Citizen participation: building consensus or facilitating conflict?

Involving the community as a means of resolving seemingly intractable ‘wicked’ policy problems is now a long-standing pre-occupation of government not only in the UK, but across developed democracies. These objectives are underpinned by a positive view of community as holding some sort of resource, mutual trust and shared values which government can tap into and employ for its own policy agenda. The challenge of engaging citizens formed the basis of a recent workshop held in Amsterdam involving researchers and practitioners from across Europe and funded by the UK-Netherlands Partnership Programme in Science. One of the themes in a wide ranging debate focused on a key dynamic of citizen participation initiatives and activities that of consensus – often assumed in policy design and sought in practice – and conflict, which can emerge within communities where divergent interests, values and identities can come to the fore.

In the New Labour period, citizens were variously ‘activated, empowered and made the subjects of responsibilities as well as rights’ (Clarke 2005, 447). The New Labour period can be in part characterised by a tidal wave of initiatives, funding streams, governance structures and good practice guidance aiming to engage with citizens and encourage their participation in decision making and governance; as a means of  addressing concerns about social exclusion and the democratic deficit. A series of criticisms have emerged about this activity:

  • Agenda setting: the ‘top down’ funding of many initiatives and the perception of community as a resource in delivering policy objectives, has meant that in numerous initiatives, government has set the agenda for participation without input from the community
  • ‘Big tent’ politics: New Labour’s attempt to forge an electoral consensus is mirrored in the design of its participation initiatives which have been seen to privilege consensus and marginalise dissent
  • Contradictions: whilst some policies engaged positively with citizens, in other policies however, for example around anti-social behaviour and access to welfare, citizens were ignored, neglected and pathologised. The language and rhetoric of citizen participation is often about seeking the engagement of ‘real’ or ‘ordinary’ citizens and at the same time, dismissing those awkward citizens or ‘usual citizens’ who do not share the government’s agenda. These contradictions mean that no clear role for citizens or view of what citizen participation should look like has emerged from this period
  • Impact: uncomfortable evidence for the New Labour government emerged at the latter end of their administration, showing slowing social mobility, growing residential segregation and widening inequality and the limited lasting impact of many initiative

The new Tory-led Coalition government in the UK, formed in the aftermath of the May 2010 General Election, has continued to encourage citizens to get involved not only in decision making which affects their everyday lives but also in social action and in delivering services which they use. Perhaps the major shift though is in the economic context of citizen participation. In the New Labour period, citizen participation was often held together by the ‘glue’ of public funding, citizens could get involved in spending money allocated to their local communities for regeneration, health, education and so on. Now in a context of radical localist austerity that we now find ourselves in, the New Labour period is likely represent a high water mark of funding for citizen participation.

The lack of funding and the rhetoric of localism employed by the current government may mean however, that they are less able to structure the opportunities for citizen engagement. In the absence of government as an ‘honest’ broker and with the impact of the government’s deficit reduction strategy, will the ‘consensus’ which has been sought in citizen participation, the resources of social capital and trust perceived to be held in ‘communities’ which government is interested in, break down? Will citizen participation decline, become less representative of the wider community, be open to the few rather than the many?

Or is the opportunity to voice greater dissent within communities and between communities and government not necessarily a bad thing? We are starting to see increased action from citizens around the government’s agenda of cuts in public spending, from the student anti-fees protests to the recent TUC day of action. If participation is more ad hoc, less controlled by government and increasingly explicitly related to issues which citizens feel are important to their everyday lives, is this not more attractive and what government’s have – rhetorically at least- been trying to achieve for a number of years? Is this sort of action, a threat to democracy or a re-vivification of mass participation that democracy needs?

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