Participatory democracy and co-production in local government

Photo: Robert Laliberte

 Socialist Resistance is publishing this article from Rick Hatcher with his permission because we think it raises important questions for the left:

Neoliberalism has two complementary dynamics – ‘roll-back’ neoliberalism and ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism. Roll-back neoliberalism entails the dismantling of the welfare state. It includes the massive cuts in the budgets and powers of local councils. Roll-out neoliberalism entails the construction of new policies, often in response to the problems created by roll-back neoliberalism. This is a crucial issue for local councils, who are now in the process of developing a new political project for local government.

There are three elements of this new roll-out project. One, especially in the big cities outside London, concerns the local economy. The second is a new council model of neighbourhood governance. The third element is a new model of social provision by councils. Birmingham provides an example of all three, though here I’m not going to deal with the local economy element.

In 2014 the government sent Sir Bob Kerslake, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, to Birmingham to review the city’s governance because of the failure of the Labour Council to carry out the internal restructuring needed to deliver the neoliberal agenda efficiently. The review was published in December 2014. It contains three key requirements which have driven the council up till today:

1. More efficient central corporate leadership and management of the Council. This Includes the management of and drastic cuts in the workforce.
2. External partners – private and third sector – not only as external providers of services but as partners in the governance of the city. As the report says, the council ‘needs to work much harder to align its priorities with its partners’.
3. A new relationship with the community. The report says: ‘By working together with local communities relatively modest steps can help pressure on resources by reducing the consumption of services and supporting local communities to help themselves and, where necessary, giving people the tools they need to do so.’ (p48).

In 2018 Locality, a government-funded body, published People Power. The Foreword is by Kerslake, now a Lord and Chair of the Commission on the Future of Localism. He says:

Power doesn’t belong to decision-makers to ‘give away’: we need a localism agenda which makes the case that power starts with people. It lies in our communities. The task of the political system and our local leaders is to harness this power through ongoing relationships, engagement and co-creation. (p5)

Neoliberal localism

This is the rhetoric of neoliberal localism, and the concept at its centre is co-production. In a powerpoint slide in December 2018 Birmingham Council defined it as follows:

Co-production is a way of working where everybody works together on an equal basis to create a service or come to a decision which works for them all. Co-production is a process which involves citizens in the design and delivery of services.

The co-production agenda takes two related forms. One is the promotion of local governance structures: neighbourhood assemblies, Ward Forums, urban parish councils. In Birmingham these are the policies of the new Council White Paper ‘Working Together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’, published in January 2019.

The second form is the co-production of council services. It is exemplified in Birmingham by the council’s ‘Proposed Strategy for Day Opportunities’ (1 April 2019):

At every opportunity, Birmingham City Council will use co-production to design services with service users, carers, and service providers within day opportunities. Co-production groups have been established to inform some of the content of this draft strategy. (p7)

The Day Opportunities policy includes the ‘Neighbourhood Network Schemes’, a national policy which was adopted in Birmingham in November 2017 but is only now being put into practice, managed on behalf of the Council by BVSC – Birmingham Voluntary Service Council:

Neighbourhood Network Schemes are locality and constituency based networks which enable the engagement with and investment in community assets.
This is for the purposes of supporting older people to connect with individuals, groups, organisations, activities, services and places in their local neighbourhood.
This approach is integral to a new community social work model, and the overall investment by Birmingham City Council’s Adult Social Care & Health in “Prevention First”. (BVSC 2019)

To assist this an online Community Asset Directory was published in March 2019 listing a thousand local organisations in the city which can offer support, ranging from allotments to Zumba, and including many church and mosque groups.

The question is, how should we respond to the co-production agenda, both in local governance and in local service provision? It certainly can have some benefits for service users and communities. For example, Ward Forums and similar bodies may give citizens some limited opportunity to have some influence on policy delivery at the neighbourhood level. Much more significant are the potential benefits of co-production of social services jointly between users, professionals and communities, leading to better provision and improved outcomes.

But there are also two major problems. First, co-production is frequently used as a justification for, and sticking-plaster to cover, cuts in Council services. It was symptomatic that at a recent initial public presentation of the Neighbourhood Network Scheme in Birmingham by a senior officer his first argument for it was that it would reduce costs (presumably through reductions in staff).

False impression

Co-production is also being used to give a false impression of citizen and community power while actually legitimating top-down neoliberal managerialism. The fundamental problem with how co-production as used by local councils is that popular participation is confined to the lowest levels of the policy structure. In the case of local governance, there is limited citizen participation in deciding priorities for some service delivery issues in Ward Forums and similar neighbourhood-level bodies. But there is no participation in the bodies where the strategic decisions are made – predominantly the Cabinet, though Scrutiny Committees may also have some influence – apart from occasional public consultation exercises. These bodies are exclusively the domain of elected councillors and senior officers.

Similarly with social services: there may be co-production at the level of interpersonal professional-client relations or community-provider relations but there is no co-production at the strategic level of the design, commissioning and democratic accountability of services, again apart from any limited consultation exercises. For example, Birmingham Council’s recent launch of a monthly open ‘People for Public Services: Citizen Engagement Forum’ on Adult Social Care – essentially a consultation and promotion exercise but with an opportunity for public dialogue – is a positive step forward.

