Guest article from Steady State Manchester:
It has been over a year since Greater Manchester elected its first Mayor. Since then, Mayor Andy Burnham has worked to build the Mayor’s office as an institution almost from scratch and within the confines of the devolution agreement with central government. This is no small feat, and the Mayor’s efforts should not be overlooked.
Still, there are deeper underlying issues that exist in Greater Manchester, which the mayor has not sufficiently addressed. These relate to his own accountability to the over two and a half million people within Greater Manchester. Yes, he came to power in a democratic election. But likewise true – and widely known – is that the long-standing Labour majority across the city-region meant his election victory was hardly a surprise. More troublingly, with approximately 29% turnout, the mayoral election came nowhere close to capturing the majority voice of eligible voters in Greater Manchester.
In fact, low and declining voter turnout rates are evident in many local and national democratic governments around the world. This trend spawns from a simple fact: we do not live in pure, direct democracies. In order to manage the scalar challenge of governing millions of people, representative democracy and parliamentary democracy have become the dominant models. As a result of this, and due to a perceived ‘expert’ bias in decision-making, many citizens feel unconnected with government at local, national, and especially supranational, levels. At the same time, there is a palpable feeling that the decision-makers don’t understand how these outcomes impact individuals.
Among all the causes given to Brexit, dissatisfaction with decision-taking from the E.U. level is an undeniable one. And given the widespread unconnectedness many citizens feel toward government, is it entirely surprising that 7 of the 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester voted to ‘Leave’ when given a chance to have their voice heard? Across the Atlantic, part of Trump’s nationalist appeal draws on the myth of reclaiming a perceived lost ‘greatness’ when control over decision-making rested with the people (or at least when decisions favoured the particular set of people that favoured him). Indeed, both of these exhaustively analysed events can be seen through the lens of dissatisfaction with the endless expansion and subsequent loss of connection to everyday people that results from indirect democracy.
Through its loss of direct connection with the people, indirect democracy can be skewed in favour of certain interests. And, through their lobbying power, financial interests can influence decision-making to favour the interests of further capitalist development. Mancur Olson described this decades ago in ‘The Logic of Collective Action’: the smaller the group, the easier it is to organise and pursue their interests, which can easily come at the expense of a majority’s interests. This is certainly evident in Greater Manchester. Take, for example, the way financial actors operate in the housing market: a small group of developers regularly convince the government that they deserve exemptions from mandatory affordable housing and other Section 106 requirements in their buildings.
At first glance, devolution seems to be an attempt to counter some of the issues associated with indirect democracy, as it seemingly gives decision-making and responsibility to more localised institutions. Still, the issue of whether any significant power is actually devolved is less clear. After all, the Prime Minister and MPs in the House of Commons still control tax collection and budgetary decisions.
In either case, devolution does involve the creation of new institutions at a more local level, with the potential to get closer to the citizens in a more democratic way. At present, the Mayor has taken some initial steps to engage with stakeholders about issues important to Greater Manchester, including the recent Green Summit However, these steps only scratch the surface in terms of reaching the many concerns of the people of Greater Manchester. A more innovative approach to governance is necessary, one which moves past formal consultation to actually embracing participation in the decisions that the Mayor takes.
In comparison with the business sector, the potential for crowdsourcing as a mechanism for participation is relatively new to governments. However, by using technology-based platforms, some local governments are innovating the ways that elected official engage with their constituents. One particularly promising example is happening in Heidelberg, Germany. Their #GetTheMayor platform, which received the People’s Choice Award at SXSW two years ago when it was first launched, enables citizens to nominate projects they are involved in and concerns that they have. After an open period of voting, the top projects are integrated into the Mayor’s schedule and a visit is arranged. While not perfect, and certainly with potential for improvements, this relatively simple process provides a completely new way for the Mayor to listen to and learn from the citizens of Heidelberg, only recently made possible by technology.
A platform like this would not only help address the challenge of indirect democracy faced by Greater Manchester, it would also place the office of the Mayor of Greater Manchester alongside cities like Heidelberg at the forefront of innovative approaches to participatory governance. By ensuring that some activities of the Mayor are decided by the people (not all, of course, which would be a truly revolutionary approach to governance), such a platform blows up the traditional model of government and creates a more participatory form of governance that is relevant in the 21st century.
Of course, #GetTheMayor would require adapting to the Greater Manchester context. For one, the potential projects and concerns would need to be filtered based on the specific roles that are within the devolved power of the Mayor. Another change might be the name, which translates imperfectly into English. Perhaps #EngageTheMayor or #MobiliseTheMayor would better capture the spirit of this platform for an English-speaking audience. Finally, access to technology is a requirement for using the platform, part of a deeper issue regarding social equity. Still, this could be partially addressed by placing computers or tablets in public buildings, such as libraries, and directly linking them to the platform, by making available a text gateway to the platform, and encouraging collective submissions.
There is a clear opportunity for this kind of technology-supported approach to build a relationship based on trust between the Mayor and the people, and enhance the legitimacy of the office of Mayor of Greater Manchester as a new institution. In fact, building online platforms that allow people to voice their concerns, based on the model of #GetTheMayor, would make governance more participatory in other places that have reached devolution deals, such as Liverpool City Region or Sheffield City Region. It could also be implemented in the not-so-new, yet still young enough to innovate, institutions of the Scottish and Welsh Governments. Finally, older institutions, such as city councils – and even national governments in the U.K. and elsewhere – would be wise to adapt and creatively approach participatory governance and accountability in the 21st century.
We at Steady State Manchester would welcome this. We would utilise a participatory platform as part of a broader strategy to encourage the groundswell of change we support and encourage others across Greater Manchester to do the same. Strategic localism and democratic decision-making by the people are two pillars of a more viable economy. We would be more than willing to work with the Mayor to make this a reality in any way we are able.
However, a technological platform for participatory governance can only be part of a broader vision for a Viable Greater Manchester. The overarching prioritisation of economic growth continues unabated, whilst social challenges and ecological degradation pile up. These issues must be addressed both at the city-regional level, and through national and international changes. Perhaps, a participatory platform is place to start. It has the potential to generate greater citizen engagement that catalyses change and places democracy and the common good first. In a forthcoming piece, we plan to outline some of the points in the book Ciudades sin miedo (translation: Fearless Cities), which we understand will be released in English early next year. This powerful book, the result of the international 2017 Fearless Cities gathering in Barcelona, spells out the principles of the new municipalist movement and describes concrete policies and steps that cities can take to restore democracy and prioritise the common good.
The choice is with the Mayor and his office: revolutionise the approach to governance and begin to embrace a new paradigm of democracy in the 21st century, or flail for support until a citizenry increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo looks elsewhere for revolutionary approaches and ideas. Let us hope they make the right choice.
James Scott Vandeventer – first published 1st August 2018 in Steady State Manchester