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Engaging the public to revitalise cities

Engaging the public to revitalise cities

by Quentin Cole

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Over in the UK, while Brexit continues to dominate the political agenda and the air waves, conversations with government, businesses and citizens show that people are keen to talk about what can be done to build a better, more inclusive future for everyone. With the UK in the process of leaving the European Union, there is an opportunity for the country to focus on what kind of society we want to live in.

In view of this, research was conducted to understand what fairness means in the eyes of the public and what’s needed from government (and business) to build an inclusive future for the UK. How do people feel about where they live? How engaged are they with improving their place and their local services and what can be done to reconnect people with their communities and political representatives? This article shares key findings and the emerging agenda for action for government more information about which can be found here.

Understanding fairness

So how does the public define fairness? Building on previous work with Citizens’ Juries, a UK research agency - Opinium - was asked to bring together an online pop-up community to examine the public’s perspectives. Earlier in the year, members of the community shared their thoughts by recording video diaries and telling their stories via online discussion forums. This exercise was used to shape and refine the research questions which were then taken to 4,000 members of the British public.

The findings indicate that fairness is central to UK identity but at the same time, only 30 per cent feel that society is fair, 69 per cent think rich people get an unfair advantage and 71 per cent agree that ‘it’s one rule for some and another for people like me’.

And when it comes to the question of who is responsible for creating a fair future, 70 per cent say that government is primarily responsible yet only 25 per cent say that government does a good job in making society fairer.

The focus is reinforced by evidence from the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) which has published three Triennial Reviews which report declining levels of fairness and has identified groups of people who feel left behind. The Institute for Fiscal Studies in the UK reports that income inequality is still substantially higher than it was in the 1970s. In addition to this, the Social Mobility Commission in the UK estimates that 40 per cent of inequalities in earnings are passed through the generations, meaning people from lower income backgrounds are likely to also go on to have lower incomes as adults (double the percentage of Scandinavian countries for example).

Unsurprisingly then, fairness is fast becoming a central theme in UK political debate. Politicians from across the spectrum recognise the importance of the issue particularly in relation to the question of what comes next after Brexit and the need to reconnect the nation. UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, referred during his first speech on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street in July to ‘uniting our country answering at last the plea of the forgotten people and the left behind towns’ and the need to ‘level up across Britain’.

Designing for fairness

If the UK is to fulfil its potential in the world, it needs to be able to create a future that everyone can benefit from. Addressing fairness is clearly a major challenge and requires a wholesale transformation of the way government works, from the way money is invested and spent to drive inclusive growth, to the way services are designed and the way the state relates to its citizens.

This sounds like a tall order, yet other countries are already thinking in this way. New Zealand unveiled its first wellbeing budget in May, using evidence and expert advice to identify what would make the greatest difference to New Zelanders’ wellbeing. Each bid for funding required a wellbeing analysis to ensure the funding would address those priorities.

This aspiration was echoed by First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon in a TED talk in July when she argued that the goal of economic policy should be collective wellbeing. She also noted that GDP should play a less important role. This is reflected in Scotland’s National Performance Framework which aims to give opportunities to all people living in Scotland and reduce inequalities.

PwC’s Good Growth for Cities Index created with the UK think tank Demos has been measuring the performance of a range of the largest UK cities and regions since 2012. This measures each city against a basket of ten indicators based on the views of the public and business as to what is key to economic success - beyond a narrow focus on GDP growth.

The UK could learn from these approaches and government Spending Reviews should be designed with the mission of promoting fairness as a primary purpose. Furthermore, governments should design fairness into the decisions they make everyday, undertaking five ‘tests for fairness’.

Fairness and places

One of the lenses of the research has been the importance of place. In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, a key message was that many people felt they don’t have a voice and are disconnected from those in power. The online pop-up community characterised the British state as a distant next door neighbour, who you might ‘occasionally take a parcel in for but don’t speak to much’, raising the question, what’s needed to help people feel connected to government?

Reinforcing the online pop-up community findings, 43 per cent of the public survey respondents believed the UK Government was cold and distant. 31 per cent believed the UK Government did, ‘not take my needs into account when making decisions’, but this percentage decreased when applied to devolved government bodies (within Scotland, 22 per cent, Wales, 25 per cent, Northern Ireland 24 per cent).

