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Setting the agenda in local politics

15/03/2012

Localism is a popular trend at the moment, but in many ways we’re still learning how to transfer all aspects of power away from the centre. An insightful article by Adrian Bua in Politics journal sets out what I think is a very plausible idea – that a major flaw in local democracy has been the lack of any agenda-setting function.

Attempts at local democracy tend to focus on direct forms of democracy – elections, referenda, citizens’ juries. What they miss is the need for democratic involvement in the setting of what sort of local issues should be discussed, in what areas policy should intervene, and what decisions should be taken.

At a national level, it is understood that the way referendum questions are set is likely to influence the result. Groups wanting to impact on government decision-making often complain of the limitations set by the questions in government consultations. It is often assumed, however, that when engaging community groups and locals, a pre-determined set of issues and questions is needed.

Bua’s paper looks at the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007, which encouraged local councils to engage the public in putting forward and deciding proposals for public policy. Only a few really made an effort to engage locals in the process, but there are some interesting examples cited, and the approach is an interesting one. If we had the power to set the agenda and frame the issues, we would surely have more of an interest in the policy-making process.

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