ResPublica's Caroline Julian reflects on democracy and the Office of the Children's Commissioner
I vaguely remember my first visit to the polling station: stroll in, tick a box, stroll out. But on exiting the booth, I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Is that it? Is that what we call democracy? One vote amongst the sea of others’ opinions?’ Common sense told me that no, this is of course not the be all and end all of my democratic participation, but it has since left me wondering whether such ‘common sense’ is adhered to in all political cases.
Despite the Government’s renewed efforts to cultivate a more participative democracy, I fear that we will be stuck within the ‘managerial’ and market-based paradigm for some time. That is, without the ‘participation’ part, voting is in danger of becoming a mere expression of customer satisfaction for public service delivery. On this model, mediation is lacking and ‘top-down’ structures remain. Following the rather narrow debate that has recently taken place between the differing voting systems, I wanted to widen horizons once more and look at another example that perhaps captures the bigger picture: England’s Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
As a quango, the Office was just a few months ago subject to a thorough review
. Somewhat like a representative ‘democratic’ body for children, the Office’s primary mission has been to promote ‘the views and best interests of children and young people’, following article 12 of the United Nations Conventions on the Right of the Child, of which the UK is a signatory. But the review’s conclusions put the accomplishment of this mission into question. In short, Dr. John Dunford – who conducted the review – reported that the ‘impact on the vast majority of children and young people has been negligible’, the current model flawed, and the outcomes disappointing. Moreover, out of 707 children and young people who responded to Dr. Dunford’s online questionnaire, only 156 had even heard of the Children’s Commissioner, with a further 78% of adult respondents agreeing that children are largely unaware of the Children’s Commissioner’s role.
As is a common danger in the history of governance, the Children’s Commissioner had become an abstract figure, attending to issues on a universal level – and admittedly with partial success – but in the process leaving behind those issues that matter to the child and his/her community. It has lacked the mediation necessary to link the local with the universal – the children and young people with those ‘in charge’.
The solution? For Dr. Dunford, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner must become more ‘rights-based’, which can be in part achieved, according to him, by merging the OCC with another role of authority: the Children’s Rights Director at Ofsted. But can reinforcing the UNCRC – and linking the Children’s Commissioner with yet another potentially abstract figure – really target the cause of the OCC’s ineffectiveness? Listening to children’s views and interests is extremely valuable and important, but I fear that too heavy a focus on child rights in this particular case may increase the disparity between children and ‘the centre’.
It is first impossible and impractical to attempt to account for each and every child’s ‘views and interests’ in accordance with their personal ‘right’ – as the Children’s Commissioner has already discovered. To do so would distribute power far too widely, producing a collection of competitive views and, with consequent inevitability, issues unaccounted for. But on a second and related point, this means that the person in authority can only then appeal to and support children on a national level, furthering state centralisation rather than distributing it, as Hobbes’ Leviathan reveals only too well. Such language passes over the mediatory importance of ‘the local’: of parents, teachers, school governors and leaders of various community groups.
There exist far better and more innovative ways to account for children’s views and interests that could perhaps complement the rights-focussed discourse. School councils – for both primary and secondary institutions – are an example of a more ‘representative’ democracy. Children represent their form or class and can in turn represent their hall or group and can in turn represent their Key Stage at a Governor’s meeting. Children can be elected or appointed to fulfil these roles and promote change based on a common consensus amongst class-mates – not every single child is required to sit on the council, because their views are represented and taken ‘higher’ each time.
Outside of school, there are similar, and more participative ways, in which children can voice their concerns and help make their community a better place. Brighton’s ‘Safety Squads’ run by the charity Safety-Net
, for example, encourage young children to meet together and discuss, through various activities, issues that they feel threaten their safety. This could mean the lack of a good local play area or unwanted graffiti. When a common concern is raised, the group leader puts them in touch with the appropriate department at their local council and helps them in building a good case for change. The children also become part of that change, volunteering for a project that they themselves made possible. Local issues are tackled at a local level and local children remain engaged.
Interestingly, the DfE has since published an article
on the importance of both children’s rights and participation. Does this signal a new direction? Perhaps a link with citizenship lessons or the to-be-piloted National Citizen Service? Or at least a link to the localism agenda, which may in fact give children more power over the improvement of their area or the running of their services? I have not at all sought to suggest that the right to vote or have your views heard should be eradicated. But for democratic processes to become more effective, efforts need to be channelled beyond the polling station into a more communitarian model: a model of participation, co-operation and mediation.