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Five ways for councils to build ‘citizen-shaped’ devolution

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Devolution deals need to hand genuine power to local people if they are to succeed. Sarah Lyall considers five approaches that are giving citizens a voice in the process

The devolution agenda offers a fresh opportunity for local government to develop stronger relationships with local people.

Devolved, locally-driven decision-making provides councils with new freedoms to build citizen participation and create services tailored to local need.

So far, however, the pace and nature of devolution deal negotiations have made it difficult for local leadership to involve ordinary people in the way they would have liked.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution warned of a democratic deficit’ threatening the legitimacy of the devolution process to date. Lord Kerslake, chair of the group, highlighted the risk of regionally-controlled services ‘feeling and looking just as remote as they have done when directed from London’.

Citizens need to be given a greater voice in shaping devolution if they are to have real control over the issues that matter most to them.

The Local Government Association (LGA) have recently released case studies and tools on its DevoNext Hub to practically support councils to engage citizens more effectively in devolution. Five approaches are highlighted:

  1. Citizens’ assemblies: a body formed of citizens to deliberate on an issue.
  2. Digital engagement: platforms for online conversations.
  3. Participatory Budgeting: where citizens decide on how public money is spent.
  4. Community organising: engaging with existing community networks to make decisions.
  5. Co-production: where citizens and professionals co-design and co-deliver public services.

This range of approaches can be used both before and after devolution agreements are agreed. For example in Sheffield a pilot citizens’ assembly run by Democracy Matters discussed the question of how south Yorkshire should be governed. The recommendations made by the assembly pushed for a much more ambitious form of devolution and demonstrated an appetite for regions to hold a significant amount of power.

Following devolution agreements, approaches like participatory budgeting and co-production can be useful for facilitating the citizen participation in shaping delivery.

Engaging citizens in devolution is not without challenges. In working with the LGA to develop the tools, the New Economics Foundation spoke with several councils and found that, while many were committed to involving citizens, they often struggled to find the capacity and resources. After years of reduced budgets, funding is an ever-present concern for councils and the approaches described above often require investment.

Overcoming such challenges involves applying thoughtful consideration to the approaches selected. As Sarah Allen from Involve described at the LGA launch event, councils should begin by defining the scope of decisions they want to involve citizens in, then select the approach (or approaches) to meet this need within the resources available. Key to making this happen is ensuring that democratic engagement is ingrained in the work-streams of councils’ new devolution programmes.

Beyond this, ensuring that devolution genuinely gives citizens more control means shifting the terms of the debate.

Much of the discussion about devolution to date has been about the process and structures by which central government devolves power. These technical conversations have not engaged citizens.

As the conversation turns from process to impact and outcomes we need to be talking about what devolution really means for citizens, how governments can work with citizens to give them real control, and how they can ensure decisions reflect the unique identity of the area. This is where the devolution conversation needs to go next.

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