If you want ‘Citizen Engagement’, democratise the Council from top to bottom- A response to the Scrutiny report on ‘Citizen Engagement’ from Birmingham Against the Cuts

Every cut in social services by the City Council raises questions of local democracy: who is making the cuts, how are they being made, why do ordinary citizens feel they have no influence over Council decision-making? That is why BATC is responding to the recent Council report on ‘Citizen Engagement’.

The report can be found on the 4th February Council meeting website at http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/democracy/Pages/AgendaDetail.aspx?AgendaID%3d77404

‘Citizen Engagement’ is the title of a new 48 page report by the Districts and Public Engagement Overview and Scrutiny Committee, published on 4 February. The Committee comprises Councillor Lisa Trickett (chair) and Councillors Atwal, J Evans, T Evans, Islam, Lal, Pears, E Phillips, Pocock and Underwood.

IN SUMMARY: BATC says people have the right to participate in the decisions which affect their lives – where there is power there must be effective public participation. We need a new model of local government in Birmingham which significantly increases citizen engagement and influence. Ward Committee meetings need to be redesigned to enable maximum public participation

• Ward Committees shouldn’t be run just by councillors but by a Board comprising the councillors and an equal number of elected local citizens.
• The agendas should be opened up to citizens’ agenda items and resolutions.

District Committees need opening up to local public participation

• District Committees shouldn’t comprise only councillors. They should include elected non-councillor representatives of Ward Committee meetings and representatives of other relevant local organisations.
• District Committees should meet at times and places convenient for local public participation.

The Council’s city-wide structures need democratising to enable public participation

• For Council Committees to be established in every service area with co-opted members elected by Ward Committee meetings and other relevant bodies.
• For Scrutiny Committees to be opened up to public input and participation.

The next step after the report

BATC calls for a Citizen Engagement Plan Commission to be set up involving councillors, elected Ward representatives and representatives of community organisations – leaving it just to councillors to decide undermines the whole aim of increasing citizen engagement.

BATC’s response to the report in detail

Why this report now?

The report recognises that there is a crisis in the democratic process: the low level of voting in local elections due to ‘fury with politicians’.

7.2.3 Low levels of engagement with our democratic structures through voting can be harmful to engagement as it makes us less accountable through the ballot box. We note a recent poll that indicated citizens are more likely not to vote due to fury with politicians than apathy. There is a strong need to reinvigorate connection with the democratic process…
But there is a specific reason why the Council needs the engagement of citizens: in order to get their support for the Council’s cuts policies.

1.1.5. As the cuts bite and local government looks to how it can protect core services whilst supporting community wellbeing, councils are increasingly looking at their relationship with citizens and key stakeholders.

7.2.2. Especially at the level of the district, the opinions of local citizens, combined with Councillors’ own knowledge of their wards and understanding of the front line impacts of services and cuts, needs to be part of the evidence base developed to help the Council develop services differently across the city.

The report distinguishes two types of citizen involvement: strategic or city wide engagement and local engagement on local services.

8.1.3. … the Council’s overall approach to ‘public engagement’ needs to distinguish between two very different forms and purposes of engagement: (a) strategic or city wide engagement, usually in relation to citywide decisions such as annual budget decisions, and strategic service changes such as wheelie bins, and introducing 20mph traffic speed policies; and (b) local engagement on local services, neighbourhood quality or public realm decisions such as roads, streetlights, crossings, community centres, litter hotspots, green-and-safe decisions.

This distinction is only partly true: many local services are determined by citywide decisions and need to be addressed at the strategic citywide level.

The aim of the report: ‘Share Power and Work Collaboratively’

The report sets some quite radical aims for democratisation.

8.1.25 Above anything this should mean that it stops being the Council setting the agenda and that the Council is much more open to listening to what citizens want to talk about.

8.1.28. …a qualitatively different type of engagement: citizen control, delegated power and partnership. Engagement is not a process; it is about the transfer of power from institutions to individuals and communities.

