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It’s a hot blue Monday as we settle in a Bristol community centre to talk about government legitimacy. This is the kind of evening in which, as one participant jokes, it is by no means legitimate to keep people indoors. Yet despite the rising temperature, the mood in the room was calm, cool and thoughtful.

Old, young, and everywhere in between, from former local councillors to nurses to students, this cross-section of Bristol society united in their feeling of hope but all felt the need to feel involved in a conversation with the leaders and powers of Bristol about where Bristol is going, and how it could be better.

Bristol doesn’t stop asking, is it listening?

There is no lack of consultation, this much was clear, but when it comes to the big stuff, like how congested the city is, racism and youth opportunities or issues impacting those with disabilities, it felt conversations in the hardest to reach parts of Bristol were lacking.

In a nutshell, citizens do not feel very well understood by leaders and public servants who, they felt, end up having to play the game of government or are dancing to its tune  – even the front line feels like this. There is hope surrounding mayor Marvin Rees and the possibilities he brings to Bristol but, like other leaders, he is surrounded by processes that don’t feel inclusive or clear. Citizens often feel like they are simply asked to “tick a box” rather than being treated as active members of the city and don’t know why some important conversations don’t happen. Participants feel that it’s hard to engage when government generally – nationally and locally – feels like a business and about pleasing businesses, or sounds like one and makes its voters ‘feel like customers, not citizens.’

It is important for Bristol that central government devolves power to cities even more as citizens feel that the role of local authority is shrinking to the distribution of funds.  Local government has the potential for far more. This starts with listening, not just asking, and creating a feeling that people matter first, especially those who disagree with you.

There are many Bristols, some not talked about

A loud murmur of agreement met my question of whether there are “two sides” to Bristol. One participant added, “actually, there are many Bristols”. Neighbourhood segregation is behind Bristol’s conflicting status as a “rich” southern city that has a youth poverty ranking of 20%, 4% higher than the national average of 16%. Here, heavily deprived areas rub shoulders with some of the richest suburbs in Britain’s south-west, not an uncommon issue for thriving cities. Conversations about why this happens are dominated by vocal segments of the population that do not, generally, include those participants they feel government needs to hear from most – they are ‘self-appointed spokespersons’, it was said.

Meanwhile, the deeper, historic issues of racial segregation so fundamental to this issue are often not talked about. One participant even comments that “coming to Bristol from London really showed me what racial segregation means” – the issue may be visible, even palpable, but remains largely unspoken. The statue of Edward Colston that stands proudly in Bristol adds to this feeling, she said. He brought Bristol success but much of his wealth was gained through the exploitation and trade of slaves. A frank and representative dialogue is necessary on these tough issues. They impact how young people feel about engagement with government on other subjects and whether they want to stay to build a career in Bristol. Local representation that reaches out to engage unheard citizen voices is key to legitimacy, but how you listen and value what they say is too. Everyone recognised this wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Bristol wants to be involved but on their terms on their city’s immediate future

Of course, in a representative democracy, citizens often have to step back and let the government act, hoping that this will be in our best interests. Involvement doesn’t need to be total or constant, our participants say, but needs to be an option and clear when and why things happen or don’t. Yes, Bristol does hold consultations about policy changes and local issues. However, people either don’t know about these ( social media plays a bigger part in their lives now) or think that such conversations are “not for them”. They are not hidden, but equally, they are not always obvious.

Local community organisations such as Up Our Street are trying to find a way for local people to be stakeholders in big change, but the government needs to push much harder to reach others. “Empowering citizens to ask questions rather than answer questions is key,” says one participant, but there needs to be more from government than opening the path for communication. People want to feel involved in shaping their city with government, and they want to know how to do this. Participants see this involvement as the key to creating a transparent and accountable government, one they can connect with, rather than one they simply blame.

Bringing citizens together as we did in Bristol last Monday proves many things: how much richness there is in a diversity of views, and how people from a wide range of backgrounds are interested in having serious discussions about government. We were left with the strong reminder that the relationship between people and government has to be two-way and feel authentic. One participant so perfectly summed up the feeling in the room by saying “government is there to facilitate understanding: but do they understand us, and do we understand them?”

Some say people are not clear who can do what in local government and it is worse to promise things and then not do them, than not do anything. As one participant said, “expectations need to be managed and it be made clear what can be done by whom, as well as what cannot or will not be done.”

Our conversation in Bristol covered many issues that we found to be key in the drive to strengthening government legitimacy in our report, Finding a More Human Government. However it was unique in its unanimity on the core issues that are facing Bristol today, issues that need a listening government, an open government, and one that values all points of view, however hard they may be to hear or find.

 

FURTHER READING

What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with citizens to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI. 

Find out how to get involved in our Finding Legitimacy project 

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