Participatory democracy and people who use services need each other

My article on joining up the community development world’s work on participation, and the public service world’s work on coproduction, is published by the New Local Government Network here:

It starts:

Large swathes of our increasingly online lives are given over to ‘having our say’. We leave reviews on TripAdvisor or Amazon. We use social media to harangue businesses which let us down. We sign online petitions and share our views with friends and online acquaintances. And yet people who are hyper-informed and connected in the social and commercial space can feel disconnected from the decisions and decision makers which shape their public services and societies.

Perhaps this sense of detachment is one reason there is a growing global movement to involve people in the decisions which affect their lives and neighbourhoods. Approaches such as citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting, where a community is given control of how to spend the money allocated to their area, are not new, but they are resurgent.

Participatory democracy can be empowering, but that new power is not evenly distributed. Local forums can be captured by the most vocal groups; they can default to the lowest common denominator issues (everyone cares about the bins and pot holes, but only some people care about social care). Most perniciously, they can actively exclude the groups who are in most need of resources or who experience the most prejudice.

This is far removed from ‘co-production’ where people who use services are involved as equals from the outset after which they continue to be involved as equal partners in service delivery and future changes. True co-production has long been fought for by disabled people , with the support of bodies such as Think Local, Act Personal (TLAP). But for now, coproduction is also now much talked about, but far from standard practice.

So participatory democracy is not always inclusive of people who use public services, while coproduction can be limited in its focus to decision-making about those services. Is there a way to tackle both of these challenges together?

Read the whole article here.

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