Why we need a more participatory and inclusive approach to local politics
At last week’s full council meeting I had two motions up for debate. One in support of participatory budgeting (PB) as a means of deciding 1% of the Council’s discretionary revenue budget, and the second seeking information about setting up a public petitions process.
Both have, at their core, a commitment to inclusive and participatory politics, seeking to empower communities and individuals to engage in local decision-making. Both were rejected by the Liberal Democrat/SNP administration, and the Conservatives.
I believe that citizens should have a greater direct role in decision making, as well as the assurance that their concerns and aspirations are taken seriously by elected representatives and officials.
Better participation in political debate is a necessary compliment to the competitive representative political systems we have – competitive because parties compete for votes in elections.
This improved participation carries with it the requirement for a more deliberative democracy, where citizens deal with public problems by collective reasoning and debate. Power should be decentralised rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few individuals.
And whilst this requires quite a dramatic culture shift for the Council it should be achievable, at least through a progression of small steps, such as my motions sought to take.
Every month the 58 of us play at debate in full council meetings. Very few examples exist where councillors have changed their minds about something as a consequence of what happened in the debating chamber. There is a certain inevitability about the outcome of decisions, given the numbers of each political group represented.
Whilst this is undoubtedly the result of the representational political system we have, which is certainly worth something, this system fails to address many of the questions and concerns that the people beyond the City Chambers have about how the decisions that affect their daily lives are made.
We do need to start ‘doing’ politics differently.
PB is an example of devolving decision-making from the council to local communities and individuals. It is so much more than consultation which, as we have seen all too often, does not always result in the necessary local voices being heard.
The Leith Neighbourhood Partnership has pioneered such a process – £eith Decides – over the past couple of years, asking Leithers to decide what community projects they would like to fund.
I would like to see the council devote 1%, as a start, of its discretionary revenue budget, that is, monies not required for completing the council’s statutory obligations, being allocated by participatory means.
Participatory Budgeting empowers people and ensures that officials are responsive to their needs and aspirations. It promotes knowledge of the services the council provides, and the financial and other challenges that we face, and it builds the case for the good work that the council already does.
It is a brilliant tool for empowering and engaging communities and individuals, and also helps build community identity and social capital. People will get involved because their decisions will really matter!
Similarly, a public petitions process in the council would add to the communication and engagement systems and structures already in place. Individuals and community groups would have another way of accessing those in power, and councillors and officials would be able to gauge public feeling on specific issues and consider innovative ideas.
Far from being just “another layer of bureaucracy”, as Jenny Dawe, LibDem Council Leader called it – it would make the council more open and transparent.
It is a shame that so many of my councillor colleagues are unwilling to look beyond the current structures we have and open up the council and its processes to better public scrutiny and participation.
As citizens of this city you deserve better, and I hope that after the May elections, your new council will serve you better.
This post first appeared at STV Edinburgh’s local site.