“Docking-in”: making traditional governance fit for purpose in a hyper-localist world

Posted on 22/10/2020 by Ed Hammond.

More councils are starting to experiment with different forms of decision-making. The emergence of mutual aid networks at the outset of the pandemics – agile, highly local, groups of neighbours getting together at street level to offer immediate help to the vulnerable – contrasts unfavourably with the lumbering setup of the national, NHS-led volunteering scheme. This reflects a continuation – an acceleration, perhaps – of the pre-existing trend towards more community-focused decision-making in local government. This trend was crystallised in the New Local paper “The community paradigm” last year and continues with their work on the Ostrom Project. We reflected on this direction of travel in our paper “Culture, governance and collaboration”. 

Central to that paper was the idea that local areas should come together to produce a “community constitution” – something that would:

  • Create a framework which allows agreement of mutually endorsed outcomes and priorities;
  • Be owned by all local partners and leaders in an area (bearing in mind our broad definition of “leaders” and leadership);
  • Provide a mechanism for leaders, across the place, to hold each other to account;
  • Clearly articulate roles and responsibilities, and set out the framework for collaboration and deliberative decision-making;
  • Express the new behaviours – including the new political culture – necessary for these things to be successful;
  • Establish the changes that councils and other bodies might need to make to their governance and communications systems for this to work;
  • Establish how information sharing, transparency, insight/evidence-led decision-making will operate.

This post is about the penultimate point – changes to existing governance systems. If we are going to see a proliferation of decision-making at the most local level, of more co-production, of more community activism, of more citizens’ assemblies, of other, similar, ventures – how will these “dock in” to our traditional systems? This will be one of the areas of focus for a campaign on local governance which we will be running over the coming months. 

This was a point which the recently published report of the Newham Democracy Commission – for which we provided research support – commented on.

Our last post highlighted the positive fragmentation to governance that these kinds of arrangements might bring about – the mix of stakeholders and how they need to work together. Individual institutions will still need their own governance systems however – the task is to think about how these novel decision-making systems “dock in” to those arrangements.

In local government, how might citizens’ assemblies and co-production arrangements dock in to Cabinet, to full Council, to scrutiny? No-one wants to be in a situation where councils can, and do, simply ignore the outcomes of innovative experiments in local democracy where the results aren’t what formal decision-makers like the look of. These kinds of experiments always run the risk of failing at the final hurdle – when proposals, pored over by local people over many weeks or months, flounder on implementation or stay stuck on an officers’ desk.

Safeguards and protections are perhaps needed, to put these new systems on a similar footing to our traditional governance arrangements. Constitutions need to be amended, to recognise the presence now, or presence in the future, of those bodies, and to provide certainty to participants that arrangements exist for autonomous, local decision-making, with the council as the guarantor of those arrangements. These arrangements can also form the kernel of the kind of community constitution described above.

This will involve a ceding of power and control. It may be seen by some as part of the battle between “representative” democracy – by councillors, and others who owe their legitimacy to their having been elected – and “participative” democracy, a form of decision-making which could be more threatening and risky to those traditional decision-makers. But these two forms of democracy are not in tension. Recognition of the need to expand out decision-making, to democratise local democracy itself, will help in the kind of local debate that will be necessary if we are to weather the uncertainty of the coming months and years.




About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.