This week is Local Democracy Week. Designed mainly with young people in mind (see Power Recommendation 16) the week will be a celebration of engagement by engagement. As Shaun Woodward MP suggests on his blog - 'this is a chance to engage in those institutions that sometimes seem remote, out of touch or simply unavailable’. Which institutions are those? The Cabinet Office, Department of Health, Political parties?…he means our local council. Shaun continues, ‘The truth is that many people simply do not know who their councillors are, or who runs their basic every day services like rubbish collection or street maintenance’. Quite.
So what are our councils up to?
According to Wakefield Council, young people will take part and take power in this year's Local Democracy Week, which seems like a rather low key mutiny than what South Ribble Borough Council has in mind – they have been planning events to coincide with Local Democracy Week since 2002.
Meanwhile Hounslow Council's website has a series of fun games which promote local democracy and citizenship. You can download them at www.demgames.org/hounslow - the aim being to encourage the next generation to think about the value of democracy and what it means at a local level.
But this is only for one week. Some of the ideas employed by local councils are at best tired, at worst an attempt to keep the public at arms length. Wheeling out the local councillors is important (and so is this week) but what we really need is for citizens to feel that they are being listened to on a consistent basis and are making a genuine impact on their local council. One week just isn’t enough ...
The Power Inquiry highlighted the success of initiatives like the Open Budget designed to give Harrow residents a more direct and detailed say over their local council’s 2006/07 budget, largely through the organisation of a large deliberative assembly.
And the Inquiry came up with a whole bunch of recommendations like creating local democracy hubs; giving citizens the right to initiate the legislative process, public inquiries and lots more (but I am running out of space). In a line – democracy is not just about a set of structures - it’s an activity – and councils should remember that for next year’s fun and games.
If this all looks rather depressing read Tom Bentley's Everyday Democracy - we can make a difference.