Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



MEMORANDUM BY BIRMINGHAM CITY COUNCIL

INTRODUCTION

  The reasons for the renewed focus on citizen participation in local government are obvious enough: the challenges arising from greater diversity and the need to engage with a plurality of voices; a recognition of social exclusion, specifically as it contributes to the marginalisation and under-representation of some groups in local democracy; the purported public disenchantment with local politics as measured by the albeit crude barometer of declining voter turnout; the growth of new social movements such as the environmental and disability lobbies and the need for government—both local and national—to find new ways of engaging with these self-organising groups.

  At the same time, there are new demands and responsibilities on local government from the Modernisation agenda—from the duty of Best Value where consultation features as one of the icons of the Best Value checklist, through the government's proposals for local authorities to introduce separate executive and scrutiny arrangements, to greater acknowledgement of the role of local government as community leaders.

  In this context, local authorities are increasingly called upon to carry out a variety of role—as community advocate to "speak" for and represent the issues and concerns of its local communities and the need, therefore, to ensure mechanisms are in place to listen to and learn from the communities; as the expression of public accountability in terms of decisions taken by the council as well as in respect of the range of bodies and organisations that impact on the lives of local people, in addition to balancing the often competing and sometimes conflicting needs and priorities of the diverse communities within, and making choices about the rationing of resources.

  It is within this wider context that Birmingham City Council believes public participation in local government must be understood. These changes offer opportunities as well as challenges for representative democracy—opportunities, for example, to renew democratic legitimacy and to broaden the appeal of the role of the councillor to potential new "recruits" such as young people, women and disabled people who are currently under-represented. The challenges come in the form of demands for new skills and ways of working that put "party politics" to the test and confront the taken for granted assumptions that the "professional" (ie elected councillors and council officers) knows best.

  The Council has a long-standing commitment to the active involvement of local people, both in service settings and in governance issues. This commitment was reinforced when, in 1994, involving local people, became one of the Council's four policy priorities. Over the years, an array of initiatives has been developed to take account of the ever-changing context in which the Council is operating. Early in the New Year, the Council approved a new constitution, with a cabinet, executive committee and advisory teams, scrutiny committees and ward committees. These changes are firmly in line with central government's proposals for modernising local government.

  We welcome the opportunity to give evidence to the Select Committee's inquiry on innovations in citizen participation in government. The Committee's remit and terms of reference correspond very closely with the public engagement initiatives we have undertaken in Birmingham.

  The City Council has been invited to present on the theme of "making a difference". We understand that the Committee wishes to explore the extent to which organisations are changing their management and decision making structures to allow for public participation. In addition, the Committee is also interested in examples of consultation that have led to changes in outcomes.

  Our submission presents examples of key initiatives that the Council has put in place, together with an analysis of these against the three themes set out in the Select Committee's terms of reference:

    —  The costs and benefits of such exercises.

    —  The implications of such techniques for representative government.

    —  The potential for such innovations to strengthen the democratic process.

  By no means an exhaustive list, these initiatives have been chosen to include:

    (a)  examples of the types of innovative consultation approaches that the inquiry Committee is particularly interested in—the People's Panel, the Democracy Commission and the Budget for Birmingham consultation;

    (b)  the Council's flagship initiative—Local Involvement Local Action (or LILA for short)—to respond to the Select Committee's specific request for examples of initiatives that are making a difference to the way the organisation works;

    (c)  practice which aims to bring about greater democratic inclusion and engage hard to reach groups. The particular focus here is on young people. However, this should not ignore the considerable effort by the Council to support the involvement of black and minority ethnic communities through the network of umbrella groups as well as community-based forums in partnership with Birmingham Race Action Partnership (BRAP), and the Disability Coalition, a new body set up to increase the participation of disabled people in decision making.

  The submission concludes with some issues for further consideration.

PUBLIC CONSULTATION AND PARTICIPATION IN BIRMINGHAM CITY COUNCIL

  The following initiatives distinguish between those that might best be defined as examples of consultation—where the Council invites contributions in order to listen and learn from the public—and participation—where there is joint working between the council and citizens in defining issues, debating problems and implementing solutions. The People's Panel, Democracy Commission and Budget for Birmingham are largely examples of the former, while the LILA initiative is an example of latter. The initiatives targeted at young people include aspects of both consultation and participation.

