SDG16 and the importance of participation: How is the UK approaching this challenge?

Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals is a crucial part of delivering sustainable development. In this blog, Andrea Westall, of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, explores the UK Government’s approach to the Goal. 

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 aims to: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. It is both an end and a crucial part of delivering sustainable development in all countries.

Participation, the widespread involvement of citizens and other stakeholders, in political decision-making and implementation, is a key part of healthy societies. In addition, evidence shows that participation is also an important part of addressing complex challenges such as climate change or inequality.

Participation can generate commitment amongst participants, increase knowledge, generate new ideas, legitimise tough political choices, and challenge the power and influence of vested interests. There is increasing evidence that where participatory institutions are carefully designed to ensure considered reflection rather than knee-jerk reactions and raw preferences, citizens and other stakeholders are willing and able to deal with complex policy issues.

It is for these reasons, some commentators have seen SDG16 as the transformative goal for achieving the SDGs.

SDG 17 – the means of implementation – goes some way with its focus on policy coherence and delivery through multi-stakeholder partnerships (targets 17.14 and 17.17). However, it does not fully address the need for widespread participation and accountability in monitoring, design, implementation, and scrutiny, as well as in addressing the ‘crisis of democracy’ in many countries.

The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) focuses on rethinking democracy, not only so that it is more participatory, but also able to achieve and enable sustainable development. We are therefore particularly interested in two specific targets: 16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels; and 16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

Around the world, here has been a great deal of focus on crucial aspects of Goal 16 such as violence against women, peace or corruption, all of which underpin a safe and inclusive society. However, targets 16.6 and 16.7 do not seem to be receiving the same attention, or being developed effectively enough to more fully enable delivery of the SDGs across all countries. This seems to be the case in the UK.  

While Whitehall is committed to transparency and accountability, there is very little emphasis on the importance of participation. But this is not the situation in both Wales and Scotland, where there has been fairly widespread public engagement in relation to the SDGs, and specific commitments made by governments in this area.

In the UK Government publication which sets out its approach to delivering the SDGs, the section on Goal 16 states that: “The UK was at the forefront of pushing for Goal 16 and is committed to delivering it at home and around the world.” It sets out the Government’s position and international actions on: corruption and serious organised crime; good governance, peace, security and justice; violence against women and children; and human rights. The latter part seeks “to involve civil society in decision-making and policy development at the national level” and that “The UK recognises the importance of civil society and individual freedoms for the achievement of the Goals.”

When setting out the approach for the UK, the predominant focus is on violence against women and children, access to the justice system, along with parts of target 16.6 on accountable and transparent government, where the “UK Government is working to become the most transparent government in the world. A National Action Plan on transparency and open government was published in May 2016”. FDSD noted in its 2015 submission to the Environmental Audit Committee enquiry on the SDGs that the UK Government was already committed to transparency and engagement, being an active participant in the international Open Government Partnership with the Cabinet Office leading on Open Policy Making.

The section on SDG 16 ends with a broad statement: “We are also seeking to increase accountability and trust in public institutions and increase public participation in the decisions that matter to them.” A few examples of what this might mean are included such as party funding reform, public access to hospital safety records, as well as “giving more people the power and support to run a school, start their own social enterprise and take over their own local landmarks, local parks and pubs.” While these may be good ways of engaging the public, they do not really represent a systematic approach to considering and promoting public participation.

The UK Government does not appear to have yet involved the public or any other stakeholder in comprehensive discussions about the relevance of the SDGs for domestic application in the UK. Neither has it thought about the implications of more participatory approaches to scrutiny, design and implementation of the Goals.  

Overall, it feels as though the UK Government sees SDG 16, like the others, as predominantly aimed at ‘developing’ countries – and extension of the earlier Millennium Development Goals. Citizens in England and Northern Ireland “have not been asked to engage at all on this agenda. This is unlike the situation in, for example, France where, according to their 2016 submission to the UN, there is a recognition that realising the SDGs requires the government to “deepen our democratic tools, based especially on the use of digital means (public consultations, consensus conferences and local referendums)”. Specific examples include a participatory Internet platform “to disseminate good practices and recommendations, monitor progress and rally coalitions.”

The French government has also committed to regional consultative workshops for local actors to contribute to the development of the country’s SDG National Action Plan. “Shared local diagnoses could be conducted to identify the assets and challenges of the French mainland and overseas regions with respect to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.” We will need to watch closely to see whether this impressive participatory rhetoric transfers to meaningful participatory practice.

Given the current challenges to our political system clearly brought out by the Brexit vote, and with only limited devolution, targets 16.6 and 16.7 further challenge the UK to move towards a more participative (and ideally more deliberative) democracy. As FDSD has argued, the SDGs present an opportunity to design and trial new participatory institutions that will be crucial for realizing domestic implementation.

Over the next few years, FDSD will continue to make the case for greater participation in both design, acceptance and implementation of sustainable development activities and policies, as well as working with local areas and cities to better understand and support how this might happen.

To find out more about FDSD and its work, please contact Andrea Westall or Graham Smith