We need to put people at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet. In this blog Andreas Pavlou, from Involve, explains that to tackle complicated and interconnected issues we need citizens and government to work together.

Looking at the current state of British politics, it seems we are far from being able to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) here in the UK while Brexit paralysis in Parliament and the Government continues.

So, with our politics so polarised and unable to overcome complex problems, how can we find solutions to implement the Goals?

At Involve, we believe that these complex and polarised discussions can be overcome if our democratic structures are more open, participatory and deliberative in nature.

Delivering the SDGs in the UK

By increasing public engagement in progressing and delivering the SDGs, people will be able to shape the decisions that affect their lives, their families and their communities. The more engagement there is, the more likely citizens and decision makers will be better connected when developing policy, and together they will be able to find solutions to complex and challenging issues reflected by the SDGs.

Five English councils have taken an innovative approach to addressing youth mental health and emotional wellbeing. MH:2K has seen young people engage their peers and work with local decision-makers to recommend changes in their communities, mental health services, schools, colleges and universities, families, professional contacts and on social media. This has led to the “potential for significant improvements in health outcomes” locally.

The process of engaging the public and the recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly on the long-term funding of adult social care in England was noted by Parliamentary Committees to have “been invaluable and could mark a new way of involving the public in how we make decisions in the future. Assembly members have shown that through dialogue, considered thinking and debate it is possible to achieve consensus on solutions for seemingly intractable problems.”

The Sciencewise programme, coordinated by Involve, supports UK Government departments to engage effectively with and understand a broader range of public perspectives on scientific and technological innovation. The programme informs policy development in a variety of important areas of science and technology. This has led to new lifesaving treatments being made available to UK patients, demonstrating the massive potential for impact when the public and decision-makers are better connected.

If we should learn anything from the current division in the UK populace or the emergence of movements like Extinction Rebellion, it's that we need to improve the way citizens voices are heard and responded to if we want to work together more effectively to address challenges like climate change.

Look across the world and we can see bold approaches to engagement that are making  real and positive change in society – be it the Oregon Citizens' Initiative Review Commission, the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, direct democracy in Madrid, or the spread of participatory budgeting from Sao Paolo to Paris.

All these examples put citizens at the heart of the decision-making process allowing ordinary people to fundamentally shape the outcomes of those decisions.

For the SDGs in the UK, the first place to start engagement would be with the Voluntary National Review process and what happens next. The process must be open, transparent, and inclusive, taking stakeholder perspectives into account, particularly the voices of young people and underrepresented groups.

Furthermore, the UK Government must develop mechanisms so that the public and stakeholders from all sectors are engaged in the delivery of the SDGs in the UK by 2030.

Effective public engagement would be a bold commitment from the UK Government as part of its obligation to advance the SDG agenda domestically. We must continue to push to see that happen.

Andreas Pavlou is Network Lead at Involve who led the research on Goal 16 in Measuring up, UKSSD’s assessment of how the UK is performing on the SDGs