coproduction

Devolution in practice: why more public meetings ≠ more influence

by Claire Spencer

This admission will surprise no-one who has met me, but I am quite a fan of public meetings. I like it when people get together to share ideas, question received wisdom and debate in an open space. I like it that you can never quite anticipate who will come, or what they will say. And I certainly like it when decision-makers have to develop, discuss and explain their decisions with people affected by those decisions. Public meetings are a crucial element of democracy and (certainly as far as public institutions and agencies are concerned) need to be part of an overall, ongoing consultation strategy.

But not all public meetings give the public that opportunity to shape or interrogate decisions. When I worked at Chamberlain Forum, we produced a report into public sector consultation called ‘Are you being heard?‘, following a cross-sector research project. One thing that became clear was:

…that the insights of both residents and local public services may be ignored because decisions have already been made at a higher level, removed from the locality they will affect.

One example sticks in my mind particularly clearly. A couple of years ago, those assembled at that month’s Moseley & Kings Heath Ward Committee meeting were told by the Chair that the Safer Birmingham Partnership was offering money (£100,000 + contribution to the running costs) to install CCTV in the centre of Moseley – in response to antisocial behaviour issues in the area. The community was to be consulted on the locations of the cameras. One gentleman asked whether the money might be spent on youth services instead. Others agreed, why not spend the money on more preventative measures?

But the decision had been made. The community could decide whether to have the CCTV or not, and where it would go…but they were not part of the strategic decision-making process around crime and antisocial behaviour, or even present during a conversation where that strategy was being developed.

This situation didn’t arise due to a lack of public meetings. Rather, the substance of the decision had already been made by central and local government before it got to the public. There could have been 3, 5, 10 public meetings and it wouldn’t have changed a thing – the choice was CCTV, or no CCTV.

As such, Birmingham Labour’s localisation and devolution proposals do not seek to give local people more public meetings – they seek to give people more power to influence decisions that affect them by bringing those decisions to District (constituency*) level. Decisions about housing, youth services, community and play services, libraries, community safety, neighbourhood offices, sport and leisure services, refuse collection and street cleansing, highways services and environmental wardens are all made at District Level under Labour’s plans.

How much of a difference would this have made to my earlier example? There are a couple of things. Firstly, the ability to influence housing, community safety, youth services, sport and leisure services and environmental wardens would have given the community more scope to shape preventative approaches to crime and antisocial behaviour from the start. Secondly, a closer relationship between those services and local people would have made earlier involvement of the community in exploring CCTV as part of a response to crime and ASB more likely.

I prefer Labour’s system – different areas have somewhat different needs and priorities, and should be able to reflect those needs and priorities in the services they commission. But under both the old and the new systems, there is a crucial element which determines the success or failure of involvement and local influence – a culture of listening and communicating within Birmingham City Council (extending from officers and councillors and extending to contractors and delivery partners). If decision-makers do not listen when people speak to them, or do not provide adequate mechanisms for conversations to occur, all the advantages of devolution – engineered co-production, tailored services, community buy-in – are lost.

******

In a somewhat roundabout fashion, this brings me to the reason for writing this. Some people were unhappy at one part of Labour’s localisation and devolution proposals – namely that District (formerly Constituency) Committees would a) be based in the city centre and b) no longer allow members of the  public to speak. They felt that this amounted to slicing their influence in half.

My argument, based on the above, is that shortening the distance between people and decision-makers, and the culture of listening and communicating, is far more important. In my experience as a community activist, the most meaningful influence over local decision-making occurs via emails, conversations and community-organised meetings and events. If decision-makers are serious about engagement, they will use a multitude of tools and structures to listen.

But I do have some sympathy for those who are worried. After all, trust in systems, in people, has to be earned. Ultimately, the District Committees have the power to meet where they like – and some have already started to exercise that power. If the expenses of meeting locally are significant, or if extra meetings have to be held, then those committees will have to demonstrate that the benefits of holding the meeting locally justifies the expenditure. Conversely, those that hold meetings centrally will want to consider whether they are getting value from that arrangement. Time and practice will tell.

 

 

*the distinction between District and Constituency has been questioned by a few people that I have spoken to. The Districts align with the current parliamentary constituencies. When the boundaries of the parliamentary constituencies change (one proposal is that Moseley & Kings Heath and Sparkbrook join Selly Oak and Edgbaston to make a new Birmingham Edgbaston constituency), the Districts will not change with them. This is to ensure that the City Council escapes from service delivery complications arising from wards outside of the Birmingham local authority area (such as Castle Bromwich) becoming part of Birmingham parliamentary constituencies.

 

Moseley & Kings Heath Labour: working with you for a better future

Moseley and Kings Heath Labour Party is a campaigning branch that meets regularly and holds a range of political education sessions. As community activists with a shared value set we are proud to be part of this community – working with interest groups and through local forums, supporting all that is great about our community and our City.

Working together in our communities we can make a difference.

We cannot and will not stand by and watch the Liberal Democrats prop up the Tories nationally and locally and let them take away our and our children’s future. Local elections this May are your first chance to send a message to the Tory-led government and their friends the Lib Dems that people won’t stand for it.

Join us today in our regular campaigning activity and together we can make change for the better.

Leaflet: The Great Cuts Gamble – March 2011

Birmingham is facing a budgetary cut of 8.9 percent in 2011; and we are already feeling the effects in our communities. Our Tory-led government blames everything on the structural deficit – but this deficit will only be closed if tax revenues – from people being in work, from businesses being in business – are increased. The government has lost sight of this, and are just cutting thoughtlessly, and our Tory-Liberal Democrat Council are not making that argument for the people of Moseley, Kings Heath and Birmingham.

In Moseley & Kings Heath, our excellent Town Centre Manager will be funded until October, but after that, prospects for maintaining a publicly-funded post are grim. It is to the credit of the Kings Heath Town Centre Partnership that they are looking for ways to keep the Town Centre Management in post – it shows sense and foresight. Economically sustainable local growth is fast falling down the Tory-Liberal Democrat Council’s priority list.

So look out for our latest leaflet, the great cuts gamble, which will be coming through your letterbox in the next week or so – and if you want to raise an issue, or have solutions to offer, get in touch. The more we’re talking to you, the better we’ll work together in creating a brighter future for our neighbourhood.

Moseley & Kings Heath Labour tweets

There are no recent tweets.