Local Democracy Today and Tomorrow | Learning from Good Practice

Sue Bannister and
Dr. Michael Sutcliffe

"This [document] provides an overview of key trends and developments impacting on local democracy and is intended to be a broad-ranging background paper to assist in discussions at a workshop organised by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), in partnership with the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF), to be held in Stockholm in early November 2014, which will bring together academics and practitioners to explore current trends and developments in local democracy.

It should be noted that there is no single world view on what local democracy is and globally there are many different systems of local governance and democracy both within and between countries. A number of key areas which have impacted on local democracy and as identified by the authors include the impact of the global financial crisis, the effects of urbanisation, rising conflicts and protests, ways in which engagements occur, ensuring inclusivity and the need for a developmental approach to local governance.

Lessons learnt and challenges include the effects of decentralisation, increased participation, building skills, ensuring openness and transparency and ensuring effective and efficient service delivery.

At the broadest level local governance is defined as “the formulation and execution of collective action at the local level” (Shah and Shah, 2006 p.1). Local government, on the other hand, refers to the specific institutions created, usually by national or sub-national organs of the state (through constitutions, legislation and the like) with a focus on creating the vehicle for the delivery of a set of services in a specific geographical jurisdiction. This means it is possible to have local government without local democracy, but not possible to have good local governance without both good local government and good local democracy.

The past few years have witnessed significant advances in at least democratic expression, if not the development of institutions promoting democracy at all levels of governance.

The increased roles and responsibilities that decentralisation has given local government have been implemented in different ways across the world, creating a wide variety of systems of local of governance. The 2014 State of Participatory DemocracyReport provides a positive outlook for democracy at a local level, stating that whereas national level democracy is, in many areas, fragile, at lower levels, participatory democracy is expanding and deepening. This, the report notes, is seen in areas such as decentralisation, women in leadership positions, greater social accountability and collaboration between government and civil society as well as a general increased acknowledgement of the role of local government.

The global financial crisis meant that local government found itself with a wider set of challenges related to the financial crisis, including lower affordability levels and higher unemployment rates, placing pressure on the finances of local government and requiring increased levels of social service provision.

At the same time, a projected 2.5 billion people are expected to be added to the world's urban population by 2050 (UNDESA 2014). However, almost 90% of this is concentrated in Asia and Africa, and will require significant development to provide basic services.

A series of increasingly large protests in cities across the world have been an important factor over the past decade, bringing cities and their public spaces into the focus of political struggles. Inclusive governance is, today, much more of a reality than it was even ten years ago.

A significant body of literature focuses on the reality that local governance and democracy is not an end in itself, but must result in real improvements to people’s lives. More empowering decentralisation, improvements in skills, openness and transparency, and a focus on service delivery become critical areas around which democratic local governments need to focus their attention.

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