Renewing Britain requires respect

Whoever wins the next general election faces a daunting set of challenges, from an economy in the doldrums, a more dangerous geopolitical environment, through to environmental challenges that are ever more present as each year breaks new temperature records.

However, this daunting vista is also an opportunity. An opportunity to transform and renew Britain.

One important transformation is in how the government works. Central government is too siloed and short-termist; ill-equipped to deal with the long-term challenges that the country faces, or to take advantage of new technologies such as AI and quantum computing effectively and responsibly. 

Proposals to move to a mission-driven model of government, one based on delivering against long-term goals, are thus hugely important. Indeed, The Future Governance Forum (FGF), in partnership with the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, will soon publish proposals on how to make mission-driven government a reality.

Reforging the relationship between citizen and state

However, changes to the model of government are not sufficient. Transforming government must also mean transforming the relationship between citizen and state. This is a central theme of Britain Renewed, a one-day conference hosted on Wednesday 15 May by FGF in partnership with UCL Policy Lab, Citizens UK and Power to Change, which brings together experts from around the world to discuss how to govern differently, with respect and partnership at its core. We will then build on these themes with our Deeper Democracy project, which I am working on in partnership with FGF (along with two colleagues: independent consultant Pritpal S Tamber; and Michael Little of Ratio).

A relationship based on respect

A report released last year by the UCL Policy Lab and More in Common demonstrated that what voters are most looking for from politicians is respect. 

The report argues that part of respecting people means trusting them to make decisions, and that this giving up of decision-making power might be one of the hardest changes for politicians to make.

Whilst I agree that the further devolution of power will be hard, I think that the report points to a deeper truth and a harder challenge: that society appears to value people for the money they make or the qualifications that they have attained. We do not respect people simply as people, seeing all contributions, everyone’s lived experience, as equally valuable.

The Deeper Democracy project shows why authentic respect is important. Change is not just about the ability to make decisions, or even to set the agenda. Change arises from a shared narrative, a sense of common destiny if you like. And without everyone being afforded equal respect this narrative will not be widely shared.

Britain will not be renewed unless everyone is respected. But how do we achieve this?

A deeper democracy

A common answer is that more opportunities are required for people to contribute to creating that shared narrative. Sometimes this looks like calls for more investment in the social infrastructure where people meet and interact, including efforts to save local pubs, libraries and community centres, etc. Another approach is to suggest the use of deliberative democratic methods, such as citizens’ assemblies. Neither of these approaches is wrong, but the picture is more nuanced.

Drawing on literature across community power, civil society, and innovations in participatory democracy, my colleagues and I argue that there are three enablers of greater power and respect: the availability of shared spaces where a joint narrative is created; access to specialist skills to help turn the shared narrative into action; and ownership of the process by citizens.

Critically, it is important to apply these enablers both to civil society – by which we mean the web of relationships that exist between citizens and residents, not just formal organisations – and to the state.

The latter will be particularly challenging. For instance, citizens’ assemblies might prove to be important additions, but only if they are both grounded in the wider social infrastructure of civil society, and clearly aligned to existing formal democratic processes.

The challenge to the state also extends to the model of public service delivery. Too often the current model treats citizens as mere customers, or infantilises them. Public services need to move to a relational model in which the agency of citizens is enhanced, enabled by public professions with new skills and with services offered in new spaces.

Overall, we envisage a much deeper relationship between the citizen and the state, one that is more balanced and founded on respect for everyone. This is why the project is called Deeper Democracy.

Over the coming months we will be working to flesh out how to make Deeper Democracy a reality, and I look forward to being able to share more.

The next general election may arguably be the most important in a generation; an opportunity to renew Britain so that it is best placed to prosper and thrive in the 21st Century. This renewal can only happen if the relationship between citizen and state is reforged, based on genuine respect for everyone.

About Oliver

Oliver is an independent consultant. He has held leadership positions in the private sector, civil society, and government, including stints at the Department of Health and the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair.

The Deeper Democracy project is being delivered by independent consultants, Oliver Smith and Pritpal S Tamber, working alongside Michael Little of Ratio. Its work to date was made possible by a donation to Ratio by Dr Iain McRitchie, businessman and founder of MCR Pathways, a charity that annually matches 10,000 volunteers with young people in care in school.