Jenny Phillimore

By Jenny Phillimore

There is a risk that individuals are disenfranchised from political systems at the very beginning of their lives in their adopted countries.  The anti-migration, anti-migrant rhetoric that has in some countries become mainstream political and media discourse has the effect of making individuals feel that democracy in their adopted countries is not for them. 

With individuals born overseas forming 18.5% of England and Wales and 27.7% of Australian residents it’s clearly important to ensure that individuals are encouraged to engage with democratic processes.   Before gaining citizenship, a process that can take many years, and getting access to vote in national elections it is necessary to provide opportunities to participate in consultations around service provision.  Such consultation offers an ideal starting point for engagement with the state, but needs to be inclusive and effective if it is to build trust in democratic participation.

Some of the work undertaken by academics at the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) at the University of Birmingham has looked at the ways in which institutions have sought to engage people from diverse communities into the development of services and policy.  Representation in such consultations is one of the fundamentals of democracy.  In order to feel they belong and that they have some influence at least at local level, consulting communities about their needs and how they might be met is critical. 

Community engagement has also become a central pillar of policymaking across much of the industrialised world.  The key questions here are ‘who do we consult and how do we engage with them?’. When there are people living in cities like Melbourne and Birmingham from every country in the world, many of them are not part of a critical mass that might be described as “community”. It becomes difficult to connect with groups along lines of ethnicity or country of origin as has traditionally been the case under the multicultural model. 

In the UK, recent consultations on the subject of how a large local authority might reduce services following swinging cuts in central Government finance were initially undertaken in ethnic groups and focused largely on the long-established groups in the city. This prompted outcry from those who arrived more recently, but nonetheless were well-established.  Further, even when institutions have sought to reach out to communicate with new groups, frequently they assume that involving one or two migrant or refugee community groups means they have consultation covered – once again disenfranchising all those not invited to the table. 

Furthermore, IRiS’s work looking at the ways that institutions engaged with new groups found that just being in the same room together was no guarantee of meaningful interaction.  Frequently new groups had little understanding of institutional cultures and institutions of the notion that newcomers may have come from different political traditions. 

To give an example, refugee groups had repeated meetings with various agencies interested in supporting the development of services that would enhance employability for refugees – low levels of employment being a particular problem in the UK.  Many possible services were discussed and institutions began to develop partnership work with a view to creating services.  This process, as is frequently the case with multi-agency working in the UK, took many months.  By the time anything had actually begun to change, all of the refugee groups involved had dropped out of the discussions because they felt they had been made “empty promises”.  No one explained to them that changes like those being discussed always required multiple meetings and months of lead-in time.  Institutions then perceived that the organisations which dropped out were uncommitted and unreliable and began to question whether there was any point developing new services if the target communities were “not interested” – ultimately fulfilling the destiny of changes predicted by refugee groups. 

Clearly there is a need here for some nuanced understanding on both sides of differences in expectations of engagement processes and outcomes.

Barriers to engagement in policy do not just relate to new communities and are fundamentally shaped by the consultation methods employed.  Recently Asif Afridi,  a researcher at (IRiS), undertook what he described as field experiments trialling different community consultation methods.  The same content was covered in each consultation, but the first used what he termed a multicultural approach in which people were encouraged to offer opinions about what would work in their ethnic communities.  The second used an intercultural approach in which people were encouraged to discuss common solutions.  In the former Afridi found that individuals were more likely to use a deficit approach whereby individuals focused on under-resourcing within their communities.  With the intercultural approach individuals focused more on positive solutions.

Given that consulting in a meaningful way with individuals from every country in the world is impossible, it is important to identify mechanisms by which institutions can connect with individuals and groups and develop their trust in engagement.  Clearly articulating in accessible ways how consultation works, as well as the scope and timeframes of outcomes, is critical if trust is to be developed which will support individuals and communities to believe that it is worth engaging with government.

 Further it is necessary to move away from the idea that individuals’ needs and identities are invariably constructed around their ethnicity, and provide mechanisms to bring diverse peoples together, perhaps around common problems or geographies so that they can work together to identify practical solutions. 

Without recognition that the emergence of superdiversity requires new ways of consulting, there is a risk that new or even longer established people will not trust institutions that seek their views and ultimately lead to distrust of political institutions.