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Reimagining government: what could ‘take back control’ mean now?

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  • Picture of Nadine Smith
    Nadine Smith
    Director of the Centre for Public Impact

By Nadine Smith FRSA, Director of the Centre for Public Impact

The slogan ‘take back control’ has clearly resonated with a large portion of the British public since it was coined by the Vote Leave campaign in 2016. But what does it mean now? 

Back then, the phrase was understandably focused on taking control from Brussels and giving it to Westminster. But with citizens now feeling disillusioned with politics at a UK level too, we are seeing more examples of citizens taking control of the places and issues they care about. They are having conversations and making decisions about the power they wish to have, in ways that are becoming more the norm than exception. So, what is the role of government in a world where control and power are being reimagined by people? 

The problem with engaging that means people are disengaging

The Centre for Public Impact’s database of public policy case studies shows us that great efforts and huge amounts of money go into ‘engagement’, consultations and communications campaigns all over the world (even the latest “Get ready for Brexit” broke new marketing spend records). However, understanding what control people need and want beyond the policies that immediately impact on them feels harder territory for our national government to step into. This is still the terrain of political parties. Today, people are engaging less on singular policies and more on big issues like climate change, where they live and who should live alongside them. Whitehall is still a siloed organisation where coordinating across departments takes effort and is made all the more difficult because the way different people participate is complex. It can differ from case to case, place to place and depend on your gender, too.

Professor Coffé of the University of Bath argues that although women may not engage in traditional forms of debate, they are more likely to want to boycott products that breach their ethical standards, or protest. We only have to see recent protests by Extinction Rebellion to know that many of the activists are female and they are far from shy. Women, according to Foresight Factory, are ‘taking control of the narrative’. Old ways of thinking about engagement are changing and even the private sector – so often held up as a gold standard in customer service by government – now knows that loyalty is gained from engaging on issues, not things, and finding a sense of power over their place and planet. Research shows people connect with organisations who have a higher purpose – the UK government seems not to have a clear one yet, and even seems oblivious to these trends.

The traditional way of thinking about creating impactful policy values a process. Our Public Impact Fundamentals show it is policy, action and legitimacy that achieve the best outcomes for people. Legitimacy is one of the hardest to understand and achieve, as policies become more complex and morph into issues.

A sense of community belonging matters for national government as much as local

Governments wishing to strengthen legitimacy with citizens should realise the importance of a sense of belonging and understanding where and why that best happens. It relates to relationships, not processes, and it starts with place.

A recent study in Canada showed that Canadians who had a strong sense of belonging to their community were twice as likely to attend a public consultation and almost three times more likely to think elected officials care about what they think. This correlation suggests that building a culture of participation in the UK for national issues should start by helping to make it more meaningful at a local level. Far from sitting back and watching it happen, national governments should make local voices count more often and more obviously.

Change is in the air

Some local authorities are cottoning on to this new appetite for taking back control and taking the initiative to try out new things with people – often those who are hardest to reach and keep engaged.

For example, The Wigan Deal – an informal agreement between the council, citizens, community groups and businesses – was agreed after severe cuts to local government. The Deal empowered communities by making civilians accountable and enabling them to work in partnership with civil servants to create a better borough. Since then, Wigan has become “the happiest place in Greater Manchester” and has saved £130 million. In Camden, the council is holding the ‘Camden conversations’ citizen juries, making conversations with the community part of their culture rather than just having one-off consultations.

As well as this, a new organisation aptly named ‘Engage Britain’ has been set up to bring together citizens, communities, practitioners and frontline specialists to find answers to some of the biggest challenges of our time. Through drawing on the many successful community schemes that reach across divides, Engage Britain will be working with communities to devise fresh, non-partisan approaches to big challenges.

Starting conversations

A feeling of control and involvement in the processes that shape our lives can come from many different places. Ultimately, central government will need to be an enabler of this new wave of activism. But how?

From our global Finding Legitimacy work, we heard that citizens would be more likely to reconnect to government processes and conversations if they could see five positive behaviours from political leaders, the civil service and those working in the public sector:

  1. Working together with people towards a shared vision
  2. Bringing empathy into government
  3. Building an authentic connection
  4. Enabling the public to scrutinise government
  5. Valuing citizens’ voices and responding to them


These behaviours must be demonstrated and cultivated, not forced or done as a box-ticking exercise. The more government can behave like this, the more people can connect their activism to real world effect and local government is trying it.

For central government it would mean that government leaders will need to focus less on engagement for effectiveness and more on engagement for legitimacy. This is a culture change of big proportions for the UK system of government that values doing things over being things. How we measure and define success would change – and what government does day-to-day would change.

Take back ‘take back control’

Now is the time to imagine what it would mean if, instead of ‘taking back control’, government gave more control to citizens – and the good things that could come from that. If government doesn’t seek to enable people to make decisions and influence actions on issues we face, others will simply keep enabling themselves. Without change, ‘taking back control’ might end up hitting government in the face in ways it never expected.

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  • Engaging is a two-way process. While the initiatives are defined from on high and the people merely get to approve or disapprove, there can be no real engagement. This is not a new problem - Chesterton's 1912 essay "the Voter and the Two Voices" expresses it very clearly - but to solve it the entire mechanism of representative government will have to change. It will have to become truly representative.

    In the distant past (prior to the rise of the "parties" during the Restoration) MPs regularly brought their constituents' problems to the floor of the Commons. Now it's rare for them to do so. As a result our democracy is representative only in name - it's a time-limited elected autocracy, but one in which the mind set and motivation behind policy is essentially common to all parties and agencies, regardless of the specifics of policy itself. Party comes first, the populace come second. Hence the incredibly unconstitutional mechanism of whips - "vote against your conscience or your constituents' wishes or get kicked out of the party".

    Consequently, whether we are under the arbitrary rule of Brussels or of Westminster, we, the people can not take back control. I'm not suggesting we submit blindly to "the peoples' will" (if indeed any such thing can really exist) but I strongly advocate that the people get a fair hearing. The best we have so far is a petition system that requires at least half a dozen people to concur to even present a case, many thousands for the case to be considered for a hearing and then no guarantee that it will get one. That is not having control, so at present there's nothing to take back.

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