8.1.28. The Council needs to vastly widen the scope of influence that citizens can have, such as in community and participatory budgeting, citizens co-opted into the decision cycle…

These aims entail structural and procedural changes to achieve a transfer of power to citizens. The question is: to what extent do the report’s actual proposals for change match up to these aims?
One indication is given by the academic and other sources that the report refers to. (See Section 3.1.). It is a disappointingly scanty and unradical list. Only four sources are referred to, three of them people who gave evidence to the Committee. Their contributions are largely presented as lists of do’s and don’t’s about consultation. There is no mention of structural and procedural changes, and no reference to the large international body of literature and practical experiences of local participatory democracy and citizen empowerment.(1)

Ward Committees

The report states that Ward Committees should be ‘the primary means of engagement between the Council and citizens’ (7.3.13), but attendance is very low.

7.3.5 An analysis of Ward Committees between May 2012 and September 2013 showed that on average 18 citizens attended each Ward Committee meeting with numbers to a single meeting ranging from zero to 120.

The evidence gathered by the Inquiry about the democratic effectiveness of Ward Committees is damning.

7.3.9. A typical comment was that the aim of Ward Committee meetings was still unclear, as they neither build up participative democracy, nor help representative democracy to be effective.

The way Ward Committees work at the moment is completely out of step with aspirations for more active citizen involvement in policy-making. They embody a bureaucratic model of local government which is about managing the local community, not empowering it. Why they continue is not just historical inertia, it is because they serve the interests of many councillors, and council officers, who have little interest in enhancing local democracy and empowering local communities, as the research evidence confirms.

…elected representatives become uneasy about the prospect of community involvement in decisions that have hitherto been seen as their prerogative. Such initiatives require councillors to share their power with others whom they may think ill informed, lacking legitimacy and scarcely representative of the communities they claim to speak for. (2)

Further research evidence comes from Colin Copus at the University of Birmingham: ‘If public engagement supports councillors’ preferred policy option, it is a useful tool; if it does not, the views expressed are likely to be marginalised or ignored’.(3)

The verdict of the report on Ward Committees is uncompromising: they are not fit for purpose.

7.3.10. Overall our conclusion is that Ward Committees are not currently fit for the purpose set out in the Leader’s Policy Statement (2012) as the major means for citizens to engage on issues affecting their area.
Its recommendation opens the door to radical democratic alternatives.

7.3.13. Some strong pioneering effort should be promoted across the city for radical experimentation with new and different formats.

This is the most radical position taken by the report. It is notable that it applies to the level of local government furthest from where power lies, in the Council House and the District Committees, a point we will return to.

However, the report makes no specific proposals for ‘radical experimentation’. Recommendation 4 only calls on the Council to ‘bring forward a plan that addresses the key concerns raised and opportunities set out in the report…’ (p43).

In our view the internal procedures of Ward Committee meetings need to be redesigned to encourage the maximum of public participation, including opening up the agendas and reducing the dominance of councillors. In these and are other proposals the principle we start from is that people have the right to participate in the decisions which affect their lives – where there is power there must be effective public participation.

On that basis we would propose two simple steps:

1. Each Ward Committee should be headed by a Board consisting of the 3 councillors and 3 local citizens elected by a Ward Committee meeting. The Board should set the agenda of meetings and choose the chair for each meeting.

2. There should be clear procedures to enable local citizens to put items on the Ward Committee agendas, including resolutions for voting, to introduce them at meetings, and to circulate papers. The Board members should actively encourage and support citizens to do so, especially those with less experience in Committee involvement and procedures.

These are simple reforms to make which would transform how Ward Committees function and increase and empower community participation. We welcome other forms of ‘radical experimentation’ with similar aims.