PEOPLE'S PANEL

Costs and Benefits

The People's Panel was set up in September 1999. It has about 1,000 members who can be recruited to take part in telephone or postal surveys, workshops and focus groups. In its first year of operation, the Panel has been consulted on the themes of "Budget for Birmingham", "Your City, Your Services" (Best Value Performance Plan) and "Your City, Your Democracy" (supporting the work of the Democracy Commission).

  As always there is the choice between in-house resourcing and the appointment of a consultant. Birmingham has chosen to use MORI to run its People's Panel. This gives us a guarantee of quality work, accurate results and genuine independence. However, the costs can be significant—we are currently spending about £60,000 per financial year on their services in relation to the Panel. However, we do design the regular panel newsletter in-house, using external printers and MORI carry out the distribution.

  One basic problem is that, as an organisation, we no longer retain sufficient in-house resources for the administration and analysis of market research. This information needs to be analysed and interpreted in the context of a wide range of other demographic, social, economic and service delivery data, if we are to achieve genuine "market awareness" in our service and strategic planning.

  The City Council's research and information staff resources are now extremely thinly spread, as a result of years of efficiency savings and the preference for more direct "front-line" activities. However, this raises an important issue in respect of the Government's desire to see more consultation and more energy put into "community planning"—the consistently implied message of Government for many years, has been that resources in these areas are to be down-graded in preference for more direct service delivery investment.

  Of course, the City Council will continue to be alert to the opportunities for better co-ordination of these activities and to the application of new technologies, which can provide for cost-efficient processes aimed at receiving and analysing such information. We would argue that the development of a close working relationship with a highly professional company such as MORI is probably the most effective way of running a People's Panel.

  Potentially, a Panel can lead to cost savings on market research, since it provides for a permanent sample of the population to be retained and used when appropriate, thus avoiding the costs of recruiting separate samples for surveys, workshops or focus groups for different purposes.

  However, there are drawbacks to the use of such a "permanent" sample. They can become, over time, less representative of the whole population, as their knowledge of the City Council, and of survey techniques, grows. For this reason we are continuing to commission our Annual Opinion Survey, which uses a new sample each year, to provide base line satisfaction and public attitude data.

  The main benefits of the Panel lie in the long-term relationship which is established between the Panel and the Council, and the frequency of feedback they are able to give us. There is clearly a strong symbolic and democratic element in the reasons for using Panels. The fact that we can carry out several surveys in one year, which to a certain extent can cover the same ground, in itself helps to support the process of identifying and refining the strategic priorities of the organisations, in the minds of managers and Members. This has been particularly useful in regard to the budget setting process and the re-focusing of our priorities around our new cabinet arrangements.

  We intend that the Panel will provide opportunities for REAL involvement—beyond workshops and focus groups to including panel representatives in council meetings and Best Value reviews and the use of new technology to consult a portion of the panel on-line.

  These benefits of using a Panel seem to be supported by the sheer number of authorities which have now adopted this technique—of which Birmingham is a fairly late example—though the resourcing and use of panels does vary significantly from one place to another.

Implications for Representative Government and Strengthening the Democratic Process

  Panels tend to operate in practice as a form of opinion polling or "market testing" of policy options, ideas, etc with a selected sample of people, created to be a representative group. Clearly, decisions still have to be made and, in coming to a view or making a judgement, the elected representative will draw upon the opinions and feedback from the Panel. The argument that "members should know" is now heard rather less—services need to understand their "market" and to monitor their performance in this way. Best Value fundamental reviews seem to be based on this assumption.

  As to the broader question of the potential for panels to strengthen the democratic process, the answer to this will depend on the particular approaches used to gather the views and opinions of panel members which in turn is informed by the purpose and objectives of citizen participation that underpins the approach.

  Researchers in the field of public participation have long distinguished between the "consumerist" and "democratic" or "citizenship" definitions of community involvement. The former is characterised by a focus on individuals as customers, consumers and users and tends to prioritise methods that draw on "market research" such as surveys to gather user views and feedback. The consumerist tradition does have its place and can certainly lead to significant improvements in services for service users and other beneficiaries. One of the criticisms of the consumerist approach, however, is that it has little to do with inclusion or exclusion in democracy or citizen rights.

