Issue 8: January 2014

POWER TO THE PEOPLE?

By Mark Diffley, Director, Ipsos MORI Scotland

For years it has been argued that democracy in Britain is in crisis; participation rates in elections are falling, mistrust of politicians is rising and the public seems less connected with the political process than ever before.

This argument applies to local government in Scotland as much as to any other layer of government in Britain and partly explains why CoSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) took the lead in setting up  the  independent Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy at the end of 2013.

The Commission’s purpose is to identify how a shift in power to local democracy in Scotland can be achieved, regardless of the result of September’s independence referendum, including how the current arrangements for delivering local services can be ‘strengthened and enriched to benefit local people most.’

Making local democracy more accountable and beneficial to citizens will not be easy. A recent survey Ipsos/MORI conducted to inform the work of Commission clearly highlights the scale of the challenges ahead.

Making local democracy more accountable and beneficial to citizens will not be easy

There are a number of findings from the survey which illustrate the problems; firstly 6 in 10 adults told us that they do not feel part of how decisions which affect their community are made, an opinion that is shared among those of all ages and from deprived and affluent neighbourhoods alike. This detachment from the current landscape is reinforced with the finding that fewer than half of adults (44%), and only a third of young adults (34%), feel clear about who makes decisions about how local services are delivered in their area.

Many people also see local government as too remote and increasingly irrelevant; the majority of us (60%) believe that decisions about public services are taken too far away from where we live and more than half of us (54%) think that central government controls more decisions about local decisions than it did in the past, both of which we view negatively.

But while the challenge of reimagining local democracy may be considerable there are some reasons for the Commission to feel optimistic. There are signs from the survey that, not only does the public support change to the current arrangements, many would like to have some involvement in improving the quality of life in their community.

There are signs from the survey that, not only does the public support change to the current arrangements, many would like to have some involvement in improving the quality of life in their community.

Indeed, the vast majority of people (82%) agreed with the statement that they would like more say in how services are provided in their neighbourhood (42% strongly agreed). And this desire to have a say in service provision is equally strong among those in Scotland’s most deprived communities (83% agreed) where it is often assumed that people feel more disengaged and less willing to participate. Furthermore, more than three-quarters told us that they would get more involved in their local community if it were easier to participate in the decisions that affect it, a figure that rose to 87% among those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland.

What should we make of these findings and what should the Commission do next? While it is encouraging to see such enthusiasm for citizens to be engaged in improving their communities, the reality of getting people out to a community centre on a wet Tuesday night in February may be more difficult. To counter this participation should be encouraged by making it easy and accessible, offering different methods of engagement to suit the needs of different people, and by giving people a clear understanding of what is expected of them and what positive impact they could potentially have. It will also be important to ensure that new forums established for local people to influence decision-making are not dominated by an unrepresentative group who pursue narrow agendas.

For the Commission to make the most of these initial findings and explore how these encouraging signs could become reality, more in-depth qualitative research would be helpful. This would help in understanding how citizens would most like to participate, explore barriers to participation in greater detail and tease out what power citizens expect to have in order to ensure that their views are heard and acted upon.

Mark Diffley is a Director, Ipsos MORI Scotland

By Mark Diffley, Director, Ipsos MORI Scotland

Issue 8: January 2014

Issue 8: January 2014

SMART CITIES: SMART SERVICES: SMART WORKING

Smart Cities: Smart Services: Smart Working Editorial

In focusing on 'Smart Cities' let's start with a few teaser questions (answers at the foot of this column)...

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