Why is it that so many of us are so stubbornly resistant to joining in with anything to do with local government?
I only ask because it turns out that our local council’s flagship vehicle for finding out what we think and what we’re worried about – the Citizens’ Panel – is struggling to get enough people to sign up.
Re-launched as a mainly online tool in October last year by Leeds City Council, the panel set itself the target of enlisting 6,000 people to participate in regular surveys about local services and issues.
That’s 6,000 over-18s from a population of around 600,000. Just one per cent.
But only 3,900 of us have bothered so far, despite a pretty comprehensive promotional campaign that used social and traditional media, plus educational, housing and other networks to reach up to 200,000 of us.
“Efforts to undertake citizens panel recruitment have been more challenging than first anticipated,” says a council report reviewing the panel’s progress.
Skewed by 50-somethings from Roundhay
It’s not all bad news for the panel organisers: the 60-70 year-olds are pretty up for it (they’ve reached their quota on the panel already) and the 45-60 year-olds aren’t far behind; and with a bit of a push they’ll reach the target number of residents from the suburbs.
The trouble is that as things stand there’s a risk that survey results could end up skewed towards the opinions and preferences of 50-year-olds from Roundhay and Bramhope. When what’s wanted are views that are representative of ALL the people of Leeds.
That’s because by and large young people aren’t taking up the offer: only 68 out of a total of nearly 100,000 18-24 year-olds in the city have signed up, and the 25-34 year olds are proving pretty hard to reach too.
In the inner city it’s a similar picture, with only half the target number of citizens from some areas volunteering to “have their say” on the panel.
In each of four of the city’s ten geographical sub-divisions (Inner North West, Inner South, Inner West and Outer East) only ONE 18-24 year-old young man has come forward.
Disengaged? Not us
The council will probably make the numbers up eventually, using its “partners” and friendly agencies to target those so-called “hard to reach” and “disengaged” people needed to give the panel validity.
But for all the effort it’ll be a bit of a Pyrrhic victory. Chasing the “disengaged” to take part in an exercise in engagement they’ve had no hand in designing sort of defeats the purpose – and misses the point.
Because we’re not “disengaged”. We are permanently engaged. With our families, our friends, our neighbours, people in the pub, workmates, at the mosque, on the allotment, the terraces and the bowling green, waiting for nursery to open, for the bus to come, on Facebook, in the classroom, on the dance floor …
We’re just not engaged with council business and decision-making, despite (and sometimes because of) the chat from above about “civic enterprise“, “a new social contract” and “better engagement“, yada yada yada …
Citizens Panel? There’s a clue in the name.
It’s a nice irony that while we’ve got a Citizens Panel, citizens have no say in how it’s run, what issues and services get surveyed, what the questions are and how they’re put.
Hand it over?
So, here’s a positive suggestion: why not hand the panel over to us citizens?
How? Put together a random dozen people from Leeds (like they do for jury service), lock them in a room and let them get on with it.
The council, in the meantime, can get on with whatever tick-box consultation stuff it feels it’s got to do in our name.
But a panel/jury of citizens will decide the what and how of the Citizens’ Panel in the future. And if that turns out to be deciding to scrap it, so be it.
Who knows where it all might end?