Research: understanding the role of councillors in local participation

As part of our research, we’re planning a project to map the opinions and attitudes of local councillors about participatory democracy. One point that’s been reinforced through the early stages of Public Square is that piloting new local participatory exercises requires the buy-in of the elected councillors. The goal is a better understanding of how representative and participatory democracy fit together.

What we mean by participatory democracy

While there are many forms participatory democracy can take, broadly it can be understood as providing mechanisms for “[d]irect influence for citizens on the decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods”.  As a different source of ideas and authority, participatory democracy can be in conflict with the functions of councillors in representing the opinions and interests of citizens. While not party political, participatory exercises are political in that they affect how and what decisions are made. This might lead to outcomes that would not have appeared through the representative process — and even outcomes that representatives might collectively have opposed. For the reverse angle, the outputs of participatory processes can be selectively approved so that the outcomes that make it into policy are those where there is no conflict.

Understanding how the role of the councillor is changing

The conflict between these two systems shapes not only the design of participatory systems, but how and when their outputs become policy. From our early work, this is not a straightforward collision between an established representative model and new forms of participation, but an ongoing and shifting debate about what the role of a councillor is as the role of local authorities themselves change. One of the goals of this research is to help shape how future projects are pitched and structured to smooth over problems and provide confidence in the legitimacy of participatory processes and their outcomes. 

For instance, the University of Birmingham project,  The 21st Century Councillor, identifies a number of different ways a councillor might position themselves in reaction to systematic factors acting on local government. This shows the diversity of how councillors might understand their own role and how different people might choose different angles on participation while sharing the same job title.

External understanding of the role of councillors is far less nuanced — the London Borough of Lewisham’s Democracy Review found that citizens (and even council staff) were generally unclear on the role of councillors. This review also raises interesting questions about how participation interacts with electoral politics. All of Lewisham’s councillors are Labour councillors, and so naturally all councillors involved in the democracy review were members of the same party (which was criticised by the local Liberal Democrats).

New forms of participation may be even more important for areas where lack of electoral competition removes a key mechanism of public participation — but participatory action is not above party politics. For one-party councils, it may play a legitimising role by forming a new picture of local democracy that de-emphasises electoral competition. On the other hand, it may provide political groups alternative venues for participation when not in elected office.  

Get in touch

We’re still in the early stages of this research, so if there’s anything that would be useful for us to know or look into, please get in touch!