Saturday, 3 May 2008

The S Word

You can tell a lot from people’s reactions to a single word. Take subsidiarity. For many people, this is an awkward, complicated word. It seems to suggest that things should not be as they are. It is almost subversive in implying that those with power should think about giving some of it up. You can see why some people feel uncomfortable about it. However, for others, this one word beautifully captures the essence of empowerment, devolved governance and participatory democracy. Power is to be exercised at the lowest possible level where it can be effectively exercised. The question of delegation is neatly turned upside down. It is not about what should be passed down to the more local level, but what should be passed up.

In any structure of governance, it is inevitable that the precise of location of power is contested. Those who don’t like the S word tend to focus on cost efficiencies as the key reason why power should be concentrated in bigger and more centralised bodies, while those who take subsidiarity seriously would argue for more power to rest with smaller, more local bodies such as neighbourhood or parish councils. So can these divergent views ever be coherently reconciled?

The first question to ask ourselves is why powers should not be taken away from people who are perfectly capable of exercising them. To answer this question, we cannot get away from taking a position on the notion of democratic citizenship. We either subscribe to the view that people in general can and should never be more than recipients of public decisions made by a ruling elite, or we embrace the concept that we are all self-governing citizens who will entrust others further removed from us to make decisions for us only when we are not so well placed to deal with those decisions.

It was John Stuart Mill who pointed out that unless we want to have a nation of sheep, blindly obedient and submissive, we must cultivate wider engagement by citizens in municipal decision-making. Once we accept the premise that citizens must be enabled to have their say as much as possible over their own governance, the rest follows. Not only should more powers be accessible to them at the most local level, but even when powers need to be exercised at a higher level – for the sake of efficiencies, strategic coordination, or whatever other reason – it is essential for citizens to be made aware of how their views can help to inform and shape those decisions.

This means that it is in fact a false dichotomy to suppose we must choose between ever larger units of governance and a proliferation of smaller units. The way forward is to reconnect units of governance at every level to make them accessible to varying degrees to citizens themselves. On matters where citizens can work directly with the most local, neighbourhood level bodies to prioritise improvement to their environment, power should rest with those very local organisations. On other matters, the focus needs to be on how the citizens working through the most local units can influence and hold to account the larger units of governance. This is the way to develop an empowering framework of governance, and achieve real subsidiarity.

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