civic innovation in Britain

I’ve written before about the civic agenda of the current British government, which includes better civic education in schools, decentralization of power, and innovative opportunities for citizens’ work. Via Henry Tam, here is a government paper entitled “Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power.” It’s a long and detailed paper, but here are some highlights:

  • Participatory budgeting is a Brazilian invention; citizens are invited to meetings where they can collectively allocate portions of the local capital budget to purposes of their choice. In Brazil, participatory budgeting has increased the fairness of public-sector spending and has reduced corruption. It is now being used in 22 local councils in Britain, and the UK Government wants it to be used everywhere. (I believe that the Obama Administration should build Participatory Budgeting into its economic recovery plan.)

  • Citizens Juries are randomly selected bodies of citizens who meet for a substantial amount of time, deliberate, and make public decisions. Citizens Juries are now being used in the UK. A recent comment on this blog suggested that they are a strategy to avoid the traditional forms of representation, such as students unions, which are less tractable. That’s possible, but there have been very impressive experiments with Citizens Juries in other countries.
  • The Government intends to implement a “duty to involve” rule that would apply to most local service-providers. That reminds me a bit of the “maximum feasible participation” mandate of the War on Poverty in the US during the 1960s. Maximum feasible participation was hardly a clear-cut success, but one interpretation is that we did not yet have a sufficient infrastructure (set of practices, institutions, and trained people) to handle it. The infrastructure has improved over the last 40 years–probably in the UK as well as here.
  • The paper acknowledges the importance of “strong independent media” and promises support for “a range of media outlets and support innovation in community and social

    media.” It’s tricky for a government to intervene in the news media. One must consider freedom of the press and expression. On the other hand, the 20th-century local media system is collapsing, and governments should find ideologically and politically neutral ways to promote healthy local news and debate.

  • One of the major themes is civic renewal through decentralization. Gordon Brown has argued that the 20th-century Labour Party erred by trying to implement democratic socialism in a state-centered, nationalist form. In the developing world, centralization promoted various forms of corruption, whereas decentralization has lately permitted citizens to play more constructive roles.
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