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Trust and democracy

June 2015

By Alison Seabrooke, chief executive, Community Development Foundation (CDF)

The Community Development Foundation’s latest research on Trust in democracy: how community groups bridge the gap between people and politics reinforces how important it is to get involved in community activity. We highlight how much more we trust people within our communities compared to local and national political structures, and think about the positive potential of volunteering in community activity as a way to restore trust in democracy. Our research finds that volunteering both increases levels of trust in general, and increases the likelihood of getting more deeply involved in social action. 

This will come as no surprise to people from Big Local areas, who will appreciate the huge amount of energy and enthusiasm that people bring to tackling things that they care about locally. Perhaps this is because participation in community activity offers a purer form of democracy – one in which people can feel that their investment of time, energy and ideas leads to genuine opportunities to make real change. Many of the councillors we spoke to in our research said that it was often their first involvement in community activity that inspired them into getting more involved with politics. Very often, they still feel very attached to the communities they have come from and put them at the front of what they are trying to achieve. 

To support people’s appetite to get involved in things that matter to them locally, CDF is calling for forms of local decision-making that meet the needs of the area. We suggest that the power to make decisions should also come from the level that is most trusted – the local level. Putting residents at the heart of creating the areas they want to live in can be a powerful tool for transformation as Big Local areas will know. A shift towards more localised decision-making could create politics that interact with people’s everyday experiences and provide meaningful opportunities to get involved. 92% of CDF’s huge network of community organisations responding to our survey said that local people should be more involved in the design and delivery of their local public services. 

CDF’s contact with communities means we can already see the huge potential for the community sector to be involved in deciding how best to deliver local services. Including community groups at their design-stage would mean that services will ultimately better meet the needs of people living there. 

Residents are ultimately the experts and entrepreneurs that can meet the difficult challenges that lie ahead, as less money flows into communities that often already feel stretched. It is only by working together effectively that it will be possible to understand and overcome them. Here at CDF we have seen how community groups across the country are already making significant progress on difficult issues, taking common-sense and often highly innovative action to solve them. 

We hope that the likely closer cooperation between local authorities and the community sector in the years ahead could also bring new opportunities for democratic engagement. In fact, 72% of the community groups we surveyed recognised the need for community groups to work together with local authorities to achieve shared goals. By building better relationships with community groups, local authorities can also support wider trust in the political process and encourage participation. 

In our research, we suggest local authorities can take steps towards this by taking a more localised approach to democracy, providing community groups with opportunities for frequent and meaningful dialogue. Efforts to give people more of a say in how funding is spent locally will support more people to be interested in working cooperatively. We will also have a lot to learn from your experiences in Big Local.

Ultimately, we need to provide people with real opportunities to make changes in their neighbourhoods. By strengthening communities and building on local trust, we can truly start to restore trust in democracy.

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