Let’s go back more than a century. In 1915 the city of Cleveland (Ohio) took on a project to modernise – it was slipping behind New York and Chicago. The city government looked at all aspects of city life, including Education. To bring schools up to the modern era the city commissioned 20 projects (‘surveys’) looking at all aspects of school life: teaching, curriculum, transport, architecture, financing and more. 20 reports were drafted, worked on by committees of experts and then sold to the public at cost (60c each).
Next, they rented a hotel ballroom every Monday lunchtime for a year and each Monday invited citizens from the streets and suburbs to pop in and join discussions about the project report selected for that day. The press attended and covered debates – on one occasion, knocking news of WW1 off the front pages. The Cleveland School Survey. Democracy in action. People were included and engaged.
Nation States were developed for purposes of efficient warfare and defence, and to create powerful trading blocs. They are not necessarily the best units of action for modern, complex challenges….like managing a pandemic.
At the the time of writing the Covid-19 pandemic is out of control in the UK and much of Europe. In the UK one of the clearest reasons for failure to rein-in the infection is the unavoidable incompetence of central government in dealing with fine-grain issues that are so closely bound up with local context. Since the rise of Margaret Thatcher the psychological and ideological leanings of government (Left and Right) have been towards centralisation and control. And yet, in a pandemic world we know these things:
- All local authorities have access to a local or regional university with epidemiologists, public health experts, molecular laboratories, demographers and public education specialists.
- Local authorities are at the perfect scale for integrating services like public, community and hospital health, education, social work, arts and culture, housing and regeneration, community mental health, sanitation and policing – all of which have resources essentials to combatting the virus and its impacts. Service integration (eg. for children’s services) has never worked at central government level since the system of Ministries fragment efforts and are too easily preoccupied with internal competition.
- Unlike central government whose priorities change with each election, local government is built for continuity and to sustain effective actions and policies. Prevention and resilience are essentially local in nature.
- The social psychology of public health behaviour (eg. physical contact, sanitation, neighbourliness) and the meaning of wellbeing are local and cultural. Only local authorities and services have a grasp of this and of how to adapt behaviours.
- Given the immediacy of issues with change and development, what is right for local government to do is more likely to be shared across political party lines than it is at central government level where consensus is notoriously hard to achieve (in times of peace) and most policies are based on blinkered ideologies.
The Covid pandemic has revealed something important about Nation States – in the UK as elsewhere. It is that modern times and the growing complexity of contemporary dilemmas call for a rebalancing of central and local responsibilities – reshaping our democracy. Representative democracy – Parliament and General Elections, national measures of economic and social wellbeing (like GDP), the crude classification of society’s diversity into Ministries – all of these are too coarse-grained to properly embrace what it means to be democratically engaged with the citizenry and social change. Look again at Cleveland.