  Furthermore, there are those who see consumerism and the types of individual survey methods that characterises this approach as more akin to the manipulation level on the Arnstein's Ladder of participation. Peter Beresford[1], for example, makes the point that:

    "Service users are increasing being researched, canvassed and consulted. But there's much more to being involved than being an information source for service providers. It's one thing to be asked our views. It can be quite another matter when you want to be part of the debate; for your ideas and analysis to go forward to shape policy and services."

  What the above shows is that those on the receiving end of participation initiatives may have different expectations to those who are providing the participation opportunities. This suggests that if people's panels are to be seen as a means to strengthen the democratic process, then they need to provide opportunities for more deliberative discussions and participation in debate.

DEMOCRACY COMMISSION

Costs and Benefits

The City Council is searching for ways to open up policy debates, in ways which will both enable the general public and Birmingham organisations to feel that it is worth getting involved, and allow Councillors to debate in public more freely than is the case under the usual party political constraints. The Democracy Commission is an example of one way of doing this. Consisting of five elected members of the city council but six non-council members (including the independent chair, Sir Adrian Cadbury), its job is to give the Council independent advice on the modernisation agenda including the executive arrangements set out in the current Local Government Bill. A large part of its work is therefore consultative—it has initiated the Birmingham debate on political structures, voting arrangements and so on. But it will also evaluate the evidence it receives from local people and organisations (including individual City Councillors) and report to the City Council in June. The People's Panel will also be one of the means used to gain views.

  Its consultation exercise got under way at the beginning of February, so it is too early for a full evaluation. Preliminary evidence, though, suggests that both individuals and organisations have perceived the Commission as an independent body, and have taken advantage of the opportunity it presents. A particularly strong theme running through many responses is the dislike of party politics, and the perception that elected representatives put their party first and their constituents second. People therefore see it as worthwhile to tell their views to an independent commission, whereas they would avoid a purely City Council body—because of the perception that in the end the Councillors would put party policy first.

  This does not mean that the commission is of itself an ideal mechanism for seeking and testing public opinion. The "hard to reach" groups remain hard to reach. On the other hand, the Commission has attracted a good deal of local (and some national) press and media coverage. There is no firm evidence, but an impression is that this too has been aided by the independence of the Commission.

Implications for representative democracy and strengthening the democratic process

  This way of working poses new challenges both to the councillor members of the commission and to the City Council officers who are supporting it. The Councillors have to get used to a non-party political, but public, forum, and adjust to an environment in which more can be achieved by open debate. The officers, similarly, have to put aside many of the skills they have learnt in working in a political environment and instead concentrate on facilitating wide debate.

  The big tests will come when the Commission reports in June. One key issue will be whether the City Council itself will be able to treat the Commission's work as a serious adjunct to their representative role. The other (which is partially linked) is whether the Commission will retain credibility with the public.

Budget for Birmingham Consultation

  The City Council has for some years now been carrying out public consultation on the budget. This has principally taken the form of a series of "Budget Roadshows" held at central locations and local venues to engage key stakeholders in discussions. In addition to the roadshows, the Council decided two years ago to consult on the budget using the network of Ward Sub Committees (now called Ward Committees).

  For the 1999-2000 budget, we have extended the consultation process to include:

    —  The development of an interactive web site, with direct links to the Young People's Parliament and a Bulletin Board on Birmingham ASSIST, the Council's web page.

    —  Budget telephone hotline.

    —  The 1,000 strong people's panel.

    —  A major poster campaign to encourage the public to have their say.

  The interactive web site was designed to encourage two-way communication. Everyone who got in touch via the web was given information on the council tax, budget process and the costs of providing or running examples of specific services such as a day care centre to encourage informed views and feedback. People were then invited to say how they would spend £1 million. An obvious benefit of consulting in this way is to promote greater understanding about the difficult choices that the council has to make given finite resources.

  This was the first concerted attempt by the Council to use the Internet as a mechanism for consultation on the budget, and as such it did provide us with a useful learning opportunity. Although no direct evaluation has been undertaken of this exercise, anecdotal feedback suggests there is real potential to use interactive web sites to hear from non-engagers and individuals who might otherwise not attend public meetings or ward committees. Young people, for example, were encouraged to share views through a Talk Board directly linked into the Young People's Parliament.

