Leeds “Citizens Panel” struggling to get enough citizens to sign up

citizens-panel-your-leeds-your-say-a6-adWhy 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

YEP promoIt’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

neThe 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?

Citizen jury - except they wouldn't be sitting like that

Citizen jury – except they wouldn’t be sitting like that

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.

Then, after the Citizens’ Panel is successfully sorted, other juries can move on to other stuff, like local housing, or the if/how/what of supporting the arts in Leeds with public money.

Who knows where it all might end?


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22 Responses to Leeds “Citizens Panel” struggling to get enough citizens to sign up

  1. Alison Neale says:

    It’s not that bad. I signed up to it and you get an email leading to an online survey about once every month or so (takes five to ten minutes to fill out). Subjects have varied (the arts through to street lighting/rubbish collection, if I recall) and although the questions tend to be rather simplistic, you do get blank boxes to vent your spleen if you wish.

    However, I found out about it online, and it does occur to me that the email/online survey thing rather rules out a large proportion of the population. If you don’t have internet access at home, you’re not going to use precious minutes of your limited time on a library computer, for example, to do this… I’m not sure if they offer an alternative format.

    • Alison Neale says:

      I was commenting on the actual format and subject coverage of the surveys, by the way. I don’t actually think the Council takes any notice of our answers. I should have made that clear!

  2. I think you can still do it on paper. Guess that some of the rump of the old paper-format 1,000-strong panel are still with them.

  3. P D says:

    People living in Roundhay over 50 – That would include a regular commentator in here!

    A random 12 people. That really refelcts the wider opinion NOT

  4. Tony says:

    I’m signed up to the panel (and from one of the ‘hard-to-reach’ demographics), and I’ve been very disappointed by the blatantly tick-box character of the surveys and participation arrangements. Some of the surveys obviously fail to grasp the basic nature of the how things are currently functioning enough to provide sensible, relevant questions, especially for city centre-inhabiting young(ish) folks; I’ve skipped 1 of the surveys so far simply because the questions were relevant only to the ‘burbs. Worse, there is a clear sense in the question format (especially for that wonderfully Orwellian survey on cost-cutting a few months ago) that the Council will do whatever the hell it pleases regardless of what we as citizens put in to it.

  5. Rich Tee says:

    My experience and research over the years has led me to believe that local government cannot do anything without the permission of national government, and national government cannot do anything without the permission of the European Union.

    These type of citizen consultation exercises are just to placate people, they make no difference in the long run.

    For example, for rubbish collection the most significant development in recent years has been the EU Landfill Directive which demands that Britain must send less rubbish to landfill or be fined. That is the driving force behind changes to rubbish collection, not the opinions of the locals.

    Or sales tax like VAT. In the USA sales tax is set at state level. Some US states don’t have any sales tax at all! In contrast, Britain must levy VAT as a condition of EU membership, and Britain is very constrained by the EU in what levels of VAT it is allowed to charge and on what goods.

    It is this lack of local power to make a difference in Britain that is why I won’t be signing up to it.

  6. Hi there.
    There doesn;t seem to be much overlap between what individual people want and what the council wants. Even in an area where people care deeply about something (where i work) its still very difficult to successfully use this model of engagement.
    LCC is looking for consensus on budget buts and wants to take people with in in becomeing a cooperative council (or whatever) by ‘teaching’ them how council systems work.
    Individual people look for very different things. http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/sites/default/files/participation_trends_facts_figures.pdf

    I’m not just being a killjoy. I think we need to learn from past engagement activities and focus on what people want, and then how the council and others might do it. A friend of mine is involved in the Leeds Citizens Panel so i’ll keep an overview. I’d love them to list the evidence of participatory budgetting, evidence of previous successful engagement models, geniune change led by panels of people (or community organisations) in changing the democratic processes in local government. If not, a lot of people will weight up involvement on the basis of the change that their individual efforts can make, and come up without a genuine motivation to volunteer their time..

  7. John Boocock says:

    As ever the council asks the people to face IT rather than it facing the PEOPLE. When will they ever learn?

  8. You speak a lot of sense on sortition TLC: there’s some interesting proposals sitting with LCC as we speak about how such a model might help make decisions made about Leeds more accountable to its citizenry. Not sure of the real appetite for change though.

    We already have a country in penury because of it’s addiction to Fractional Reserve Banking, We know what we’ve got is broken. Damaging even. But we keep flogging this poor old horse because we fear the alternatives even more.

    Plus, admitting this system is buggered might open other forms of local democracy with low turnouts to scrutiny. As soon as people realise that you don’t need a party system to deliver thoughtful, informed decision makers what then? Which elected member would really want to see democracy led by the proles? Surely, like most other valuable commodities, democracy is too good for the likes of you and me.

