In my previous post I set out some thoughts on the balance between personal service and universal services and whether the service engagement with customers is one which has personal impact or benefits the common good. This was drawn from the theme ‘We must put democracy back into localism’ led by Anthony Zacharzewski of the Democratic Society (Who I should have credited last time).
I would now like to develop some thoughts based on the same theme, prompted by a session led by Michael Coughlin, Chief Executive of Reading Borough Council, on the potential future for democratic infrastructure.
Firstly, there are a range of tensions which need further discussion in the changing UK setting in order to ensure that the democratic infrastructure works. However it seems to me that there are a range of different roles to be played which will vary by institution and context, sometimes depending on the executive, scrutiny or regulatory function that is being exercised.
Accordingly what we call local democracy will sometimes function in an executive, representative, deliberative or participative fashion. These in turn will differ slightly depending on whether the activity in play is one which has been agreed and commoditised as a service or is more one of a democratic leadership brokering choices within a community.
Secondly, there is the thorny question of the role of officials in democracy. Here there was a question in the conference which caused some heated debate: Is it part of the role of officials to be a custodian of democracy and speak truth to power where it is being abused, should that be something which is to be monitored and policed solely by politicians within an organisation and the public at the ballot box.
It is my view that if I am a public servant I need to ensure both that I serve public representatives, and that this is always with integrity and in the public interest. In other words that I must value and seek to protect the democracy that I serve. This can be a very important judgement call. However this prompts the question of how this is addressed in a localist context where there should inevitably be a plurality of possible outcomes based on local public choice.
I believe that it is critical to ensure that these two issues are carefully addressed in the development of democratic frameworks which respect public will and uphold the rule of law simultaneously. However I am also aware that these require further thought and I will be discussing them with a regular reader of this blog this weekend who is helpfully an astute political scientist. I anticipate a long reading list!
All thoughts and comments welcome, as always.