  However, the experience does show the need to communicate more clearly with consultees about the process in order to manage expectations. For example, we found that individuals would often expect an immediate reply to their email. There was little understanding of the member and officer structures and how decisions are made. There is also the issue of feedback to the people who give views via the web, particularly given the time that can elapse between the views coming in and a final decision being made. Whilst the "immediacy" of the web can be a positive aspect of consulting in this way, there are obvious drawbacks, not least because of the expectations it creates about the speed of response.

  The cost of running the interactive web site is primarily in the form of officers' time, together with seedcorn funding of £500 to support the development of the site. The financial costs of supporting other elements of the budget consultation process, ie poster campaigns, etc totalled just over £4,000.

Implications for representative government and strengthening the democratic process

  Decisions that may result in cuts in services or increases in Council tax can often be damaging to councils and lead to criticism from the public. However, this need not necessarily be the case. Involving the public in budget discussions about choices and options can be an important way to win legitimacy and support for difficult decisions. There is the obvious criticism that engaging the public in consultation on difficult budget choices is "letting elected councillors off the hook" and an abdication of their responsibility.

  The ICT revolution does present opportunities to develop new ways of consulting and engaging the public. More and more people are logging on to the net and the further development of the Internet through mobile phones will make it increasingly accessible to a wider audience. Nevertheless, we do recognise the need to be cautious and to avoid the possibility of reproducing democratic exclusion by failing to take account of "ICT rich" and "ICT" poor communities. We also need to consider just how much significance we give to the views emanating from ICT users, bearing in mind the issue of "representativeness".

  If budget consultations are to be worthwhile and effective, then we must address the question of how to make the process meaningful to participants. Openness and transparency in the decision-making process, and presenting complex information on the budget are necessary steps. In order to encourage the public to participate in debate, the Council used a series of posters encouraging people to ring the budget hotline with views on how they would spend £1 million. Examples of the cost of providing particular services were given—eg it costs £1,000 to provide 60 more school class sessions of swimming. Inevitably, it needs to be acknowledged that even with these various actions, only a fraction of the city's one million population would have been involved.

LOCAL INVOLVEMENT LOCAL ACTION (LILA)

Costs and Benefits

Since the mid-1980s, the City Council has put in place a raft of measures with the three-pronged aim of ensuring greater responsiveness, renewing our relationship with local people and strengthening the representative role of councillors. These measures include the decentralisation of some services into neighbourhood offices; the introduction of Ward Committees, comprising of the three local elected councillors in the Ward to debate issues of local concern, and in the early 1990s an experiment to enable local communities to have greater influence over a specific small budget to fund locally generated projects and priorities. This latter initiative was targeted on areas with pockets of deprivation. LILA could be seen as the culmination of these measures and is at the heart of the Council's commitment to changing the way we work in recognising and responding to local needs.

  The LILA initiative itself was launched in October 1997. It seeks to create a new partnership between the Council and the citizens of Birmingham and to engage with them in identifying local needs and the best ways to meet them. The focal point of this programme is the reinvigorating of the City's 39 Ward Committees. A number of changes have been introduced to strengthen the ward committee's role as strategic and entrepreneurial bodies to identify and respond to local needs:

    (a)   Ward Advisory Boards (WABs)—these act as sounding boards, contribute to the development of Ward Plans and inform decision-making on the spending of local budgets.

    (b)   Ward Development Plans—aim to map out local needs and priorities and the action to be taken to respond to local needs. Community endorsement of the Plan at an annual community conference is a key yardstick by which the Plan is judged. The intention is that aggregated data from these plans will inform the budget process and information from the first round of plans has now been presented to the Council's Budget Group.

    (c)   One-off local budgets totalling £80,000 have been delegated to each Ward Committee to spend on locally determined priorities.

    (d)   In order to support the process, a comprehensive officer support structure is in place providing each ward with two lead officers and a Ward Support Officer (full time or part time); a Chief Officer at constituency level to have oversight of 3/4 wards and a Corporate Support Group, comprising officers from departments to deal with service related issues arising from the ward committee.

