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Bookmark and SharePerry Walker is head of the Democracy and Participation team at nef

Launching the Conservative election manifesto, David Cameron said, “We should remember the basic rule: that when you give people responsibility, they behave responsibly.”

The logic of this is that if you take responsibility away, you deter people from behaving responsibly. Seems obvious. Surely organizations understand this? Especially when ‘empowerment’ is a term in such vogue.  Sadly, they don’t. My personal Villain of the Month Award goes to Somerset County Council. It’s a provisional award, because I have only read one side of the story, but the story, in the Spring 2010 edition of the Ramblers’ ‘Walk’ magazine, seems pretty clear cut:

Mendip Ramblers’ long-established team of footpath workers has had to cease its weekly repairs after Somerset County Council decided instead to roll out its own volunteer scheme. ‘We’re angry and frustrated,’ says organizer Bob Berry, “All we wanted to do is continue to help keep local rights of way open and usable.

That rang a bell that took me back to Bea Campbell’s marvelous book of 1993, Goliath. She tells a story set in Meadowell in Newcastle, where a corporation depot was being used as a dump. A resident called Nancy asked: ‘The kids have nowhere to play. Why can’t we have a park?’ Children, adults and an advice centre then got together to create one. The children’s top priority was a ‘parkie’ – a keeper to keep it safe. No money, said the council. So, every day, on a rota, residents opened up in the morning and locked up at night. Every Sunday they had a clean up.

However, after a year they discovered that the council was about to employ a play worker. With no consultation, they felt hurt and snubbed. The Sunday clean-up stopped, and the treasured play site deteriorated.

Aren’t those two stories similar, despite being separated by ten years and the length of the country? They are similar both in what the councils did and in the effect that had on local people.

I conclude that it is very hard to empower people. They choose whether to empower themselves. But it is pretty easy to disempower them. So beware.

Bookmark and SharePerry Walker is head of the Democracy and Participation team at nef

A new dawn for democracy? (Photo by v1ctory_1s_m1ne via Flickr)

One of the most interesting constitutional reform projects to arise in the wake of last year’s expenses scandal is Power 2010. Rather than relying on academics, politicians or journalists to tell us what reform is needed, Power 2010 asked members of the public to submit their own ideas.

Browsing through the ideas sent in, I was struck by two things. Firstly, people care about democracy. The enthusiasm and imagination on display, gives lie to the story of the apathetic and disengaged public often peddled by journalists and politicians. Secondly, there is a great deal of disagreement about what needs to be done. From more direct democracy, to new ways of holding politicians to account, to electoral reform, to ideas to redistribute political power, the range of ideas on display is so broad that it was difficult to know where to begin.

To get my head round the ideas, I went back to first principles. I thought first of John Stuart Mill, who said, ‘a people among whom there is no habit of spontaneous action for a collective interest – who look habitually to their government to command or prompt them in all matters of joint concern – have their faculties only half developed.’ Democracy is a muscle. You don’t build the muscles of your body by watching an athlete on the telly, and you don’t build your democratic muscles by watching election coverage. To get better at democracy, we need to practice politics ourselves, in referendums, town-hall meetings or public debates, not just watch it on the news.

I thought second of Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln didn’t talk about ‘government by the politicians, for some of the people’. Rather, he referred to “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. For me, democracy has never been so well, or so succinctly, defined. I coupled Lincoln with British academic Peter Reason, who wrote, ‘participation is a political imperative: it affirms the fundamental human right of persons to contribute to decisions which affect them. Participation is thus fundamental to human flourishing.’ For example, evidence shows that people participating in referenda in Switzerland are significantly happier.

I thought third of American educationalist John Dewey, who is said to have remarked on his ninetieth birthday that ‘democracy begins in conversation’. I contrasted that with some lines by G K Chesterton, in The Secret People:

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.

From these quotes, I drew three conclusions. First, that while we need more referendums – an idea which croups up over and over again – the danger is that they omit the information and the conversation that helps people form good judgements. Second, that if we are to exercise our muscles, we have to make the effort to find common ground with people with whom we disagree. Third, that in order to build up those muscles, we also have to address the problematic trade-offs that politics has always involved, especially in the next few years as we are forced to make difficult decisions about how to cut public spending.

How do we achieve these things? From the hundreds of great ideas contributed to Power 2010, I’ve picked out two ideas that seem particularly relevant. One idea developed here at the nef is that of ‘preferendums’: sophisticated referenda which let the public control what’s on the ballot paper as well as the outcome. A second idea, which is new to me, is ‘Sarah in London’s’ idea for

regular citizens meetings where communities can come together to seek information, exchange ideas and hold their representatives to account. In very different ways, these two ideas point to a new kind of democracy – one where power resides not only in elected representatives and appointed officials, but also in citizens themselves, working together to build a society around the things that really matter.

You can see all the ideas contributed to Power 2010 and sign up to support their call to change British democracy for the better at


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.