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The impact of citizen engagement in a school modernisation process: going through the motions or empowering local elites?

James Downe
Cardiff University
James Downe
Cardiff University
Tom Entiwstle
Cardiff University
Valeria Guarneros
Cardiff University
Steve Martin
Cardiff University
Open Panel

Abstract

Governments have realised over the last few decades that elections every four or so years is not enough either for citizens to communicate their wishes to government or to hold them to account. In Wales, the government has outlined a ‘citizen centred’ model of service delivery (WAG, 2004). This model is premised on services being improved through innovative forms of consultation with citizens. This paper uses a case study of a school modernisation process in a local authority to analyse whether the innovative methods of engagement have been successful in engaging stakeholders. The local authority used Area Project Boards (APB) whose members included a representative from each school, politicians, council officers, and other key local stakeholders (from health, church and the voluntary sector) to develop a plan for the future provision of education in the area. The paper uses documentary analysis, attendance at APB meetings and in-depth interviews to explore the rationale for introducing such an approach, how citizen engagement is understood by participants, who were involved in the decision-making process, and the impact of the process on outcomes. Our findings suggest that engagement has made a difference. Representatives from the council were clear that they had learnt from the participation of APB members and engaging with professionals has helped to reduce resistance to change. There have also been benefits for the local authority as they have been seen to be consulting and listening. Their approach is significantly different to the top-down service re-design taken by other local authorities. There are a number of drawbacks to the process. The APB did not have decision-making powers and engagement was primarily with professionals who had vested interests. Although there was an expectation that APB members would in turn engage with communities, the public felt as if the proposals were a fait accompli.