How can local government engage communities effectively?

Successful, democratic engagement and citizen participation in devolution should be based on the following three principles:


Deliberative 
Citizens should be given the time and resources to digest, explore and discuss information with each other before being asked to give their opinion or recommendations. Engagement should begin early and enable the public to shape not only answers to problems, but the questions asked and the topics considered.

Responsive
The engagement process should come with a commitment from a combined authority or devolution area to consider decisions and recommendations, and provide feedback on subsequent courses of action.

Legitimate
The citizens involved should be able to speak on behalf of a wider stakeholder group – whether a particular set of service users or a whole population. This can be achieved through representative sampling, by working systematically to involve civil society groups both large and small, or by individually offering the opportunity to participate to all members of a particular stakeholder group. Whichever approach is taken, it helps to clearly define the stakeholders being engaged and check that no single aspect the population is over or under represented.

A wide literature on democratic engagement and citizen participation describes the components of effective practice and can be explored further here


Roles for each stakeholder group

Increased democratic engagement requires a range of stakeholder groups to play a number of important roles:

  • Citizens give their time and energy – whether by attending a citizens' assembly, or adding comments to an online platform.
  • Mayors and councillors provide leadership by pushing for increased democratic engagement, ensuring  the necessary funding and resources required to build and sustain democratic infrastructure are available. Often acting as the public face for devolution, they promote the value of prioritising the contribution of local residents and communities.
  • Officers support the building and implementation of new democratic infrastructure. They ensure that democratic engagement and citizen participation are at the centre of implementation strategies within devolution.
  • Local organisations, such as the CVS and strategic partners, work with local government in a variety of different ways –or by providing their insight and expertise as community leaders.

Costs and resources

Successful democratic engagement requires the commitment of capacity and resources. Local government continues to face a period of financial challenge, however, the benefits of engaging citizens effectively has the potential to balance out some of these costs.

Existing networks and structures can be utilised in the first instance. For example, Neighbourhood planning forums, Healthwatch and other community groups can be engaged and incorporated into democratic engagement reducing the need to develop new, bespoke channels, and building on pre-established networks.

Devolved areas may be able fund democratic engagement and citizen participation through:

  • A percentage of newly created Single Investment Funds, allocated towards democratic engagement and citizen participation as part of the role of devolution teams;
  • Integrating and coordinating existing consultation and participation funds.