Local leaders and their associations and Academia address the renewal of local democracy in the framework of the #CitiesAreListening Experiences


The IOPD co-hosted “Covid-19: Lessons Learnt for Local Democracy” alongside UCLG and ICLD

As a step to deliver the Pact for the Future that UCLG agreed to develop in its latest World Council in Guangzhou, the #CitiesAreListening Experience that took place on December 14th addressed the renewal of local democracy, an integral aspect of the Pact, and how the lessons learned during the pandemic could allow us to bring the UCLG Decalogue for the COVID-19 era to the ground.


The event was held in partnership with the ICLD, as part of its Local Democracy Academy and was facilitated by UCLG, Metropolis, the International Observatory on Participatory Democracy (IOPD) and UN-Habitat. The session built on the Live Learning Experience on Local Democracy held earlier during the year, and brought stakeholders together to address the impact of the pandemic on our democratic systems and what local and regional leaders can do, moving forward, to renew local democracy in a way that leaves no-one behind.

After the introduction by IOPD Coordinator Adrià Duarte, UCLG Secretary-General Emilia Saiz made the opening remarks:

“Democracy has been challenged. Decision-making at the local level has been critical, and the defense of the commons is a key topic in our life. This makes the debate on local democracy even more relevant”

Ana Maria Vargas, Research Director at the Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy moderated the session, which counted with the participation of Anders Knape, President of the Swedish Association of Municipalities and Regions, Imen Ouardani, Vice-mayor of Sousse and James Manor, Professor Emeritus of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

Anders Knappe referred to the Swedish case, where around 75% of the public service provision is a local/regional competence (public transport, health care, education, etc.), meaning that LRGs are truly at the forefront of the crisis in Sweden. However, the urgent and unprecedented decisions needed were faced with a constraining system:

“When we have a situation such as the pandemic, in which LRGs need to act, national governments respond with an outdated legislative framework. We need new legislative frameworks and to be able to have the resources.”

What is more, the President of the Swedish Association of Municipalities and Regions pointed out, is that even in a country with such a tradition of local service provision, some state actors found in the health crisis an alibi for recentralisation. He also argued that while indeed transferring finance is important, it cannot be a substitute for strong and advanced local systems that can meet citizens’ needs.

Imen Ouardani explained how the pandemic and the massive solidarity the population showed, helped the city to become aware of the urgent need for public participation and digitalisation. Despite the fact that decentralisation mechanisms in Tunisia are relatively new, she stated that civil society is considered a strategic partner of the City of Sousse.

Emilia Saiz used her intervention to share some insight into the UCLG’s research with the London School of Economics and Political Science on Emergency Governance Initiatives across more than 50 local governments in 37 countries. The Secretary General of UCLG warned that:

“Underrepresentation of vulnerable groups in decision-making spaces has been critical, and we need to face this. The spaces of dialogue needs to change, as does the relationship between healthcare and local public service provision. We need to reinforce public health systems with strong systems of basic services, since they now often operate parallel to each other, which causes governance deficits”.

James Manor warned against states who neglect the expertise of local governments and their insight into their own communities, which is essential during an emergency like Covid-19. He added that “local governments have an ability to encourage trust and help people overcome the fear of medical services”.

The session came to an end with participants laying out their wishlist for 2021: Structural dialogue, cooperation among spheres of government, supporting local and regional governments’ efforts to localize the agendas, and bringing all stakeholders together were seen as critical elements  for a successful recovery.