I’m just on my way back from a training course at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies. Very interesting couple of days and good to have some space to think about the big picture.

One of the things we considered was the respective roles of participatory and representative democracy at local level and how they fit together. As previous posts show, I have long been of the opinion that participatory methods – including, at the basic level, consultation – need to have real financial bite if they are going to engage people in helping to make genuinely tough choices over where scarce resources should be expended. But if budgets are decided by the people, where does that leave the representative role of the councillor?

Discussions on the course, and the recent event I organised on participatory budgeting, got me thinking about a possible structure to help reconcile these different aspects of the local democratic process:

1) Neighbourhoods are established, composed of a number of wards which together form a recognisable area (Kingston upon Thames has four ‘neighbourhoods’, each containing 3-5 wards, which can be used as an exemplar).

2) The council’s cabinet or executive is restructured and broadened to include a councillor representing each neighbourhood alongside thematic portfolio holders, helping to bridge the gap between ‘community’ and ‘policy’ members.

3) An overarching, strategic set of objectives and a service delivery plan (similar to the Sustainable Community Strategies that underpinned Local Strategic Partnerships) is co-developed between the council and the community, with an engagement period of sufficient duration, using fun and innovative methods and underpinned by Member / officer working groups.

4) Within the plan, outcomes, functions, services and budgets are placed into two categories: those which need to remain centralised (for genuine statutory reasons, strategic infrastructure needs, economies of scale too large to pass up, etc.) and those which can be devolved to neighbourhood level.

5)  The council centrally produces a prospectus setting out the devolved budgets for each neighbourhood and a ‘menu’ of service offers with associated specifications and costs for each statutory and discretionary service which they see as deliverable at neighbourhood level.

6) Community assemblies are convened at neighbourhood level, chaired by ward councillors and supported by dedicated, cross-disciplinary officer teams. All residents, businesses, community groups and other stakeholders within a neighbourhood are invited to attend.

7) Through a participatory budgeting process, neighbourhood assemblies decide their priorities, allocate their budgets to areas of spend and set their approach to commissioning in each area, deciding whether to ‘buy in’ to the council’s service offer in a particular area, or to make their own arrangements.

Often, services will become proportionally less expensive if more neighbourhoods buy into them. However, neighbourhoods may decide that they can deliver the same thing more cheaply – incentivising ‘Big Society’ type solutions, as they would leave communities with more money to spend on other priorities. They could also decide that they want to address a problem in a different way (a crude example might be choosing to spend money on youth services, rather than graffiti cleanup). Or they could decide that a particular area wasn’t a priority at all, and choose to invest elsewhere.

8) Supported by officers, ward councillors help the assemblies to consider their options, using their knowledge and experience to point out things which attendees might not have considered, and to focus the ideas being generated into a proposed budget and service delivery / commissioning plan for the neighbourhood.

9) This plan is then presented to the Cabinet by the Cabinet member representing the neighbourhood. Cabinet members can go back to assemblies with suggestions (such as where a neighbourhood’s decision to ‘opt out’ of a council service would make it unviable to run throughout the council area as a whole) and assemblies must consider these, but are free to reject them.

10) Led by ward councillors and supported by officers, neighbourhoods get on with commissioning and delivery, convening assemblies if needed / demanded to review progress.

Beyond the usual arguments on the value of local decision-making, three major advantages of this arrangement strike me: innovation, money saving and reinvigorating representative democracy. By handing over budgets, neighbourhoods would be free to innovate – or, just as importantly, to adapt successful practice elsewhere. And the powerful incentive to save money, in order to have more to invest elsewhere, would throw up ideas that the council ‘establishment’ would find difficult to resist – though this system has considerable potential to help erode that ‘establishment’: by devolving power, but also by providing a route for progression for councillors whose interest is first and foremost in representing their communities.

There are also, however, a number of complexities that this summary glosses over, such as on inclusive decision making mechanisms and how to design a workable system for neighbourhood assemblies that results in a fair approximation of representing everyone – including those who can’t or won’t turn up to meetings. Participatory budgeting systems using two or more stages can provide an effective way of widening participation. To take a more difficult issue, however, one advantage of a centralised, stickily statutory system is that it provides a fairly effective safeguard against the tyranny of the majority, and this system would see some councils seek to hold onto central power to protect their vulnerable or voiceless residents. One way of offsetting this in the long term would be to build economic modelling into the budgeting process – probably at the central stage, before the neighbourhood budgeting began – to ensure that future savings from current investments, such as in preventative health measures, were accounted for. It’s easier to make the case for spending to alleviate worklessness, or rehabilitate criminals, when it’s going to save people money a little way down the line.

Beyond all that, of course, there is the overarching problem is that this is about process rather than people – my political geek equivalent of the fantasy football teams I used to spend ages drawing up, paying more attention to the geometric intricacies of the formation than to the players. I’m weird like that. But could something like this work? Or should we stick to the classic 3-4-0 approach – elect 3 councillors for 4 years and have zero control in between?