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Citizens, participation and economics – emerging findings from the Citizens’ Economic Council

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  • Economic democracy
  • Economics and Finance

The Citizens’ Economic Council programme has been piloting models of engagement that seek to enable citizens, including those ‘left-behind’ citizens in Leave areas, to ‘take back control’ over the economic decisions that affect their lives.

“I feel I have no voice in society. I don’t have a concept of my voice being heard.” - Participant, RSA Citizens Economic Council workshop, Oldham

In the RSA’s Citizens’ Economic Council interim report, published ahead of the Autumn Budget in 2017, we caution that decision-makers need to find new ways of engaging citizens earlier and upstream in economics to avoid the annual Budget media controversies  such as ‘pasty-gate’ or the 10p tax row.

Drawing upon roadshow workshops held in Clacton-on-Sea, Port Talbot, Glasgow, Birmingham, as well as nine day-long workshops on economics with randomly selected citizens, we show how the UK public’s decline in trust in politicians, economists and business is closely connected to the distance they feel from decisions made about the economy. Something brought to light by both the ‘Brexit’ vote and the Edelman Barometer 2017.

In Port Talbot, a town deeply affected by the steel crisis, one participant sketched the following when asked to draw an image of how they saw the economy:

Our report illustrates how inequalities, such as gender and regional effects, are often overlooked, or rendered overlooked or invisible, by national narratives about the economy and economic performance. Narratives which often aggregate figures and mask the varying levels of income and wealth distribution for different sections of society. This was a point somewhat more bluntly made by a Newcastle resident when Europe expert Anand Menon invited an audience to contemplate a plunge in the UK’s GDP as a consequence of Brexit. She yelled at him, ‘that’s your bloody GDP. Not ours!’

To address the problem, the Citizens’ Economic Council found ways of communicating and engaging both those left-behind and a diverse group of citizens on how they could reclaim terms such as ‘GDP’ so that it was able to respond to their experiences once again. In this interim report, we set out some emerging recommendations which we seek to test with a range of stakeholders. The RSA’s work, through the Citizens’ Economic Council, proposes a series of measures to help rebuild trust, including that economic institutions, such as government and the Bank of England, use randomly selected Citizens’ Councils and juries to better understand the public’s views on important issues. This could include their views on the setting of interest rates, as well as the decisions announced in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget. Specific recommendations include:

  • With the Budget on Wednesday, HM Treasury pilots Citizens’ Reference Panels, juries and other ways of engaging citizens to give their views – rather than making policy behind closed doors in Whitehall.
  • ­The Bank of England pilot Citizens’ Reference Panels and other deliberative approaches with a view to advising their departments and committees on key economic decisions including the setting of interest rates. ­
  • Combined authorities, local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships seize the opportunities of devolution, using deliberative approaches to engage citizens through the development and implementation of their devolution deals.

We recognise that the adoption of advisory councils by institutions alone is not sufficient. It is also important to create the right conditions in which they can thrive. To this end, we propose that the government creates a code of practice for effective public engagement and participation, recognising the sheer range of engagement approaches that can empower citizens; for example, participatory budgeting, citizens’ reference panels, citizen juries and co-production methods. At its core should be engagement and participation practice that extends beyond simple consultation towards approaches that are more deliberative, promote dialogue and allow sufficient time and space for policymakers to respond to citizens’ views. 

To make this possible we also propose the creation of an expert resource centre on inclusive and participatory economic policy that would support government departments, non-departmental public bodies and publicly funded organisations, including the Bank of England. It would be modelled on Sciencewise, a similar programme funded by the Department for Business, Energy Innovation and Skills,  which offers public bodies support in participatory policymaking relating to science and technology issues. Both the code of practice and expert resource centre would also work in co-operation with the existing international Open Government Network. The network engages civil society in creating a more open and transparent approach to government across the world, and builds on those ambitions set out in the Civil Service 2012 reform plan.

It is clear that we stand at a crucial crossroads. We can ignore the populist signal and the democratic deficit at the heart of our economy, trapping us in a vicious cycle of distrust and instability. Or we can build a legitimate, transparent and accountable system that brings the much maligned ‘expert’ and citizen together to shape a fairer economy.