District Committees

Reforming the internal procedures of Ward Committees to enable more participation is meaningless without also enhancing their capacity to influence District Committees, where the power over delegated service budgets lies. Here the report completely fails to even identify the democratic deficit, let alone propose ‘radical experimentation’. All it offers is a congratulatory note that ‘Citizens can now observe this [District Committee meetings] through the live streaming and archive facility.’

(7.3.3.). There is, extraordinarily, absolutely no mention of the following obstacles preventing citizen engagement:

• The District Committee consists only of councillors. There are no other representatives of the Wards, no representatives of community organisations, no representatives of any other bodies.

• Proposals can be made at Ward Committees, and if the chair permits a vote can be taken, but the vote does not constitute a mandate on the councillors to present the proposal at the District Committee, let alone to support it.

• Members of the public can attend District Committee meetings but they have no right to speak. They may be allowed to ask a question at the discretion of the chair.

• District Committee meetings are held in the Council House and during the daytime, making it difficult or impossible for most people to attend.

These conditions are in direct contradiction with the report’s claim that:

8.1.4. … the Council needs to develop local solutions to more effective ‘engagement for local action’. This means integrating the means of enabling the engagement, with the means of achieving the action so citizens can see the link locally, between their engagement and the achievement of local actions.

And that:

7.2.2. Especially at the level of the district, the opinions of local citizens, combined with Councillors’ own knowledge of their wards and understanding of the front line impacts of services and cuts, needs to be part of the evidence base developed to help the Council develop services differently across the city.

Both of these require direct input and participation in the District Committees by the citizens and relevant organisations of the local community. Instead they are reliant on the will and capacity of councillors to represent their concerns, while they watch passively on video. In effect District Committees are mini-Council Houses, just as immune to public participation as the one in Victoria Square.

We believe that District Committees need opening up to local public participation:

1. District Committees should include elected non-councillor representatives of Ward Committees with speaking and voting rights, while still leaving councillors with the majority of votes.

2. District Committees should be able to include representatives of other relevant local organisations with speaking rights.

3. District Committees should meet at times and places convenient for local public participation.

4. There should be regular District-level open forums, at least twice a year.

Strategic city-wide policy-making.

The report proposes that there should better information and consultation on strategic issues but it makes no reference to how fit for purpose the structures and procedures of the Council are for citizen engagement in strategic city-wide policy-making, which at present almost totally exclude public participation beyond voting for councillors every few years. It remains a one-way highly top-down model.

The Cabinet system excludes citizen – and even councillor – engagement
First, the exclusion of all but a handful of councillors from an integral role in the decision-making process means that their knowledge and expertise is not made use of. In the past the councillor responsible for a portfolio would have had the collective support of other councillors on the relevant service committee. One consequence is that Cabinet members become even more dependent on officers in making policy rather than on elected member colleagues.

Second, the exclusion of the vast majority of Labour councillors from the decision-making centre means that they cannot feed into it the views of the voters they represent in the wards and constituencies. This is a denial of the democratic rights of citizens. The Cabinet system isolates the key centre of strategic decision-making from the vast majority of councillors, preventing them from feeding the views of citizens into the policy process. This raises the issue of the politics of knowledge: whose voices are heard in the committee rooms of power?

For a Council Committee system with public participation

The alternative is the Committee system which was in operation before the Cabinet and Scrutiny system was introduced. One advantage is that it would involve far more councillors, opening up the policy process to the views of their communities.But the Committee system has a much bigger advantage in terms of democracy: people who are not councillors can be co-opted onto committees and sub-committees. This was common practice among especially the more radical Labour Councils in the 1970s and 80s, where the co-opted members were often elected by various groups as their representatives, with voice but without vote.

It was an important factor in the effectiveness of these Councils in tackling issues of gender and ethnic equality. This is exactly what is needed today to tackle the key issues that Birmingham City Council faces. For example, take youth unemployment. What is desperately needed is a strategic committee at the top level of the local authority bringing together representatives of the key interests, including of course the trade unions and young people themselves.