    These ward lead officers are existing post holders, and primarily drawn from the cadre of senior managers such as assistant directors of heads of divisions. There are a range of benefits from involving senior officers in this way:

      (i)  it exposes senior managers to community aspirations, needs and priorities;

      (ii)  it ensures support for LILA at the highest level of the organisation;

    and

      (iii)  it fosters "one organisation" working by building LILA into the responsibilities of senior managers, thereby reducing the potential for creating an "us" and "them" situation, which can sometimes arise between service departments and area-based approaches.

  Pressure points have, however, been felt in various places throughout the organisation from the very fact that senior managers are undertaking the LILA ward lead officer role in addition to their normal duties. One of the major tensions centres on the impact on services and the extent to which the Council can deliver Best Value in its in house services and at the same time promote LILA as an effective means of citizen participation. Although successive governments over the years have given considerable attention to improving the quality of services, it is only relatively recently that we have witnessed a focus on improving the quality of democracy. This might suggest the need for the availability of some form of government grants for innovations and democratic activities.

  Whilst local people and councillors value having access to a local budget to fund local projects and priorities, significant pressure has arisen for the Council in processing these local budgets. These are, however, currently time limited and were primarily intended to act as an incentive for people to come forward and get involved (although consideration is currently being given to the provision of a "development fund" to support local priorities determined in Ward Development Plans).

  We are now moving forward on our aspiration to change the way the council recognises and responds to local needs and priorities. From April 2000, a programme of opening up mainstream budgets and services to greater local influence and direction will begin. Initially, beginning with a target of £20 million, this figure is expected to reach £60 million over the next four years. Current proposals for local direction of budgets envisage that Ward Committees will enable local communities to influence Council services in a number of different ways, depending on the nature of the service, for example, in some areas:

    —  The Ward Committee will be responsible for making the final decision, eg location of special collection services.

    —  The Ward Committee will be responsible for influencing the shape of the service, eg community libraries.

    —  The Ward Committee will be responsible for monitoring the work performed, eg grounds maintenance.

  This not only represents a sizeable step in giving local people a much greater influence over the services which affect the quality of their lives but it will also prove a strong test for the adequacy of procedures to ensure a transparent, responsive and accountable system.

  The LILA initiative has been the subject of an evaluation by the University of Birmingham to consider the initial impact amongst communities.

Implications for representative government and strengthening the democratic process

  One of the major arguments of the government's proposals to introduce new executive/scrutiny arrangements is that it will free up councillors' time to more effectively carry out their representative role. Much of the focus has been on the operation of the executive function, with limited attention on the implications of these changes for the representative role. We see LILA as an important means to strengthen the representative role in a number of ways:

    —  The growth of quangos and the plethora of organisations now involved in providing services to local people means that councillors are required, not only to represent the individuals and collective needs of the communities to the different organisations now delivering services, but they must also be able to build effective local partnerships to encourage the development of appropriate responses to local needs.

    —  Inevitably, the issues that affect the lives of local people do cut across organisational boundaries. LILA does offer the potential for greater inter-agency working at local level.

    —  At the same time, there is the scope to develop collaborative approaches to public participation with other organisations. This can reduce the potential for "consultation fatigue" that the public often complains about.

    —  One of the most pressing issues for representative democracy, is the extent to which elected councillors can have automatic knowledge of the needs of the diverse communities within. Expectations and demands from the public are also changing and councillors face a major challenge in keeping abreast of these ever-changing demands.

  In LILA, Birmingham has potentially 39 different driving centres of activity, providing the wards themselves with opportunities to develop a variety of techniques to engage with the diverse communities that make up the area. A number of wards are using the local budgets to target action with young people, disabled people and other excluded communities and to support capacity building programmes.

  The model constitution for Ward Advisory Boards (WABs) is based on a "representative" model, with the three councillors and MP, together with representatives from community and resident-led bodies such as Neighbourhood Forums, Housing Liaison Boards, and resident and tenant associations. The WABs can act as a source of local knowledge, advice and information to enhance the elected representatives' role in decision making. For example, WABs have informed decision making on the spending of local budgets.

  WABs can also encourage deliberation and debate on local needs and how these can best be met. It is unlikely that councillors can know everything or be aware of every need. Like the communities they represent, there is a need for councillors to access information to assist them in making informed judgements and decisions. By bringing in perspectives from a wide range of experiences WAB members are able to add value to the representative role.