  9. Ernie Gray says:

    The Big Society it would appear is only interesting to those of us who actually remember hethe seventies.Such gand ideas by central government to implemented by local government seemingly doomed to failure by aMaybepathetic groups. MayBe government should ask Simon Cowell for some ideas. And now the “CP Factor”.Of course no linkage to the 50 shades novels.

  10. Steve Williamson says:

    I think some of the responses are unduly negative which is a bit surprising as I spent the last 30 years of my working life dealing with Leeds City Council and generally finding it hard work!

    I am a member of the citizen’s panel and live in Beeston. As I’m retired I have a reasonable amount of time not only to complete their surveys but to comment on them and point out their inadequacies and in particular ask for evidence as to what is happening to the comments and evidence that something happens as a result. One that I am watching with interest is th YouChoose budget consultation.

    Rather than acceptiong LCC’s tick box approach I think we should challenge it. How about asking for a meeting with the Leader of the Council post budget setting with the citizens’ panel in which he demonstrates how they took account of feedback? At the risk of sounding too pompous I think that we should use the mechanism the Council has set up but make sure it works rather than setting up (yet) another pressure group.

    Another thing I think people should do is join a political party – preferably the one which has councillors in your ward – and start applying pressure that way, even if you don’t agree with a lot of what that party ‘stands for’.

    A third is to join in local community groups in your area and press for change that way.

    One of my concerns is increasing political apathy which while totally understandable is a recipe for disaster:

    ‘First they came for the communists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

    Then they came for the socialists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for me,
    and there was no one left to speak for me.’

    Martin Niemoller

  11. Ernie Gray says:

    Steve has made some very valid comments in his response. The problem with any monliths is that are difficult to move as Steve knows only too well from his past experiences. We do need to engage with younger citizens and hard to reach communities. The tradtional routes that the Council are using combined with an apathy towards everything that is government, whether central or local do not appear to be mechanisms that will attract those who really should be engaged.

  12. Just exactly how have the council gone about publicising the Citizens Panel? This is the first I’ve ever heard of it.

  13. Paul Thomas says:


    The problem isn’t apathy it’s the lack of politics. These types of ‘engagement’ exercises are a product of the decline of political vision. And Niemoller quote (a bit OTT in relation to people not completing a survey) is about political cowardice not apathy.


  14. Steve Williamson says:

    Ernie, I agree we need to engage young people and I take Paul’s point re Niemoller. My point is that apathy leads to cowardice. People will (sometimes) act bravely when they think something is important – too many people don’t or can’t be bothered – the eventual outcome is the same. I think reluctance to complete surveys is a symptom of people feeling they can’t change anything which while understandable is a self fulfilling prophecy.

    • Paul Thomas says:

      One, lots of people probably don’t know about the survey. Two, they are probably less reluctant than rightly couldn’t care less. Three, most people are intelligent enough to know that you don’t change anything through a survey. The only self-fulfilling prophecy here is disillusionment with the survey with which the public can then be chastised for ignoring it. It’s not the people of Leeds who are apathetic, this survey is a lazy attempt by a disconnected local politicians and bureaucracy to lend legitimacy to their decisions.

      • Steve Smith says:

        Quite – just try finding out what the results of the surveys are. Published online? No. Published anywhere? Try finding them.

        So we have had, for instance, two surveys in recent months – one on car parking charges in the city and one on lap dancing clubs. In the budget the proposal is to introduce charging for parking on evenings and Sundays. Elsewhere a number of councillors are telling us how they intend to restrict licences for lap dancing clubs.

        Is any of this influenced by the Citizens’ Panel – we don’t know; they haven’t told us. A request for the survey results is met with the response ‘The reports have not yet been produced by the services.’

        So there we have it – the high regard (not) that the council has for the views of its citizens.

      • Don’t know about the car parking charges, but the lap dancing survey results are at the bottom of this report. Feels like they were used to give some sort of authenticity to previously cooked up new policy of the anti-lapdancing campaign group.

        The trouble is the Citizens Panel is hardly representative of the people of Leeds in any case. Plenty of middle aged and older people from the suburbs on it, but hardly any young people, and not many from the inner city. See here.

        55-year-olds from Roundhay rule!

  15. Ernie Gray says:

    Steve, My experience is to engage with a significant number of the populace, you need an issue for people to engage with. The vast majority of tenants and residents associations are formed on this basis. Unless people are engaged politically or within the local community, then they struggle to become involved. This even more difficult with the younger generation unless they are politically active. There needs to be more fun approach adopted by detached youth workers or the big community approach where people are engaged on a one-to-one or group basis. There is not the resources to undertake this approach. Our whole reproach to how we engage needs a radical overhaul.

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