The sort of Committees we are proposing could be set up today in Birmingham, even with the Cabinet in place. There is nothing – apart from the lack of political will – to stop a Cabinet member from setting up an advisory committee in her or his area of responsibility with other councillors on it and with invitations to relevant interest groups, and districts and wards, to elect representatives to it.

Public participation in Scrutiny Committees

Scrutiny Committees also need to be opened up to public participation, in a number of ways, for example:

1. Public participation in Scrutiny public Inquiries – not just as the submitters of views and evidence but as members of the Inquiry committee or a sub-committee representing District and Ward Committees and relevant interest groups.

2. Procedures to enable relevant public bodies, including Ward Committees, to put items on Scrutiny agendas and speak to them.

Let’s use this report as a first step towards a real debate about democratising the Council from top to bottom

The report makes four recommendations:

1. to improve the Council website
2. for an improvement plan for how the Council deals with citizens as customers
3. for a ‘cross-cutting improvement plan’ for consultation
4. to ‘bring forward a plan that addresses the key concerns raised and opportunities set out in the report and take on the fundamental step changes set out in Chapters 5-8.’

Recommendation 4 in particular opens the door to a wide-ranging appraisal and democratisation of Council structures and procedures from top to bottom, extending the ‘radical experimentation’ that the report recommends for Ward Committees to the workings of the whole Council.

But here we sound a warning: the report places the responsibility for developing the improvement plans that it recommends to…’The Leader, along with Cabinet Members, Executive Members for Local Services and Ward Chairs.’ (p43). In other words, the ‘Citizen Engagement’ that the report aims to enable actually stops short at the doors of the Council House. Public participation is excluded from developing the plans to enable…public participation! This is completely unacceptable. BATC calls for a Citizen Engagement Plan Commission to be set up involving councillors, elected Ward representatives and representatives of community organisations.

Our initial contribution to the ongoing and meaningful consultation that is needed is the proposals we have made in this paper. They are practical steps towards a new model of local government in Birmingham which significantly increases citizen engagement while ensuring the right balance between representative and participatory democracy. The challenge for the Labour Council now is whether it is prepared to open up the policy processes in the city to genuine democratic public participation, including as a first step the plans for improvement that this Scrutiny report recommends.

References

1. See for example: Dryzek JS (2010) Foundations and Frontiers of Deliberative Democracy; Gastil J and Levine P (2005) The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century; Copus C, Sweeting D and Wingfield M (2013) Repoliticising and redemocratising local democracy and the public realm: why we need councillors and councils, Policy & Politics 43:3, 389-408; Pearce J (ed) Participation and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century City.

2. H. Rao, C. Morrill, and M.N. Zand, 2000, ‘Power Plays: How Social Movements and Collective Action Create New Organizational Forms’, Organizational Behaviour 22: 239–82. Quoted in Barnes, Newman, and Sullivan, 2007, Power, Participation and Political Renewal, 41–2.

3. C. Copus, 2010, ‘The Councillor: Governor, Governing, Governance and the Complexity of Citizen Engagement’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 12(4): 569–89.

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5 responses to “If you want ‘Citizen Engagement’, democratise the Council from top to bottom- A response to the Scrutiny report on ‘Citizen Engagement’ from Birmingham Against the Cuts

  1. Pingback: Birmingham Trades Council » If you want ‘Citizen Engagement’, democratise the Council – A response to the Scrutiny report on ‘Citizen Engagement’ from from top to bottom!

  2. Pingback: Birmingham Trades Council » If you want ‘Citizen Engagement’, democratise the Council from top to bottom- A response to the Scrutiny report on ‘Citizen Engagement’ from Birmingham Against the Cuts

  3. Pingback: Why public meetings are the rocky-bed of the public talking to public services. « Podnosh

  4. Pingback: Citizens Engagemant | B26 Community

  5. Pingback: Open up District Committees to community representatives! | Slaney Street

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