In 1977 I published a little book called “The Search for Democracy – a guide to and polemic about Scottish local government” which was written around some 40 questions community activists and students were putting to me about the new system of Scottish local government which had arrived in 1975. I was in a fairly unique position to deal with this since I had, for some 3 years, been occupying one of the leading positions in the country’s largest local authority – Strathclyde Region
Not least of my puzzlements was about the source and nature of power. And the story told by one of the architects of the British NHS (Aneurin Bevan) about his own search for power - from his own municipality through trade unions to the heights of the British Cabinet - used the powerful metaphor of the onion. As each layer peeled away, there did not appear to be a heart!
Like Bevan, I have been peeling away various slices to try to get to "the heart of the onion" eg (in Scotland) as community activist; manager of community development projects; political science academic; local councillor; local manager; - then since 1990 foreign consultant (capacity development; civil service reform); change management expert; trainer.......
The subtitle to part I of the book was “Birthpangs or Death Throes?” The questions the book explored related naturally to those organisations which most immediately impacted then on ordinary people
As, in later years, I dealt with higher levels of government, the questions changed.....And, as local government has become emasculated, so the questions which people raise have perhaps become more pertinent....
But, for the moment, treat this as a history lesson...........
· - What were the new Districts and Regions supposed to achieve?
· - Why do we seem further away from these goals?
· - Will the new system not produce conflict and delay?
· - Are the new councils not too large and distant?
· - Does the public get value for money?
· - How much "fat" is there?
· - How much freedom does local government has?
· - Will a Scottish parliament not require the abolition of one of the tiers?
· - What do councillors do?
· - How do people become councillors?
· - What sort of power do they have?
· - Who are they accountable to?
· - Are party politics really necessary?
· - How does the party system work?
· - How does the committee system work?
· - What are its deficiencies?
· - Where does power lie?
· - Why are so many obstacles placed in the way of those wanting help and advice?
· - Will community councils make any difference?
· - What have councils done to improve their services?
· - How do councils know if their policies are working?
· - how might voluntary organisations/community groups play a bigger role?
Indeed at the start of the new millennium I had been so concerned about its erosion that I had drafted a paper around a set of rather different questions an updated version of which - Guide for the Perplexed – I placed on a website some years ago……
There it has languished, still unfinished…….but a recent exchange has encouraged me to pull it out again and do a bit of minor updating…..
it’s now called Mapping the common ground and is a fairly rare overview of what has been written over the years about the democratic malaise from which we have been suffering for the past 2 decades…
Please dip in - and let me know what you think!!