News and Comment

Public opinion on budget cuts

Friday 20 August 2010

We hear a lot about the financial savings that local authorities need to make over the next few years. We also know that there is a growing awareness among the public that the recent financial crisis is going to affect public services, but we hear less about how the public feel that savings can be made. So armed with our recorders we decided to go and ask them.

Listen to our podcast on some opinions of the budget cuts:

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Protecting frontline services

We heard a theme that will be familiar to those used to consulting the public – frontline services should be protected while back office functions are ripe for savings. But we also heard something subtle that should not be lost among the finger pointing about where the waste is. People wanted to be part of the conversation and, crucially, they want access to information to allow them to make informed contributions. However, they do not want to make the decisions themselves. They do not want to replace representative democracy with the brutal simplicity of direct democracy but want to be heard and have an equal voice in local debates.

This means there is a central role for local authorities in the current remodelling of the citizen–state relationship. The new political settlement is not about pushing local government into the background; it is about them taking responsibility and co-ordinating local voices and making decisions that are open and fair. The people we spoke to recognise that it is rarely possible to please all the people all the time, but public interest decisions are about balancing the different voices and trying to aggregate the different views while protecting the needs of the most vulnerable. This is what local democracy is about. It’s difficult, often frustrating and messy, but vibrant and alive.

People want to get involved

We have worked in Lambeth for several years developing and running innovative budget consultations. We have always been impressed with how interested local residents are in local decision making, and how they never choose to duck the challenges that come their way. Local authorities across the country can harness this interest and energy by delivering inclusive and informative routes into community budgeting. They shouldn’t expect clear-cut answers, but they will get real insight into their communities and begin to shift the balance of power and responsibility in the state-citizen relationship.

by Robin Clarke, OPM fellow and Satdeep Grewal, OPM researcher