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Sat, 4 February 2023

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By Dr Simon Kaye
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Trust in democracy - new report

Community Development Foundation

5 min read Partner content

How community groups bridge the gap between people and politics, a new report by the Community Development Foundation.

 

Research summary paper

For many, the gap between people and politics has never felt wider. Over half believe that the Government doesn’t care what people like them think and as many as one in three people chose not to vote in the recent general election.1 2 Many feel that their voices are not being heard and just 17% feel able to influence national decision-making.3 In our research, we explore how we can bridge this divide and restore trust in democracy. 

Trust in the UK

The democratic process is not fully trusted – as shown in the graph below, just half of our respondents said that they trust the overall democratic process in the UK and even less trust Parliament.

Trust increases at a local level – people have higher levels of trust in individuals and organisations that are geographically close to them. We trust people in our community the most.

Community activity helps to build trust – those who participate in community activity are more trusting of people in general because of the positive experiences gained through volunteering. 

Bringing politics to the people

Communities want to be heard – 92% of our survey respondents said that local people should be more involved in the design and delivery of their local public services. This shows that there is a significant desire to move further towards a more localised system of governance. Giving people the chance to participate supports a sense of control over local decision-making, helping to rebuild trust in the democratic system.

People want to be kept informed throughout the decision-making process – accountability and transparency could be improved through more two-way communication between government and communities, including sharing information about how political decisions have been made.

The community sector should play an important role in the decision-making process – as community groups work closely with people locally they have a good understanding of the areas’ needs and are well-placed to inform the decision-making process. 72% of our survey respondents recognised the need for community groups to work closely with local authorities to achieve shared goals.

Bringing the people to politics

Community activity offers a route into more formal civic and political activity – we found that participation in community activity had resulted in almost half (45%) of our respondents becoming more interested in politics. A third had even gone on to take up more formal civic roles, including school governors, councillors and in one case a Deputy Mayor. Community activity acts as a stepping-stone, building people’s confidence to get involved and inspiring belief that they can make a difference to their area.

This may be particularly relevant for those sometimes excluded from politics – groups sometimes described as less interested or engaged in politics, such as younger adults and women, were especially likely to say that they had become more interested in politics as a result of community activity.

Funding programmes that boost volunteering can also boost civil society – volunteering in community sector activity can lead to increased engagement in civic activity. This means that government-funded programmes that boost volunteering in the community sector create multiple benefits that will sustain into the future.

What next?

Our research shows that trust is highest in groups and organisations with which we have the most direct contact. So to rebuild trust in democracy, we need to bring politics and people closer together. We can achieve this by granting people more power over the decisions made about their local area and by providing more opportunities to get involved in formal civic and political activities. The community sector holds the key to doing just this.

We welcome moves brought in under the Localism Act (2011), such as the introduction and extension of Community Rights and Neighbourhood Planning. These, along with other devolution policies, have started to place more power in the hands of local people. To build on these promising foundations, we make the following recommendations to government:

Local authorities need to engage more with the community sector – by building better relationships with community groups, local authorities can help restore trust in the political process. This may be achieved through more localised, deliberative democracy, in which community groups are involved in more frequent and meaningful dialogue. Participatory budgeting and other similar deliberative approaches can provide people with more of a say in how funding is spent in their area.

Support for community groups is vital and must be continued – we have demonstrated that the community sector offers a genuine opportunity to boost democratic engagement. It is important that the sector receives sufficient support to continue to provide and even expand this vital function.

While community groups are very cost-effective, they are often under-resourced. We asked our survey respondents what support other than funding they would like to see from the Government to help them with their community activity and a very high number still commented that funding was the major issue their group faces. These groups also said they could benefit from any expertise or resources in-kind such as meeting spaces that local authorities could provide.

Encourage and enable voluntary activity for those not already involved – interest and involvement in political and civic activity could be boosted by supporting new people into community activity. This represents untapped potential and is something that the Government could work towards through flagship initiatives. Higher engagement in community activity could be achieved through:

  • the delivery of the Conservative manifesto pledge to give people more opportunities to volunteer through incentives for businesses that offer paid volunteering leave;

  • simplifying processes, reducing paperwork and clarifying where volunteers and community activists stand in relation to issues such as liability and;

  • further investment and roll-out of local volunteering schemes.

Implementing our recommendations to support the community sector would help the Government reconnect people and politics. And by strengthening communities in the process, we can start to restore trust in democracy. ​

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See CDF's video on Trust in Democracy here.

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Partner content
Connecting Communities

Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

Find out more