Cities and Democratic Renewal: Key Lessons for Policymakers

Cities and Democratic Renewal: Key Lessons for Policymakers

Henriette Ruhrmann

All over the world, citizens are becoming more disillusioned with politics and their democratic institutions (The New York Times, 2015). One consequence is more radical political stances (Berkeley Greater Good Magazine, 2018), creating rifts across our communities. Allowing citizens to actively participate in political processes can help address this issue and strengthen their belief in democratic policymaking. As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously highlighted: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Local government is closest to its citizens and offers many opportunities for meaningful citizen engagement. IPPO Cities brought together city policymakers and citizen engagement experts for a policy roundtable on local democratic renewal—and a lively discussion of what works and what does not [watch our video here]. Here are the most salient learnings for urban policymakers:

Widening the reach of meaningful citizen engagement with technology

Engaging with policymaking takes time and effort and competes with people’s commitments to their jobs, families, and friends. Citizen engagement formats are therefore often one of two extremes: superficial, yes-no-style referendums without meaningful dialogue or long-term in-depth citizens’ councils, which mostly favour those with the resources to participate.

Innovative technological solutions now offer a middle road: meaningful engagement with low entry barriers, allowing a wide range of individuals to participate. A team of researchers at the Technical University of Delft developed a new approach to online citizen engagement called the “Public Value Evaluation” (PVE). They successfully spun off the PVE into an independent start-up offering services to policymakers (Populytics). The PVE puts citizens in the chair of the policymaker, presenting them with a goal, policy alternatives, as well as limitations, for example, budget limits. The citizens evaluate the often-painful trade-offs and select their preferred policy option. The team behind the PVE has run simulated choice experiments at the local and national level with over 30,000 participants. Their simulations cover various issues, from COVID-19 to climate change or transportation needs. Implementing a PVE consultation carries a similar price tag as a traditional cost-benefit analysis—however, it delivers more nuanced qualitative information.

The Estonian e-Governance Academy consults on digital methods to co-create with citizens online. Recently, their team experimented with AI-enabled chat interfaces for citizens to engage with policy options. e-Democracy Programme Director Kristina Reinsalu highlights that playful approaches to citizen engagement are important to boost creativity when generating new ideas.

Making citizens’ visions for their city actionable through Neighbourhood Planning

When it comes to new development in a community, the authorities call the shots on which projects get approved and how they change the city’s character. Facilitating a meaningful discussion with large and diverse urban communities is challenging. The UK’s 2011 Localism Act introduced a new tool to give residents a say on the character of their community: Neighbourhood Planning.

Tomas Johnson, Senior Planner in Leeds, shares how the programme works in practice. First, local community groups develop a vision for their neighbourhood including the future development of land, housing, employment, and transport. If the neighbourhood plan can secure at least fifty per cent of votes in a referendum, it becomes part of the city’s development plan against which development applications are assessed. The big challenge Leeds is tackling now as part of a national pilot study is how to lower the barriers to neighbourhood planning for deprived communities.

Investing to engage with hard-to-reach communities

Including hard-to-reach communities with lower levels of economic security and educational attainment is key to good citizen engagement according to Luke Reikes, a long-term city councillor in Manchester. He cautions that poorly designed, low-resource engagement formats in which only a few privileged individuals participate entrench existing power structures. Designing such exclusionary engagement formats often leads to frustration in the community rather than acceptance.

How can engagement formats—online and offline—become more inclusive? Martijn de Vries and the team behind the PVE invest in language experts, animators, and voice actors. Depending on the target participants, they translate the consultation into A1-level language and integrate more images to help users with language barriers. Moreover, they take the consultation directly to harder-to-reach populations, for example, to homes for the elderly, schools, or city streets. Overall, the PVE team found that participants with lower education levels approve of PVE consultations even more than those with higher education levels. Tomas Johnson’s planning team in Leeds is experimenting with “community priority statements”, along with more accessible materials and lower administrative burdens. They also collaborate with an arts organisation to allow participation beyond spoken language.

Strengthening local government instead of supplanting it

Finally, Luke Reikes stresses that citizen engagement should not come at the expense of strong local representative democracy. He emphasises that engagement has inherent limitations and should complement local government rather than replace it. Specifically, he cautions against proposals to circumvent councils through direct citizen engagement, curtailing their already limited functions. Especially in the UK, the government is highly centralised, and he sees a need for greater devolution of power to local councils to bring the government closer to the people.