  An issue with the community representative model is that of accountability. Unlike the directly elected councillors, there is no mechanism to ensure accountability of these community representatives to their constituents. Furthermore, if we understand one of the responsibilities of community representatives to be the dissemination of information and bringing back views from their constituents, then the issue of support to community representatives needs further consideration. We are currently revisiting the issue of community representatives in the WABs. An alternative representative model currently being considered is based on the idea of involving individuals who "represent" particular perspectives and experiences, with a focus on those who have previously been excluded—eg a disabled person, a black and minority ethnic representative, a youth representative etc. This would not mean that individuals would "speak for" all disabled people, young people and so on. Rather, what it would mean is that individuals would bring insights, views and knowledge, informed by their day-to-day life experiences as a disabled individual, black person, young person, etc.

  The Ward Development Plans are also another means for the community to play a role and to impact on the way the Council does business. Ward Development Plans are intended to link into wider policies and budget decision-making processes of the Council. The need to ensure that the Plans reflect the real needs of local people is therefore crucial. One way in which the LILA process is seeking to achieve this is through the ratification of the Plans at an annual Community Conference. The variation in turnout at the conferences and the relatively low participation from local communities in comparison to the size of the population does raise questions about how representative these plans are, who is endorsing the Plans and the extent to which they reflect the priorities of a wider range of people.

  A further issue, alluded to in the introduction to this submission, is that of the new skills, relationships and styles of working that citizen participation demands. The traditional model of representation is based on the notion of "place" and the idea that councillors are representatives of the area. However, "place" is only one form of community belonging. There are also communities of interest and identify that need to be taken account of as well as recognising multiple forms of belonging. LILA is based on a model of communities of place. Supplementing this with the views of different interests and identity communities on the WABs can only add to the richness of councillors' local knowledge and deepen their claim to be truly representative of the communities they serve.

  Ultimately, the vision for LILA and citizen participation is to secure greater community activism, rather than scientific consultation—ie a concern with representativeness. The LILA model is looking to engage people in local action and implementation. A key aspect of this is building local people's capacity for engagement. Involvement in the WAB is one of the ways in which local people can play a direct role in implementing strategies to meet local needs.

INVOLVING YOUNG PEOPLE

Costs and benefits

Across the council, it is possible to identify a growing number of projects related to the theme of citizenship and participation of young people. Several factors have contributed to these developments—the momentum for change within the Council, started by Birmingham Action on Child Care (BACC), that led to a number of initiatives, including the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (in 1994) and the Child Friendly City initiative as well as demands from young people themselves for greater involvement. There are three main threads that link together these various efforts to involve young people in the Council's decision-making and consultation processes:

  "Young Voices of Birmingham"—the City-wide Youth Council, inaugurated in December 1998 and drawing together youth representatives of area forums, the Young People's Parliament, some schools councils, voluntary organisations etc. The Young People's Parliament (YPP)—which is an independent charitable company, led by the City Council. The Parliament provides access to debate and citizenship education chiefly for schools, especially through the Internet.

  Local Involvement Local Action—where all Ward Committees have been encouraged to involve young people in some way. Examples of how this is happening have already been cited above.

  One of the major benefits of these initiatives is the opportunity they provide to share learning, encourage experimentation and innovation and support officers in consulting young people. The Innovations Scheme—set up as part of the Birmingham Young People's Consultation Project—aimed to support Council staff in trying out new ways of consulting children and young people. The scheme offered a mentor, evaluation and some small scale funding.

  Opportunities have also been created for councillors and officers to listen to and learn from young people who may be marginalised—for example, children and young people who are "looked after", disabled young people and so on.

  Several of these projects have been funded in whole or part by the additional resources allocated for youth provision since 1997-98. The local LILA budgets have also been an important source of support for local youth initiatives.

Implications for representative government and strengthening democratic processes

  Questions often arise about the ability of children and young people (particularly the younger age group) to be effective participants in consultation and participation processes and to make informed judgements or views. Our experience in Birmingham suggests that, in part, this is a reflection of the attitudes towards children and young people and their competence to express their own views and to influence decisions, a desire to protect children and young people, taking account of their vulnerability and uncertainty about the best ways to listen to their views.

  If children and young people are to be given a greater voice in defining what is important to them, then consultation and participation methods must be chosen which are flexible enough to take account of differences in, age, context and preferred form of communication.