Find out more about the Citizens' Economic Council.

The final report will be published in Spring 2018, with confirmed speakers to include Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane, Europe expert Anand Menon, Financial Times journalist Gemma Tetlow, and Citizens’ Economic Council participant Patricia Wharton. 

 

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  • Maybe my focus in the last 5 years on the emergence of 'intelligent communities' has made me more attuned to daily examples of the great diversities within the UK economy.  Indeed I've written that there is no UK economy - only the aggregate of many diverse local economies each with their own needs and priorities.  


    I'd concede that The Centre for Cities claim (https://groupeintellex.com/2017/10/20/communities-and-their-place-makers-the-roots-of-the-uk-economy/ ) is overstated - the economic power of lesser places is still significant - but the energy that inspired leaders bring to their local economies cannot be ignored, unless, it seems, you are captured by the 'Westminster bubble'.  Those like Andy Burnham who have left Westminster to work as a Metro Mayer have certainly found new purpose.


    And yet, every day, we have repeated calls for action from (national) government - even from economists who seem to have difficulty transposing macro to micro and media headline writers who lust after 3 words in 78pt font. After years of denigration, accepting the authority of the local demands a new respect and an understanding of local economic and social fabrics.  It may take decades to find new ways forward and (as Michael Neill, observes) there's already a rich heritage of endeavour, but if the 2018 ICF Summit in London (supported by the RSA) further helps that cause then I, at least, will be able to retire knowing that the battle for balance can still be won.   

  • Personally I think we have to reform Local Government by introducing proportional representation & returning more power back to the Councils and then use Local government to work with local population to decide what local priorities are. This would mean more interest in local politics as would have chance of voice being heard and would feed into more involvement at Westminster level. 

  • I have to admit to a sense of deju vu in reading these documents. In May 2006 I was at the QEII centre for the launch of Helena Kennedy's Power Enquiry report, the result of a far reaching and comprehensive consultation into what even then was clear as a critical democratic deficit in the UK. Amongst the Enquiry's recommendations was that all public bodies must meet a duty of public involvement in their decision and policy making processes. Progress towards this aim since 2006 has been precisely zero.

    The Power Enquiry adopted a somewhat wider, more inclusive and nuanced approach than that advocated here; they recognised that participatory democracy should augment rather than replace our existing systems of representative democracy; they valued highly the people's rights of universal suffrage and the secret ballot as the ultimate safeguard against anti-democracy and they included direct democratic processes amongst the extensions and innovations of democratic practice. Otherwise citizens' juries, participatory budgeting and the like were all there.

    Again, it has been many years since I was thrilled and excited at the publication of Simon Jenkins' 'Big Bang Localism' and progress towards many of those goals and recommendations has also been precisely zero. Jenkins recognised that processes such as participatory budgeting simply did not go far enough in devolving power from the centre. Yet it's all that has happened, where it has happened at all. All that has been devolved in the final (unpopular) rationing decision for a cake the size of which has already been determined centrally. And even that is limited to funding for the village scout hut and the like. Meaningful devolution of power means devolution of tax as well as spend decisions.  

    We need real progress, but we must also be incredibly careful and sensitive to countenancing no diminution of existing democratic rights. I am wary of formalising and institutionalising the role of 'experts' to bend and manipulate public opinion. At its worst it is positively Orwellian. Rather than inflicting establishment-approved 'experts' on consultative and participatory groups, far wiser to simply allow such groups at their own discretion to call upon such balance of expert opinion as they deem they need.

    Having conducted several scheme and design development charettes over my career I know exactly how these things work, and the potential frustration of citizens who are told by experts that they can have any colour they like so long as it is black. Every single charette I chaired would have realised a better outcome without the architects being present. Every scheme design brief would have been more tightly focused, more prescriptive and more in tune with local expectations had it been developed in advance with those citizens.

    You have a difficult task and a hard slog ahead. May I offer you my heartfelt goodwill and encouragement.

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