With the ongoing rise of populist politics across Europe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the divisions exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and social media, European democracy matters more than ever. With people feeling increasingly distanced from democratic processes, the EUARENAS project responds to a major European challenge – the need to strengthen legitimacy, identification and engagement with democracy within our cities.
The EUARENAS consortium consists of a collective of universities, local governments and public administration, and civil society actors, who have a common interest in participatory and deliberative democracy. As part of this Horizon 2020 project, People’s Voice Media has been conducting research in the UK and Ireland – Wigan and Galway to be precise – to find out more about two case studies about how citizens can participate in local decision-making. This feature article shares with you what we learned from a small number of citizens about their experiences of the case studies. Later in the project, we will be releasing case study reports that share the insights from a range of research strands… but for now, here are the key insights from people’s stories.
“Nobody knows a community better than the person who lives in that community.” - The Deal, Wigan
Since 2011, Wigan Council has embarked on a major process of change. This has involved moving towards asset-based working[i] at scale, empowering communities through a ‘citizen-led’ approach to public health, and creating a culture which permits staff to redesign how they work in response to the needs of individuals and communities. At the heart of this is an attempt to strike a new relationship between public services and local people that has become known as the ‘Wigan Deal’. Included within this is:
- Asset-transfers of council property/assets into the community;
- The Deal for Communities investment Fund (funding for community organisations to deliver services);
- Various local initiatives to engage residents in working with their town;
- Volunteering opportunities;
- Place-based working;
- Community events.
The Deal asks that the local council staff and citizens sign up to a set of principles whereby each agrees to do their part in order to keep services running efficiently without the council having to raise council tax or needing to make cuts.
There was an overall warmth about the ideas and ideals that underpin the Deal. It attracts people who are passionate about something within the local community and should tap into this spirit to create change: “Nobody knows a community better than the person who lives in that community.” Some storytellers praised how straightforward the system was when it came to acquiring funding: “On the whole, the experience has all been positive. … You fill in your application, you deliver your money, and off you go and deliver your project.” They see the Deal as facilitating a system whereby the right people to do a job, do it – and that might not necessarily be the council. This point of view extends to the council being able to help people find the right funding source, even if that isn’t the Deal.
Ring them up and speak to them. You can have an off-the-record, casual conversation with them. … If your idea can’t be funded by the Deal, they will put you in touch with other potential funders who might be able to help you.
It's also facilitated other benefits, such as looking at different ways people can ‘pay’ for services such as pay as you feel models or volunteering:
If you came into my pantry and said I want a bag of food but I haven’t got any money, I could say ‘well, tell you what, see all them empty boxes over there can you flatten them for me … so they pay in other ways.
Another positive is the move towards sustainable projects, as the Deal favours projects that are not just ‘one-offs’ but instead building sustainability and legacy, not just dependence on funding for the same thing again and again. This, naturally, encourages organisations to think about the social changes their projects make in the longer term and ways in which they can self-fund.
However, not everyone agrees that funding from the Deal is straightforward or inclusive:
Feels like they have involved people on their terms (the council) Consultation is a bit of a misnomer – the council decided the criteria – children and young people – great for us – but not for others.
They go on to say that the Deal has created a culture of dependency, actually cutting organisations and people off from other alternative funding streams. Despite the funding allocated to community projects and other aspects of sharing resource such as asset-transfer, some members of the community felt that there is an ‘us and them’ mentality that acts as a barrier to progress:
For me, the Deal was never really about democracy, it was about behaviour change, it was about austerity, and it was about cuts. And it wasn’t citizen-led… And it was really, really well-intentioned…I wished[they’d] encouraged us to have a relationship with each other rather than as an institution – you do and we do – I thought it should be more about we do so that we saw each other as valuable rather than vulnerable.
Other participants also spoke about power imbalances. “It’s very one-sided,” said one storyteller, “it’s not really about power sharing.” It’s mentioned that the previous way of acquiring funding was much more inclusive and fair.
Each neighbourhood had a pot of money – Better Neighbourhood Fund - they knew what they had to spend. Empowered to spend the money as they felt and felt happy. It brought in the opportunity to talk about other issues. Felt like more community involvement.
