Redesigning local government – new leadership and active citizens

JENNY WILLS with Kate Nash

4.4.4 Active Citizenship

“An active citizen is not someone who has simply accumulated a store of facts about the workings of the political system – someone who is able to perform well in a political quiz. An understanding of how the social and political systems work is an essential element, but equally important is the motivation and the capacity to put that knowledge to good use. Essentially, it is a question of active commitment to democracy. An active citizen . . . is someone who not only believes in the concept of democratic society but who is willing and able to translate that belief into action. Active citizenship is a compound of knowledge, skills, and attitudes: knowledge about how society works; the skills needed to participate effectively; and a conviction that active participation is the right of citizens.”
(Education for Active Citizenship, Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, 1989.

“Local government will encourage non-discriminatory participation of all citizens in building democratic communities which share power and ensure a more equitable allocation of community resources.” (Extract from Declaration on the role of Australian Local Government, ALGA, 1997)

Active citizenship is essential for the operation of democratic governance. Maximizing the potential for citizens to exercise their power depends not only on the interests and motivations of citizens, but also on the positive political messages Councils convey about the central importance of active participation to good local governance.

Councils have been very successful in promoting people’s participation in diverse community activities. They have done this through a range of health, cultural, sporting, community care, recreational, educational and other programs. As a result, Councils over many decades have strengthened local civil society relationships and networks, and they have nurtured the growth of more cohesive and vibrant communities.

This community building work has provided a strong platform for Councils to engage more meaningfully with their citizens at a political level. Such engagement should result in citizens having a greater say on policies, local priorities, resource allocation and implementation so as to achieve improvements in community wellbeing outcomes.

Therefore the suggested next step for Councils in promoting active citizenship is not to review and/or expand external engagement practices, but rather to undertake an internal examination of how governance and operational aspects encourage, or detract from, citizen involvement in decision-making.

For Councils interested in furthering empowerment, embracing new political leadership styles, together with a public value perspective, would clearly signal to citizens that their participation rights are of paramount concern to councillors and Council officers.

Published in 2012 by
The Local Government Community Development and Services Association of Australia
C/- City of Swan
P.O. Box 196 Midland
Western Australia 6936
Tel. (08) 9248 5422
ISBN 978-0-646-58018-0
© LGCD&SAA and Jenny Wills