  The Young People's Parliament is one example of an innovative approach developed by the Council to extend democratic participation and consultation amongst young people of all ages throughout the city. The YPP organises a variety of activities and events and supports these via the YPP Website, where Talkboards enable young people to have their say on a wide range of topics. Current activity includes:

    —  consultation with the Chief Education Officer on schools of the future;

    —  provision for the development of an elected YPP city-wide council;

    —  opportunities for young people to ask their constituency MPs questions;

    —  the selection of three young people to represent both Birmingham and the UK at the forthcoming G8 youth summit being held in Okinawa, Japan, in June.

  The YPP has worked with a range of city-council departments to extend consultation with young people, and this is a principal means for ensuring that issues for young people are integral to the workings of the Council.

  The YPP is currently supporting a joint bid with Sheffield for a European project, and is collaborating with Bristol (a sister site to Millennium Point) to develop links between the two centres. Additionally, the YPP website hosts virtual activity for the UK youth parliament, which has both cross-party and government support and is currently being developed in conjunction with the DfEE.

  There is growing recognition in the Council about the value of involving young people, not solely as emerging citizens but in terms of ensuring that policies and services take account of their needs. Birmingham has adopted a multi-faceted approach to participation and has built this into the Corporate Youth Strategy. There are still challenges, however, about engaging young people in adult-dominated processes and the need to encourage forms of communication within democratic processes that young people recognise and value. Our mechanisms for involving young people are becoming steadily stronger. For example, a group of young people used rap to communicate with the Ward Committee; another group of young people at a local school has formed a group called "Get Connected" and have been involved in carrying out an audit of resources for young people. They are also regular attendees at the Ward Committee, with youth issues featuring as a regular agenda item and with input from young people leading to Ward Committee minutes appearing on the web.

SOME REFLECTIONS AND ISSUES FOR FURTHER CONSIDERATION

  This final section of our submission shares some reflections on broader issues for citizen participation.

  1.  Do low levels of involvement in participation processes suggest that we should be cautious about their role, either in completing representative democracy or acting as a substitute to representative democracy?

    Inevitably, it is not realistic to expect everyone living in a particular locality to directly participate in the Ward Committee or community conference. However, if participatory processes are to add value to representative democracy, then steps do need to be taken to encourage more public involvement. Evidence from local and national studies suggest that community involvement can be increased when:

    (a)  the agenda focuses on issues that really matter to local people;

    (b)  people feel it is worthwhile, that they will be listened to and their contributions valued. Openness and honesty in the consultation process and clarity about the issues that are negotiable and non-negotiable are essential.

    (c)  Proactive outreach work is undertaken with credible local organisations that are in touch with individuals and groups in an area and can encourage their participation.

    At the same time, it is important to recognise that no one approach will meet the needs of all potential consultees. The availability of a variety of approaches to encourage involvement will, however, need to be balanced by concerns about consultation fatigue and overload. The development of a strategic consultation/participation framework is an important means to co-ordinate activities, whilst also making explicit the expectations for citizen engagement. The City Council is in the process of finalising its consultation strategy for Best Value in this respect.

  2.  A key message emerging from our Annual Opinion Survey is that most people tend to want more "information"—not necessarily to get more involved directly and to make decisions themselves. Only 27 per cent of those surveyed said they would like to have more say in what the Council does and the services it provides, with nearly half (47 per cent) simply wanting to be kept informed and to let the Council do its job. This should not necessarily be seen as positive endorsement of Council activities. There is evidence to suggest that people may be deterred from participation because of perceptions about tokenism (ie decisions are already made, so there is little point in taking part) and a lack of commitment on the part of local authorities to listening to their views.

  3.  Information is obviously central to democracy and to consultation—and it is the two-way flow of information (eg feedback on survey results, better access to information on local and service choices) which will make for a livelier and more robust local democracy. The central role of information is also emphasised in the potential of new IT to open up communications—particularly if cheaper, more intuitive technologies are available to provide wider access to the internet (eg interactive TV).

  4.  Referenda are often cited as an innovative approach to more deliberative forms of engagement. Referenda obviously take the consultation ladder a bit further—especially if they are binding and present more of a challenge to the representative model.

  The Democracy Commission is looking closely at this issue and we would not wish to pre-empt its conclusions.

