Imagine you’re asked to give a short talk in the local school about how power works in your area. Who makes the crucial decisions? Who chooses them? Who can dismiss them?
This is democracy at its most basic. But over the last few years I’ve been increasingly struck how difficult most people would find this task. Even very well-informed people, and probably most people reading this sentence, have only the vaguest grasp of how decisions are made and who is making them.
In many countries there may be two or three tiers of government, but usually it’s fairly clear who does what. In the UK we not only have several tiers but also a remarkably tangled web of quangos, boards, partnerships and agencies, partly the result of the steady disempowerment of local government.
ICSs (Integrated Care Systems) are a classic example. They are not a bad idea. But only a tiny fraction of the public has heard of them, knows who they are or has a clue what they do. Another example is LEPs, Local Enterprise Partnerships (which may cease functioning this spring). Again, almost no one knows what they are or what they do (I used to chair one of the main London LEP committees under Boris Johnson).
My children have gone to very good state schools – but were never given even the most basic education on how power is exercised, and this seems to be the norm everywhere.
I’m convinced this is one reason why people feel a lack of agency. Democracy depends at a minimum on knowing who is making decisions and having some sense of who you might complain to, and how you might kick them out. Power has to be legible for anyone to have a feeling of agency.
There’s a parallel challenge in relation to corporate power. A few years ago I wrote about how hard it was to find out about the basic systems we depend on for energy, communications, money or food. Where are they? Who owns them? Who regulates them? How are crucial decisions made, for example about which streets get prioritised for broadband?
Here I share a few questions I’ve found as good starting points which you could try answering.
In some places the creation of Combined Metropolitan Authorities is providing a partial answer, as they slowly accumulate more powers. But in most places governance is a complex mess.
My hope is that any renewal of democracy and governance will address this the question of legibility – making it easier to know how everyday decisions are made, and, in time, simplifying structures.
I would love to see research on whether my diagnosis is right, and any ideas on better solutions. Otherwise it will remain entirely legitimate for populist politicians to say that people have lost control and to claim that they are the answer.
THE POWER QUIZ
In the area where you live, who decides:
1. What is taught in schools?
2. How many GPs there are?
3. Whether to fix potholes in roads?
4. What routes buses should take?
5. What chemicals are allowed in food sold in shops and restaurants?
6. What crimes the police should prioritise?
7. How to ensure local businesses cut their carbon emissions?
8. Who should get social housing?
9. What’s done if someone spreads lies on social media?
10. Whether a new high rise in the town centre gets to be built?
And then two supplementaries: How many of these people/organisations do you help to choose? How many of these can you dismiss?
Have a go at answering the questions. Then, here I've added a file with answers elicited from ChatGPT - which is fairly accurate (I could only see a couple of small mistakes) but confirms the remarkable complexity of modern governance.