Innovation in democracy and politics

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Last week I attended the inaugural event of the The Bernard Crick Centre for political understanding (you can watch a recording here). The debate was primarily focused on engagement in UK democracy. The event was interesting and a credit to those who ran it, but to my mind the proceedings were quite representative of how we go about ‘doing democracy’ in the UK: expert-led debate, well-trodden arguments about institutional failings, rehashed generalisations about disaffected youth and very few alternatives being provided. Continue reading

Towards Civic Capitalism: The Social Quality of Participatory Democracy

The Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) recently launched an initiative for developing a new capitalism to replace the failed Anglo-American neo-liberal model, which the Coalition Government clings to despite the model’s fiscal and moral bankruptcy. This new civic capitalism would emphasise people as citizens within a democratic polity, seeking sustainable and socially just economic growth, rather than the unsustainable consumerism of selfish individualism, socially destructive levels of inequality, and increasing precarity for the majority of people created by the neo-liberal model of capitalism. Continue reading

Participatory Budgeting and Possibilities for Deepening Democracy

For the uninitiated participatory budgeting (or PB) is a two-and-a-half decade old innovation of direct citizen involvement in decision-making over the allocation of public finances. In simple terms, PB refers to ordinary citizens, instead of public officials, deciding on public spending at local and regional levels (Lerner, 2011). But there are many different variations of PB which range from merely consultative to genuinely participatory, empowering and inclusive (see Sintomer et al., 2008 for descriptions of various models).  PB can also be more or less democratic, and not all PB processes contain a democratic component (which suggests that attention to the content and practice of what is often called ‘PB’ is paramount).

PB began in the reawakened democracy of late 1980s Brazil following military dictatorship and has since spread across the globe, under the influence of both radical activists and the World Bank. Usually implemented at the municipal or local authority level, in Brazil PB grew to allow citizens to influence up to one fifth of the core municipal budgets in some cities, with redistributive, empowering and social justice aims. This has been a shining light in progressive politics, celebrated in the World Social Forum, and an example of radical participatory democracy having a positive social and economic impact on a vastly unequal society in which democracy was eradicated and the living conditions of the poorest were worsened by the junta. Elsewhere, aside from democratic processes in Kerala, India for example, PB has rarely matched these heights of participatory democracy, and in the UK experience, the process has often seemed tokenistic, concerned with minor discretionary funds in a narrow voting process. Continue reading

Book Review: Community Research for Participation (2012)

At a time when social scientists have to demonstrate more than ever the value and applicability of their work, community research is an increasingly attractive alternative to traditional methodologies. Central to this burgeoning methodology is the recognition that the traditional objects of social research possess skills and expertise that can make invaluable contributions to projects, generating contextualised knowledge alongside, rather than about, local communities.

Community research provides an answer to persistent entreaties for academics to climb down from the Ivory Tower and get their hands dirty, such as Clair Shaw’s recent account of ‘flipped academics’  in The Guardian. Similarly, the interest in Bent Flyvbjerg’s Real Social Science: Applied Phronesis (reviewed here by Flora Cornish) is testament to the popularity of the turn to practice that community research embodies. Despite this, there is a paucity of texts dealing with the theoretical and practical issues involved with conducting research with communities. As such Lisa Goodson and Jenny Phillimore from the Institute for Applied Social Studies at the University of Birmingham have compiled a rich and timely methodological text by drawing on a number of disciplinary backgrounds and national contexts. Continue reading

The trouble with the ‘New’ Localism

I recently attended an excellent seminar at Birkbeck, University of London discussing the emergence of the ‘new’ localism agenda in UK politics. The panel considered some interesting questions concerning the nature of the state/citizen relationship, and whilst there was predictable disparity between the views on offer, it became increasingly clear that under the Coalition government, the UK is well on a path to localism. This article discusses some of the emerging issues and considerable challenges with implementing the localism agenda.

Phillip Blond, director of the think tank ResPublica, began with the increasingly popular view that representative democracy is failing. In Blond’s opinion this has come about in part because the New Labour project of centralisation prioritised the unobtainable goal of universal provision, encouraging a non-responsive and rigid system of service supply. The answer to this in Blond’s view is to establish ‘hyper local’ institutions that can develop accountability at community level. The problem here is that the Big Society – a set of initiatives that Blond was instrumental in developing – is predicated on just such a system, and it has already failed. Continue reading

Conceptual spaghetti: or why the Big Society won’t work.

It’s been over three years now since the Big Society was first launched at the Hugo Young Lecture in December 2009. Since that time there have been countless articles dissecting David Cameron’s flagship idea, and it’s fair to say that the majority of these articles have been negative. In some respects the Big Society is a blank canvas onto which various parties have projected their own fears. The lack of a clear message from Number 10 means that in some quarters it is seen as little more than a joke.

But this is a naive view: at it’s best the Big Society can be seen as an inducement for citizens to volunteer and do good, but at it’s worst it is a dangerous gamble predicated on the hope that the third sector can provide core public services. More often than not policies such as these are simply regarded in functionalist terms as indicative of cuts to public expenditure. Indeed it is now an established argument to see the Big Society as an ideological fig-leaf used to cover up the deep and destructive spending cuts currently being implemented (Corbett & Walker, 2012). An agenda it may be, but the Big Society suffers from it’s own problems too. Continue reading