How can governments increase public participation in decision-making?

30 September 2019

What are the best ways to involve people in decisions that affect their lives? Research Fellow, Emyr Williams, explores some options that could be more widely used in Wales.

Engagement and trust in the UK political system is currently at an all time low, for a whole variety of reasons. In the UK, an impasse over Brexit and the polarisation of political parties mean that many people feel disillusioned do not wish to engage with a system in which they see few opportunities to have an impact.  

Both national and local government budgets have been stretched due to austerity which has reshaped the relationship between central and local Government, according to a 2018 article by Gray and Bradford.

The resulting budget decisions at all levels have a direct impact on front line services and people’s everyday lives. The ‘New Public Management’ model which has previously dominated local government has provided little, if any, opportunity for citizens to be truly engaged in the services they receive, as they are often viewed as consumers rather than active participants.

However, decision makers are exploring newer, more innovative ways that could help increase trust in decision-making, improve political engagement and allow people to have a greater influence on the decisions that affect them through deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democratic processes are a variety of methods by which people can be engaged in decision making in a more informed way. This can be achieved through using mini publics (such as citizens assemblies, citizens juries, planning cells, deliberative polls etc) or participatory budgeting.

Mini publics tend to be used to allow people to be involved in difficult decisions which could be politically divisive. A representative sample of the population hear a variety of evidence before deliberating and finally coming to some form of recommendations on how an issue should be addressed.

Participatory budgeting involves the whole population of a particular geographical area and gives them an equal opportunity to suggest project ideas, to deliberate over which ideas might be best and then vote on those they feel should be allocated resources. The project with the most votes must be implemented and the cycle begins again.

Deliberative democratic processes are a variety of methods by which people can be engaged in decision making in a more informed way.

Advocates of these methods argue that people who have direct experience of services in their area have the knowledge and expertise to make informed decisions on the issues which affect them. Indeed many argue that the effective implementation of deliberative democratic methods can have a host of benefits including:

·         Re engaging people with politics and decision making;

·         Encouraging broader civil participation;

·         Better decision making;

·         Redistribution of wealth and resources to the areas of most need;

·         Providing a voice to those who are ‘under represented’; and

·         A shift from tribal combative political decision making with a focus on facts, evidence and reasoned debate.

However, whilst these claims may seem realistic, to date there has not been enough rigorous research which explores the impact of deliberative democratic interventions on the decision-making process or on the individuals who take part, particularly in a UK context.