Our latest research Trust in Democracy: how community groups bridge the gap between people and politics, demonstrates how the community sector can improve grassroots engagement with politics. The report identifies some concerning issues about how trust in national political structures has been eroded, finding that people are feeling increasingly distant from them.
Yet it also finds that volunteering in community activity both increases levels of trust in general and increases the likelihood of getting more deeply involved in social action. So it is hugely positive that we know so much about the potential for community activity to restore democratic engagement at all levels.
This will come as no surprise to people who have worked with communities, who will appreciate the huge amount of energy and enthusiasm that people bring to tackling things that they care about locally. Perhaps this is because what the community sector offers is a purer form of democracy – one in which people can feel that their investment of time, energy and ideas leads to genuine opportunities to make tangible change.
Devolution of power continues apace, across nations, within nations and from local public bodies to people. We need – and indeed demand – new forms of deliberative decision-making that meet the needs of our era, moving beyond the consultation with communities to put them at the heart of creating the areas they want to live in. These experiences are the ones that will create a democracy that interacts with people’s everyday lives.
Creating participatory experiences that will encourage people to become involved are key to achieving this. As part of the research we surveyed our network of community organisations, with:
- 92% of respondents saying that local people should be more involved in the design and delivery of their local public services.
- 72% recognising the need for community groups to work together with local authorities to achieve shared goals.
This shows that communities want to be heard and have a say on the political and decision-making structures that affect their lives. We need to devolve power meaningfully to support these aspirations.
Community groups across the country are already making significant progress on difficult issues, often taking pragmatic and highly innovative action to solve them; there is huge potential for the community sector to apply its participatory experiences to the delivery of local services. In practice this means including these groups at the design-stage , rather than simply as respondents to commissioning. Understanding the local detail can lead to more efficient delivery, centred around the service user or customer’s needs, rather than embedded delivery assumptions or budget allocations.
So we are encouraging more widespread recognition of the community sector as the experts and entrepreneurs that can meet the difficult challenges that lie ahead. Support for community groups at a national level will be vital throughout this process so that it can continue providing and expanding what will become increasingly essential functions.
That’s because there is a dotted line running from an individual’s first experience as a volunteer, to their involvement in community responses to local issues and then to their interest in and interaction with others who govern the ways in which these can be addressed. Then there’s the final step – wanting to take on a similar roles themselves. This pathway to other democratic roles is well-trodden.
We hope, that others, such as local authorities, will seize the opportunity to work closely with the community early, willingly, and with a resolve to work transparently, bringing new opportunities for democratic engagement and local problem solving. By strengthening communities and restoring the grassroots elements of politics in the process, we may truly start to restore trust in democracy.
This blog was first published by CoVi