This points to the first of the two big ideas about how to approach fairness across different places. While the UK Government has made positive strides in recent years with some devolution of power and funding from the centre to UK cities and regions, the approach to devolution in England to date has been largely uncoordinated, inconsistent and piecemeal. Many areas, particularly beyond the major cities, are not covered by the ‘deal’ approach to devolution. Instead, a broader place-based approach to policy and spending that accounts for the different strengths and challenges of different places across the UK is needed. This means moving away from the current siloed nature of central government departments towards a more joined up approach that has ‘place’ as a key building block and lets local leaders tailor spending and policy to their local places, communities and people.

The second and related idea is that citizens themselves need to be more closely engaged in the devolution process. To date, the focus has been on shifting power between central and local government, with the wider public largely disengaged. However, our research found that people are willing to engage, but government, local and central, doesn’t always use the tools or platforms that make it easy for people to do so. The research indicated that people were eager to use technology to express their views and engage with improving public services. 48 per cent of the public either strongly agreed or agreed that they would ‘like to get involved, using technology, and add my voice on how to improve public services for people like me.’

Considering engagement with councils in particular, PwC’s annual local government leadership survey in the UK, the Local State We’re In, found that a third of the public say they would like more interaction with councillors, including 40 per cent of 18-34 year olds, while four in ten (39 per cent) say they would participate more to improve their local area and help local people if their council made it easier to do so.

This all points towards the need for a new relationship between citizen and state. Engaging the public on their own terms is essential to ensure that they feel that their voice is being heard, and to deliver better outcomes. Of the options the public were polled on for getting their voice heard, the online channels were more popular when compared to traditional methods such as attending a town hall meeting. Indeed, in some of the interviews with local leaders, they reflected that traditional engagement platforms like these often attract the same people, with little effort to engage widely across different people or groups. There is the potential for government, national and local, to harness this enthusiasm to make smarter more informed decisions based on data gathered by engaging more effectively with the public.

PwC devolution citizens juries

At PwC, we believe devolution in the UK has a part to play in delivering good growth and public service reform across the regions, but only if devolving power, resource and accountability results in a real impact on the day-to-day aspiration, experience and engagement of citizens and communities. During the 2016 Party Conference season, we worked with UK Research Agency BritainThinks to convene Citizens’ Juries exploring public perspectives on devolution in the West Midlands and Liverpool. Each Jury brought together 24 members of the public, from across the different geographies, to spend a day deliberating on devolution issues such as what are the qualities of a good mayor and how can the public best be engaged in devolution and decision-making. We took the findings to key parliamentarians attending the conferences. More on the findings is available here.

The research shows that it’s less a case of these people being ‘hard to reach’, and more that there’s more that government could do to engage with people on their own terms. There is potential to revitalise many of the UK’s ‘forgotten places’ by using smarter digital methods of public engagement to ensure people have a voice, and ultimately to make more effective and localised decisions on how services are shaped or money is spent.

Some places are already making efforts to engage in different ways with the public. For example, one of the local leaders that was interviewed for the Local State We’re In research described their plans to create an offline public panel that deliberately incentivised people that don’t necessarily always respond to get involved. Others spoke of the need to shift from consultation with the public to co-creation. Interviewees also said the Citizens Jury model is being used in a number of places on a range of topics.

If the government can harness the benefits technology offers in engaging with the public and giving them a greater say this will revitalise many of the UK’s ‘left behind’ places, and fundamentally make the UK a fairer society. The UK Government will be undertaking a comprehensive Spending Review in 2020, so this is the ideal opportunity to explore what more can be done to reconnect the public with government and public services - and promote fairness. Our future prosperity and wellbeing depend upon it.

West Midlands Mental Health Commission uses the Citizens’ Jury model

In Spring 2016 15 West Midlands residents with experience of mental health problems, met for eight deliberative sessions with a view to producing recommendations for the West Midlands Mental Health Commission. The West Midlands Mental Health Commission advises government and the West Midlands Combined Authority on how public services can be transformed. The Citizens Jury shared their stories and perspectives and worked together to generate a set of twenty recommendations that the Commission considered in the development of their Action Plan. In January 2017 the West Midlands Mental Health Commission Action Plan was launched by UK Parliamentarian Norman Lamb MP. The Commission is continuing to use this citizen engagement model. Read the WMCA Mental Health Commission Citizens Jury report here.

Contact us

Quentin Cole

Head of Industries, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7770 303846

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