Why city governments need deliberative democracy


December 8, 2015

Innovation in the public sector has become an important focus for governments, which are facing a growing inability to address difficult policy challenges.

In the context of city governments, innovation capacity is boosted by the involvement of outsiders.

Citizen outreach is important for overcoming a potential democratic deficit, caused by governments ignoring citizens and their concerns and external connections provide more varied kinds of information, which is crucial to innovation in having capacity for both idea generation and implementation.

Networks are therefore an important support to innovation, because they provide the means for overcoming the hard wiring of an otherwise formal and ruled bounded culture, allowing government to (re)connect with citizens, and gather intelligence through more open and informal spaces.

One significant litmus test of the degree of closeness between a government and those it serves, is to assess views from the outside and inside in terms of how aligned their views are with current and future socioeconomic challenges and significant innovations.

We would expect that a government, whose agenda is more closely aligned to that of their citizens, would be both more democratic, and have more capacity to innovate.

Involving the community in both defining socioeconomic challenges and aligning innovations with these, should reduce the democratic deficit. Extensive engagement and shared agendas are therefore likely to be related to a high level of democratic functioning and innovative capacity.

As part of a large EU-funded research project, we examined what actors outside and inside city governments viewed as important, and what common grounds could be found between these.

We compared three European city governments in three different national contexts — Copenhagen (Denmark), Rotterdam (the Netherlands), and Barcelona (Spain). We conducted a survey of politicians and senior administrators (inside) and interviews with community leaders (outside). We compared what the insiders and outsiders reported were the most important socioeconomic challenges faced, and the most significant innovations introduced.

Socioeconomic challenges

In all three cities the challenges nominated by those outside the city government were very similar to the nominations from within the municipality. Environmental issues, demographic challenges, social problems of housing and unemployment, and health inequality topped the lists.

For Copenhagen and Rotterdam, the agreement between insiders and outsiders was quite high.

There wasn’t quite so much common ground in Barcelona. People inside and outside the Barcelona municipality agreed that assistance to vulnerable people and unemployment were major issues. However, insiders nominated exemplary management, consolidation of the Barcelona brand, and mobility of people and goods as major challenge, but these were not nominated by outsiders, who instead were interested in environment and pollution.

Political culture could be one factor that explains this variation; a less informal political culture makes it easier for the community to connect to their local government and vice versa (positive impact). We know that the political culture in Spain is more formal and hierarchical than in Denmark and the Netherlands.

Significant innovations

There was a very high level of agreement between the views of actors inside and outside the municipalities in Copenhagen and in Rotterdam; that of collaborative governance, digital public services adding a user-orientation to the perspective. On top of the innovation list were also city developments with private partners, such as metro plans, bike lanes, green recreational areas, and affordable apartments.

There wasn’t such a high degree of agreement in Barcelona. Many of the same innovations were nominated, but issues such as sustainable public procurement and payment within 30 days were not mentioned by the outsiders; while other projects important to the community did not appear on the insider’s nominated list.

Fiscal pressures shape policy development

We found a higher degree of agreement between the inside and outside views of socioeconomic challenges and significant innovations in Copenhagen and Rotterdam than in Barcelona, which seems to be more focused on internal management practices.

Returning to the initial point about networks, it seems counter-intuitive that Barcelona reported having greater levels of contact with a range of external organizations than did Copenhagen and Rotterdam.

Barcelona’s high reported networking behaviour (positive impact) and yet, a higher disagreement between the inside and outside view (negative impact) might point to the more difficult context of Barcelona, struggling with poorer national economic conditions and a city government focused on saving money.

The economies of Denmark and the Netherlands is regaining momentum, their GDP is rising, and the city governments’ service systems can focus much more on what brings value to the citizens.

The situation is very different in Spain — they are going through internal devaluation in the public sector and there are savings that include lay-off and increases in salaries.

It is difficult to tell whether this signals better or worse functioning democracies, or merely different national contexts. What we do see is that the socioeconomic context frames the conditions of the civil servants’ activities in these city governments.

Many factors frame the innovation capacity of cities, in either a positive or negative way, including its national governance structures and societal traditions, formal organisational structures, and local socioeconomic context.

Europe has experienced a short term shock to public finance due to the globalisation and financial crisis, and for some countries still experiencing it; this fiscal pressure is challenging their capacity to cope with the more long term policy issues.

This article has been co-published with DemocracyRenewal.

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