Participatory, decentralised governance, and citizen engagement is often promoted as a key part of the solution to the world’s most pressing societal challenges. There is a critical opportunity for leveraging participatory approaches to bring people together, promote collaboration and deliberative discussion, and help tackle existing power structures.

The evidence-backed benefits of participatory and democratic processes include: building trust and integrity, enhancing the perceived credibility of decisions and decision-making institutions; negotiating political divisions and polarisation, promoting solidarity and togetherness; improving socio-economic and environmental outcomes through more plural, flexible and anticipatory governance processes; enhanced quality of knowledge and evidence through the incorporation of diverse knowledge types and realities; and fostering empowerment, collective action, and community benefits through localised and bottom-up approaches.

In July 2023, I presented a seminar titled “How to build standards of trust, accountability, and inclusion for sustainable places” to the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). I presented in collaboration with Oxford University’s Agile Initiative and Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery projects.

The talk was part of the DLUHC 2023 Science Seminar Series, curated by the Chief Scientific Advisor’s Office, which aims to seamlessly integrate scientific evidence into DLUHC’s focus areas, aligning with their research interests and priorities. Our aim was to bridge the gap between academic research and real-world applications in the realm of urban planning and regeneration, housing, and fostering sustainable, thriving and connected communities.

Our core message revolved around the power of ‘engagement’, which is part of broader transformative efforts for more participatory and deliberative democracy and justice. We underscored the significance of involving the public in decision-making processes concerning local places and communities. The evidence we presented shed light on the connection between engagement and the establishment of trust, inclusion, and integrity in political decision-making.

A key highlight of our presentation was the exploration of digital tools for engagement. This was particularly relevant to DLUHC’s initiatives for digital planning and ‘PropTech‘ which aim to promote innovative tools and technologies for citizen engagement with planning policy and practice. We delved into both the technical and ethical aspects of technological innovation, offering insight into their application. While digital tools can undoubtedly enhance the effectiveness of engagement in many ways, it is crucial to be cautious about the ethical risks, such as issues related to digital literacy and infrastructure. Our recent academic paper pre-print (free to download) explores these technical and ethical debates around digital tools for democratic and participatory engagement, making relevant recommendations for practitioners and policymakers.

The seminar also emphasised the necessity of embedding a culture of democratic engagement within DLUHC, and also across Government more broadly. We stressed the importance of building the capacity and capability to implement best practices in engagement processes, ensuring decisions align with development, sustainability and local community needs.

Our research gains particular relevance in the rapidly evolving landscape of democratic and digital transformation in the UK. With increasing calls for democratic reform and citizen participation, and an ever-growing toolkit of digital technologies and platforms at our fingertips, the dynamics of planning and environmental decision-making are undergoing a significant shift. On a global scale, influential organizations like the OECD and the European Union are promoting digital tools as catalysts for fostering more interactive, human-centred approaches. Closer to home, the United Kingdom is making bold strides in digital transformation, positioning digital technologies as the front and centre of public service provision and engagement.

Our presentation not only enriched the learning of DLUHC staff, but is also available for viewing to the broader UK public sector. The presentation slides can also be downloaded here.

In a world where democratic reform, sustainable transformations and community empowerment has never been more critical, our seminar served as a reminder of the pivotal role that engagement plays in driving standards of trust, accountability, and inclusion in decision-making and public institutions.

This blog post has been adapted from its original version, posted here.