Working to make government more effective

Insight paper

Putting citizens at the heart of the UK constitution

This guest paper argues that the UK’s model of democracy and government does not put citizens at the heart of decision making – it should.

Tim Hughes
Climate Assembly UK
The UK parliament has held two citizens’ assemblies to date, on social care reform and achieving net zero.

Citizens are dissatisfied and frustrated with the current political system, and rightfully so.

This paper argues that the UK’s model of democracy and government does not put citizens and their interests at the heart of decision making. Instead, it seems to privilege some people and interests over others, and creates a gulf between citizens and those who govern them.

Parliament is supposed to be the manifestation of the public in the UK’s political system, but the dominance of the executive and other shortcomings of the system limit its representational role. As a result, those who are meant to represent citizens often seem distant from their lives and preoccupied by other interests. Where politicians are found to be acting poorly, there is often little sense of accountability or repercussion. Instead, the perception is that they are not subject to the same rules of behaviour as the rest of society – they make the rules, but do not abide by them.

In truth, the current political system gives the public minimal direct influence over the decisions that affect their lives. Citizens get the opportunity to exercise their will at the ballot box, but their influence is fleeting, limited and unequal. People feel disempowered – and to a large extent they are.

As a result, there is widespread public discontent with the current political system and the people who govern them and, in turn, significant demand for reform. This is not the fault of any individual politician or policy maker, but a systemic failure that must be addressed in order to improve how the UK is governed.

This paper makes the case that, as well as helping to address citizen discontent, the active participation of citizens in democracy can be a source of insights, data, action, scrutiny, legitimacy and accountability, which are key to good governance and tackling the complex challenges of today. There is no precise blueprint to follow for this, but there are lots of examples from across the globe – as well as experiments here in the UK. This paper sets out some of these examples, which have been established by decision makers here and elsewhere. Decision makers in the UK can learn from these and use them to inform the creation of a new relationship between citizens and decision makers.

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