It’s clear that some people see the ‘centralised’ approach of the Deal as an inhibitor and that funds that were once easy for communities to access have now become restricted. Related to this tension, are the Deal’s values. For some, they are seen as positive as they are a means by which the Council can be held to account by residents if they are not behaving in a way that supports those values. However, other citizens perceive them to be one-sided. As one resident said, they are even seen as a means of controlling people’s behaviours:
You have to sign to say you’ll uphold those behaviours and so many organisations who really wanted to campaign with us against what was happening with Haigh Hall, couldn’t campaign because they were scared that the council would take the money off them, because they’d signed up to being positive.
What these differing perspectives represent is the difficulties involved in institutions creating new relationships between them, their services and local people.
“If you wanted to get things done fairly quickly, forget about going the direct route.” - Galway PeopleTalk Jury
PeopleTalk was an initiative set up by the Jesuits in Ireland, which sought to rebuild trust in public life and to give citizens a say in public sector reform. The objectives of PeopleTalk were endorsed by all political groupings in Dáil Éireann (the lower house and principal chamber of the Irish legislature). The Galway County PeopleTalk Jury was established at the invitation of Galway County Council on 25 February, 2013.
The Citizen Jury members were people embedded in their community - “bottom-up type people” as they describe themselves. They had experience with being part of community meetings and were concerned with how to improve things and make progress. Many of the members were and still are involved in other community development work and similar groups (e.g. Galway County Community & Voluntary Forum and RAPID - Revitalising Areas through Planning, Investment and Development). This shared background made the two years that they worked together enjoyable, and they told us how most of the jury had a background in being used to working with people and so it was quite easy to facilitate discussions. These facilitation skills meant that they could create spaces that everyone’s voice was heard in. Debate was seen as healthy: “It’s key to make a point without making an enemy.”
In the stories, the jurors acknowledged that they were not a diverse group, being mostly white Irish people in the forties and fifties: “That’s the only thing that I’d say about People Talk - was there anyone under 50 or 40 involved? No there wasn’t. We hadn’t a good cross age mixture, which was again needed for balance.” It was highlighted as well that they also missed opportunities to go into schools and actively involve people in conversations held by the Jury. Similarly, they believe they did not make active enough use of promotional opportunities to get more people to their sessions: “We didn’t do our publicity for them.” One of the storytellers also thought they could have done more to get their findings in front of people in power, by approaching them in their social arenas rather than by traditional channels: “If you wanted to get things done fairly quickly, forget about going the direct route – emails etc – find out where the guy or the girl socialises go up and meet them at the bar of whatever.”
Despite the perceived ‘negatives’ the group feels they had several successes:
When the jury first met, they agreed that they knew nothing about how government worked and they decided that the best people to learn from were those who worked in public agencies at ground level. When a group of these ground level Public servants came together they agreed that there was a problem with people getting sick without insurance and needing care from three different agencies - health, social welfare and housing. These services can’t share details because of ‘data protection’, so when you engage with them have to keep repeating your story which is humiliating. The jury had a simple answer - give them a printout of what has been said and then they can take it with them to each service and then they don’t need to keep repeating themselves. It was adopted by social welfare and the county council, but not the health authority - two out of three!
At the start, the Jury had some doubts about the effectiveness of the group to get results and thought it could be all talk and little action – but, meeting up and gathering at the sessions allowed them to learn a lot and keep focussed on real solutions. The Jury were able to help people who were facing ‘brick walls’ with government agencies – they helped them to connect with the correct agencies that could provide help which helped prevent them from having to go through lots of application processes and continually start from scratch:
And I thought, gosh these seems 12 people from differently backgrounds listening to each other and maybe finding a common ground, and then pursuing that for the benefit of a lot of people…
So, what did we learn?
This is just a small snapshot of experiences of participatory democracy in the UK and Ireland, but from these stories, there are three key learning points to consider when engaging people in democratic processes and power sharing:
- We need to ask if it’s true power sharing or superficial.
- What are the power structures within the participatory democracy?
- Does the process reflect a diversity of voices?
The information and views set out in this feature article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.
[i] Asset-based working involves focusing on what the community and the individuals within it have and how they can work together. This is different to other approaches which often focus on what individuals and communities can’t do or don’t have. In its simplest terms, in the context of The Deal, this refers to the council working with resources that already exist within the community.
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