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Friday, 16 July 2010

14. Volunteer Democracy

This version of local democracy comes from an idea I mentioned in passing in the localopolis pamphlet - that anyone who wants to should be able to become a councillor.

I was reminded of it by some recent comments by Grant Schapps MP, Minister of State for Housing & Local Government, that the professionalisation of councillors was a worrying trend and that they should be volunteers.

My argument would go like this:

  • Local political representatives are there to do a job - it doesn't matter how they are selected it is what they do that matters
  • We get very tied up with the idea that representatives have to be elected and this is what makes them legitimate but why?  In ancient Athens they drew lots and we are quite comfortable with that method for selecting juries.  So the method is just a means to an end not an end in itself.
  • One of the reasons we use elections and lots is to select the few from the many but this hardly seems to be a problem as far as local councillors are concerned.  Local political parties often struggle to get people onto ballot papers and many seats are uncontested.
  • Clay Shirky has recently been talking about a cognitive surplus that social media might be able to harness - in a similar vein what about  focusing on civic surplus and how local government might harness that?  People who are unemployed, retired or just have a little spare time might all want to give being a councillor a go.
  • Giving everyone a go at being a local councillor would be an excellent way to raise awareness and understanding of local democracy throughout the community
So why not offer the opportunity of being a councillor to all citizens and, instead of thinking about how we fix the electoral process concentrate on redesigning institutions to accommodate everyone who wants to volunteer?

Here are some thoughts about how it might work in practice:

  • Every four years, instead of local elections we have local invitations - letters to all eligible citizens inviting them to volunteer to serve as a councillor
  • Volunteers would them be allocated jobs, for example, sitting in council meetings to vote on council decisions, working on scrutiny committees and policy juries, dealing with service problems and complaints - there might be an interesting hook up with the Citizen's Advice Bureau here - after all councillors in 'surgery mode' fulfil a similar advice role.  I'm sure that there are many other roles.
  • Representativeness and equality could be addressed from within the pool of volunteers so that their is a reasonable mix of volunteers for each task - this would also promote social cohesion as people from different parts of the community get to interact
  • If needed there could still be a formal election for a mayor or similar to facilitate the whole process
  • If there are too many volunteers then lots might still be used, or better still, give people one or two year terms of office - even better would be to keep redesigning local government so that everyone can be put to work for the civic good
I think this would also be a neat way to solve the thorny problems associated with combining representative and participative democracy - in fact it's possibly the neatest.

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