Davy Jones 18 April 2011

Government announces end to ‘Duty To Involve’

In the latest government consultation on Best Value, a single sentence heralds the end of the duty on councils to involve their public. Davy Jones asks if this is the right thing for the sector.

The Introduction to the Government’s new Best Value: new draft statutory guidance announces the repeal of two statutory duties on local authorities: the duty to involve, and the duty to prepare a sustainable community strategy. This is explained as reducing 'red tape' for local authorities.

Previously, Government hinted at getting rid of the duty to involve, but this is the first time the mechanism to achieve it has been revealed. According to the Consultation Institute, many local practitioners are aghast, considering this as a terrible mistake, and entirely contrary to the Government's stated aim to stimulate a culture of citizen participation.

Currently, all local public services (councils, police and fire services, and local health bodies) are all under a legal duty to inform, consult and involve local people on the exercise of their functions.There are differing views on how effective or important this duty has proved to be.Urban Forum's survey of community and voluntary sector representatives just over a year after the introduction of the Duty suggested that it had produced little change. Others, especially those working in councils and fire authorities, report a much greater seriousness about engaging citizens arising from the duty.

Why the Duty should be retained

The last few decades have seen an inexorable rise in the movement for greater citizen participation. This came to a logical head with the enshrining into law of the duty on local public services to inform, consult and involve. In effect it gave a legal right to citizens and service users to have a say about their local areas and services. Removing the duty takes away that right. It takes away a legal safeguard for local people. It will give succour to those officers and councillors who feel'they know best'.It is hard to see how this in any way squares with the stated aim of the Big Society to'give people more power and control to improve their lives and communities'.

A few people have argued that it may make little difference – after all the key thing is to 'change the culture' of organisations so that involvement is seen as a good thing in its own right, without legal threats. But changes to culture and to laws always go hand in hand. Often changes to the law help develop the culture change (think equalities or drink-driving legislation) and acts to ensure that those slowest to grasp changes in culture and expectation are subject to a stick as well as a carrot.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this proposed ditching of the duty to involve is its manner and timing – sneaked in as one sentence within guidance on a different issue, and at just the moment when local public services are most under threat and public concern is at its greatest.

In a survey conducted last year, Ipsos MORI found that some 11% of people wanted to be actively involved in decisions about cuts in local services; a further 29% wanted to have some sort of a say; and a further 36% wanted information; only 22% weren't interested and wanted to leave it to the experts. It is possible to translate these figures along the lines of the legal duty as some 76% wanting some degree of information, consultation or involvement.

Cynically, you have to wonder whether the Government feared the duty to involve provided those fighting local cutbacks with a potential legal weapon to prevent them and hence acted to get rid of it.

Until and unless the Government outlines plans to give citizens a statutory right to participate in decisions on services & budgets, the Duty should remain.

Davy Jones is a nce consultant . Davy Jones consultancy website

 
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