Town survey worked in households and we got more than a 30% response rate from under 4,000 houses.

I think there are several issues holding the UK back.  First there is the reluctance to innovate - especially by the larger councils.  Then there is the tendency of elected representatives to hold on to the power they think they have beeen given where they were elected.  There is then the very real cynicism that the choices being offered are illusory or a sham.  Then you have to add to this the additional time effort and cost required to support real public participation.  However to my mind the effort is worth it.

Instinctively I want to see much more decision making in the hands of 'real people.'  Its why for years Lynn and I have let community groups decide where member's grant monies should go.  It is also the principle underpinning the 'Over 70s Vouchers' in Frodsham.  Our older folk can decide where that public money is to be spent in Frodsham.

Now my political opponents seem to be opposed to direct democracy.  They have been opposing Lynn and my desire to call a local poll or referendum if we have to face large scale or controversial planning applications.  They'll be given another opportunity next week to either 'get with the programme' and commit to the principle of greater resident participation or to block it.  I wonder what the outcome will be?