  From our own consultation it is clear that the public see a lot of value in referenda, but they are divided as to whether they should be binding.

  Clearly referenda must have simple yes/no questions. One obvious example of their application (which would seem popular with the public) would be development control decisions (though it is difficult to see how these could avoid being binding). In other areas there could perhaps be a simplified general question for referenda, followed by more detailed decision making, within that framework, by officers and councillors. The key message is that people want to know what decisions are being made and how these are connected to local opinion.

  Many people seem to regard the local democratic process as under-performing in comparison to some private sector service providers, due to the lack of information and direct access to service choices and the difficulty of communicating with the Council. So, for example, ward councillors are seen by some as not delivering and not reporting back—not "doing their job". The call for referenda needs to be seen in this context as well as an issue of representative versus direct democracy.

  5.  It is also important to bear in mind that it is not just the representative principle which is now being seen in a wider context, but the party political system which accompanies it. There is evidence from consultation that the public mistrust party politics and believe that members put this before their "service delivery" role to the local community. The creation of directly elected leaders (eg the London Mayor) perhaps challenges the assumption that representative democracy must be party democracy in the familiar sense.

  Party politics and representative democracy will not, and should not, suddenly disappear. A hybrid, evolving system of democracy is more likely and desirable—adapted to local circumstances and needs. It would be unrealistic to adopt a determinist position with regard to the forces of change (whether public pressure, government policy or new technology). The challenge instead is to interweave and balance the various elements that make up the pattern (network) of democratic processes:

    —  Market research.

    —  Consultation/involvement.

    —  Direct citizen involvement—eg Ward Advisory Boards.

    —  Referenda.

    —  Local Executive arrangements.

    —  The representative role.

    —  Political parties.

  Democracy will be strengthened, not weakened, by the growth of this broader network of processes—but not if we try and project one dominant model of how democracy should operate.

  6.  Finally, there is the issue of support for democratic and citizen participation initiatives. The majority of activities and initiatives set out in this submission have been undertaken within existing resources. At a time when the emphasis is on the duty of Best Value in services, there are very real issues about the ability to sustain citizen participation approaches. The suggestion of an innovations grant is something that we would encourage the Select Committee to give further consideration to.

CONCLUSION

  This submission has attempted to highlight the implications of citizen participation initiatives for the political management of the local authorities in general and Birmingham City Council in particular.

  In summary, there are clearly benefits from engaging local citizens—ie opportunities to develop and deliver more responsive services that are consistent with the duty of Best Value, to the potential for renewing local democracy. For the organisation, it potentially means a shift away from hierarchical and vertical structures to more matrix-style working, with officers increasingly needing to have dual responsibilities for both service and democracy/governance functions. The implications for new lines of management accountability is still unfolding.

  There are also challenges for elected councillors, requiring them to develop and build new forms of relationships with local communities of place, identity and interests and with other agencies in order to promote understanding of their local areas and develop shared approaches to meeting diverse community needs. The new wellbeing power proposal within the Local Government Bill is a logical extension of this.

  The University of Birmingham through the Public Policy Partnership, with the City Council recently undertook a study into the impact of the modernisation agenda on the role of councillors[2]. The research found that councillors were generally supportive of public participation initiatives. However, concerns emerged around the issues of the representativeness of participants in consultation processes, the tendency for participation activities to be dominated by special interest groups and "out of touch or partisan community leaders". Although the elected representative role was generally valued, there were some anxieties about councillors becoming "unpaid social workers", the lack of support to the representative role and the issue of status vis-a"-vis that of the executive role.

  At the end of the day, the effectiveness of citizen participation initiatives must be judged in terms of the impact and outcomes for the communities served. Having a clear purpose for citizen engagement, ensuring that it is integrated into the dual responsibilities of local government—as service commissioner/provider and community leaders—and building into the organisation the capacity to re-profile services—are essential pre-requisites to success.

Sir Michael Lyons
Chief Executive
Birmingham City Council

Councillor Andy Howell
Deputy Leader
Birmingham City Council


1  Peter Beresford and Suzy Croft (1991) User Involvement: Tuning into the voice of the consumer. Open Services Project, London. Back
2  Decentralisation, Citizenship and Councillors: University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council, Professor Vivien Lowndes and Helen Sullivan, July 1998. Back

 
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