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Duty bound

‘But what do we mean by community involvement?’ These eight words finally convinced me to leave the civil service.

It’s a valid question in itself, and one that mattered to me as the official responsible for community empowerment policy in DCLG. But when you’ve heard the question asked countless times, and written the same paper on the same unresolved policy tensions for the latest minister, the question loses its fascination.

I was reminded of these discussions recently following DCLG’s proposal to scrap the ‘duty to involve’. Taking effect in 2009, the duty requires councils and some other public bodies to ‘inform, consult and involve’ people affected by their decisions. The duty was introduced by the last government, and Eric Pickles’ new team at DCLG have made clear that they see it as another unnecessary imposition on local democracy.

Some have argued that the duty is so vague that fighting the repeal isn’t worth the energy. Edward Andersson at Involve critiqued the current legislation for encouraging poor quality ‘tick box’ consultation, and called for a more nuanced debate about the purpose and quality of local engagement.

In contrast, Davy Jones has mounted a spirited defence of the duty, or at least the principle behind it: that citizens have a right to be involved and public bodies should be required to involve them.

Some of the criticisms of the duty are justified, but repealing it creates one big problem. Community involvement will become an ‘optional extra’ all over again: a frilly add-on to ‘official’ decision making processes, when it needs to be treated as a fundamental element of good policy making and implementation.

This was the problem facing many community groups and advocates, especially those in the poorest places. Local leaders could use the language of involvement but, in the absence of any general requirement, could choose how, and when, and who to involve. Or they could just not bother at all.

A similar thing happened in national government. Involvement drifted up and down the policy agenda according to the enthusiasm of ministers. We had localism, ‘new localism’, devolution, double devolution (from Whitehall to Town Hall), and even triple devolution (from Whitehall to Town Hall to communities).

Ministers and their officials whizzed up and down Arnstein’s ladder of participation with gusto, but none were in post long enough to answer that fateful question: ‘but what do we mean by community involvement?’

The timing of the proposed repeal is particularly problematic. With intense pressure on council budgets, it’s likely that the resources to support community involvement will be dramatically reduced, precisely because it will be seen as an optional extra to be sacrificed at a time of need.

Involvement doesn’t require a great deal of money. Done well, made part of the daily business, it saves money, by engaging people in a discussion about how to improve services and cut back on waste and inefficiency.

Some have suggested that the repeal of the duty is designed to make it easier for councils to push through cuts without facing legal challenges for failing to involve the people affected. This may or may not be the case, but making cuts requires more engagement and discussion, not less.

Many councils already understand this, and will remain committed to extensive and intelligent engagement with local voters and taxpayers whether the duty is there or not. Some are thinking more radically, about ways to go beyond involvement and equip local communities with the tools to take over and manage assets and services for themselves.

The duty didn’t do away with tick box consultation or revolutionise community involvement practices over night. But it’s only two years old, and over time should encourage a more searching and sophisticated discussion about effective local approaches to involvement. The duty is vague, but many high-level duties are couched in broad terms to avoid over-prescription.

Advocates of community involvement shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. If the current duty goes it won’t be replaced by a new and improved version. It will be gone.

For all its faults, the duty turned community involvement from an optional extra into a core business process: not a frilly nicety but a basic requirement in the way that councils do their work. For that reason alone, the government should think long and hard about the implications or repeal for its own policy goals.

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Garry Garrilla
Garry Garrilla
13 years ago

A few weeks ago when I saw that the duty to involve was being revoked I thought it a mistake. At the time, I couldn’t understand the lack of justification from government for its ending – and to some extent I still don’t – and I wrote elsewhere that it can hardly be said to have been given the chance to work given the events since April 2009 with austerity-induced paralysis.

However, that was my gut instinct and in the elapsed time I’ve yet to see anyone really be worse off from a practical point of view.

The revocation is certainly in line with government’s thinking on localism and then end of Whitehall diktat. If a public body wants to be an engaging force it can. What I’ve elucidated since is mainly that the Duty provided was a time-saving device for VCS and others. A simple reminder of the Duty could act as an instigator to the involvement/consultation/engagement process. I think this is the biggest problem that the revocation raises: its now a another task on the ever-growing workload of the VCS: keeping public bodies on their toes vis-a-vis i/c/e process.

So, pragmatically speaking, having accepted the reality of the revocation, we should look to see what needs to be done. How do we get public bodies, particularly local government, to adopt the principle of involvement now it no longer has a duty? And from that principle, what practical steps will it take beyond the tickbox approach?

John P Houghton
John P Houghton
13 years ago

Hi Gary,

Thanks for your comment.

I think we disagree on a core point, which is reflected in this sentence: “If a public body wants to be an engaging force it can.”

For me, engagement shouldn’t be something which public bodies decide if they will do or not.

It’s a democratic right for people to be involved in how public money is being spent and decisions which will affect them are being taken.

I agree with your point about moving on and being practical. But we should do from the position that public bodies should engage people – not that they might do so if it suits them.

John

Garry Garrilla
Garry Garrilla
13 years ago

Hi John,

There was a small grammatical error in my statement, instead of full-stop after diktat, there should have been a comma…

“The revocation is certainly in line with government’s thinking on localism and then end of Whitehall diktat: If a public body wants to be an engaging force it can. ”

I’m not convinced that you can take a ‘democratic right’ position on this issue, the localism bill was drawn up by the coalition government and passed through parliament. That’s a democratic trump card.

My point is, arguing the case against the government’s position is largely inefficient when we have so much else to do and there is a little evidence that the D2I was actually useful.

Do you know the tale/myth/whatever about the tourist in the irish countryside? She stops to ask a local the directions to Dublin. He responds “I wouldn’t start from here if I were you.”

What direction do go in now?

garry

John Routledge
John Routledge
12 years ago

I’m with John on this one, some public bodies will do the minimum possible to involve communities and on occasions will only involve those who say what they want to hear.

It is also true that more enlightened public bodies involve communities because it is an efficient way of conducting market research on their services and democratic activities. This enlightened self interest is what distinguishes the best from the rest and probably represents our best hope of community involvement going mainstream…

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