Systems of local governance and how citizens participate: international review

Analyses local governance systems in seven case studies across the world, and how citizens are able to participate in local governance. The case studies are Denmark, England, Germany, New Zealand, Quebec, Scotland, and Uruguay.

3. Conclusions

This final section reflects on what can be learned from the case studies as a whole. In doing so, it considers this in the context of the Local Governance Review's ambitions for decentralisation of power and decision-making which is being taken forward through a focus on community, functional and fiscal empowerment.

It is perhaps valuable to reflect again that all the case studies rank highly on international measures as well-functioning democracies. Nonetheless, the systems of local governance that support these democracies differ greatly, and they are all subject to certain challenges and tensions. So it is not evident that there is an 'ideal type' of local governance, a model that can be identified and easily adopted. Still, they are a source of learning that can be reflected on to inform what happens in Scotland.

The findings from the case studies highlight the importance of thinking systemically about governance. Doing so encourages attention not just to governance structures, their size and the functions they hold, but also to the relationships between those structures. These relationships exist both vertically (between central and local governance), and horizontally (between local governance structures such as municipalities), and the quality, character and purpose of those relationships differ. Equally, thinking systemically encourages recognition that governance is not static but dynamic. The perspective also helps to highlight whether and how citizens and communities are supported to participate regularly and routinely in that system.

Across the case studies, local governance systems experience central government scrutiny, influence, constraint or direction on local decision-making. This is the case even in the case studies that look highly decentralised, or in which local governance has a constitutional or legal basis. Much of this is built into the systems of governance, for example through legal regulation or in funding arrangements. Central government involvement often focuses more on specific policy areas, particularly those that were are highly politicised or expensive. For example, the size and importance of Danish local governance leads to quite a degree of scrutiny for central government.

It might be reasonable to conclude that these experiences reflect an inherent tension which exists in any governance system. There are measures that might help moderate that tension. There are examples in the case studies of partnership agreements of one form or another established between central government and local governance to act as a guiding framework for that relationship. There is a question about how to ensure such frameworks operate effectively and sustainably over time. Regular monitoring and scrutiny of the central/local dynamic might help to identify any risk of an emerging pattern of centralisation in the longer term.

One explanation for this might be that central government is more likely to be involved in local governance on issues where it is being held closely accountable, be that by opposition political parties, the public or the media. This probably reflects the reality that central government is held ultimately accountable. Nonetheless, greater awareness of, and transparency about, where accountability lies in any governance system could help make clearer where responsibilities lie.

This does not mean that local governance in the case studies does not have decision-making power and authority; just that it is not able to apply it uniformly: there is more discretion and autonomy in some areas than others. And of course, any level of local decision-making authority can only apply in the areas of local responsibility. Decisions about the specific functions or public services for which responsibility rests locally are foundational for meaningful local governance.

All the case studies have experienced significant reforms in governance. For some, this occurred some decades ago with no further significant change anticipated soon. In others, such as Uruguay and Quebec in particular, governance reforms are ongoing. In both, the reforms aim to decentralise power to municipalities and encourage greater local participation. The experiences in these case studies, in particular, may be of most direct relevance to the Local Governance Review.

Decentralisation of power and decision-making more locally is not the same as, and does not inevitably lead to, greater citizen participation. This is illustrated by the experience of the decentralisation reforms in Quebec and Uruguay. The gradual growth in municipal powers and responsibilities emerging through legal and other reforms has not necessarily led directly to advances in participation. Different reform measures are likely to be required to achieve both.

Across most of the case studies, citizen participation is a live issue. The findings of the case studies illustrate the range of opportunities for citizen participation; but most of the examples of democratic innovation tend to be one-off initiatives, or are narrowly applied. The majority of participation opportunities remain discretionary, advisory, and are organised and initiated by local governance. That is, local governance can choose to enable citizens to participate, and can choose to act on the results. The picture from the case studies is that discretionary and advisory participation has limited influence over local decision-making. Such experiences are disempowering, and the case studies suggest that this can lead to disenchantment and disengagement by communities. Opportunities for participation that are non-discretionary and for which the results are binding – where the impacts of participation can be seen – are more likely to advance levels of engagement. This holds also for opportunities for citizen-initiated participation; there were examples of this in Germany, for example, but overall they are much rarer.



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