But at the same time the Council is setting up the Neighbourhood Network Scheme on a constituency basis, each with a charity as ‘Delivery partner’ with a contract and budget. There has been no participation by users and the local communities – no co-production – in the design of the contracts and which partnership bodies get them, nor in how they will be held publicly accountable. That is all decided by the Cabinet and senior officers. There is top-level co-production, but it is only between them and the management of the thriving ‘third sector’ organisations to whom the contracts are out-sourced.

This antipathy to public participation in the strategic decision-making process is typical of local Councils. The current model in the vast majority of councils is the Cabinet and Scrutiny model, introduced by Tony Blair in 2000. This imported into local councils a highly-centralised business model of governance by a small group of Cabinet members. They are supposed to be held to account by the Scrutiny Committees, but, as Parliamentary reports recognise, Scrutiny is too weak to be effective. The taken-for-granted top-down mindset of many Labour local councillors is exemplified by a report published last year by the Local Government Association Labour Group, representing Labour councillors, On Day One: Labour in local government’s priorities for the next Labour Government. How a Jeremy Corbyn-led administration could work with local government to deliver for the many, not the few. In the whole 72 pages there is only one brief passing reference to participation by citizens at any level.

But a very different position is taken in a recent Labour Party Consultation Paper, Democratic Public Ownership, commissioned by John McDonnell and published in September 2018. It establishes some principles and arguments which have fundamental implications not only for Council public services but for Councils’ governance regimes too. The report says:

Statements by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and other Labour frontbenchers, have not
only made the case for public ownership, but suggested more diverse and democratic forms of ownership that involve users, workers, and other stakeholders in governance structures.

The core argument of the report is that:An organisation, and indeed sector, should be run by the people who have the experience, skills, knowledge, and competence to do this. However, this is always a collective learning process and is done best where the considerable diverse knowledges of the workforce and citizenry are brought together to inform the decision-making process.

An organisation, and indeed sector, should be run by the people who have the experience, skills, knowledge, and competence to do this. However, this is always a collective learning process and is done best where the considerable diverse knowledges of the workforce and citizenry are brought together to inform the decision-making process.

In June this year the Labour Party published a new policy paper, From Paternalism to Participation: Putting civil society at the heart of national renewal, which took the argument further.

LABOUR WANTS people to have a bigger say over the public decisions and the public services that affect them, with more direct accountability to service users where possible. Charities, voluntary and community organisations all have a role to play in making sure the most vulnerable, in particular, are able to participate in decisions that affect them.

We will promote collaborative decision making, encouraging public service providers to involve their service users in taking decisions about how those services are run, the outcomes they are working towards, and the support they offer. This cannot be limited to consultation alone – people need the power to assert their voice when those in power refuse to listen, and civil society has an important role in acting as their advocates and champions. This will mark a radical change from top-down approach to public services and put services users and front-line workers in the driving seat. (p10)

Potentially radical

Together these papers mark out a new and potentially radical model for how councils work. Real co-production means effective participation by service users and service workers – by citizens – in strategic policy-making at Council House level, not just in service delivery at neighbourhood level. It would be a new combination of representative and participatory democracy in Council Houses and Town Halls that would open the door to popular challenge to dominant policies and power structures that perpetuate social injustice and to the development of radical alternatives.

The Labour party papers establish principles and policy direction but they don’t spell out what they would mean in practice for local council structures and processes. In fact Labour has had virtually nothing to say about its policies for local government reform. (The refusal of Angela Rayner, the shadow secretary of state for education, to give a commitment to restore academies to local authorities is a contentious case in point.)

But there are three basic reforms which would transform local government through democratic popular participation and which a Council could put into practice tomorrow, even under the present government. It’s just a matter of political will. They are these:

1. For Council Committees with participation by the users and providers of services
Each Cabinet Portfolio service sector should establish an advisory committee comprising a group of Councillors together with representatives of service users and the workers providing the service. Sub-committees could be set up as needed. Alternatively, Councils could scrap the Cabinet model altogether and return to a Committee system, which they are legally allowed to do, again with representatives of service users and workers.

2. For participation by the users and providers of services in each Scrutiny Committee
All Scrutiny Committees are allowed to co-opt members and therefore there should also be representatives of service users and the workers providing the service on each Committee. Again, sub-committees could be set up if needed.

3. For Citizen Forums
It should be a basic civic right that the Council facilitates meetings of citizens with common concerns and interests that extend beyond the boundaries of individual wards. Citizen Forums, on whatever issues and on whatever geographical scales people want, from neighbourhood to authority-wide, would enable a vital horizontal connection between service users, workers who provide them, communities and councillors, creating a rich fabric of shared experiences, knowledge and ideas for improvement.

In addition Councils should set up a digital network to enable online participatory democracy in policy-making, like Decidim – We Decide – in Barcelona, the city council’s free open-source system.

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1 Comment on Participatory democracy and co-production in local government

  1. Stephen Griffiths // 7th July 2019 at 4:27 pm // Reply

    Most Thoughtful How do we organize across regions. The Mayoral Election
    2020 are not part of any regional assembly elections or in Birmingham none at all.
    Radical democratic reform for a Corbin Labour Party along this line
    must be part of any General Election Manifesto.
    This would empower our class and its alies fighting for Ecosocialim,
    devolution,and transition.

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