Notwestminster Synchronicity – When 48 Becomes 1

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Notwestminster plectrum

Wondering what happened after we packed up our plectrums at Notwestminster 2016? In this blog Carl Whistlecraft reflects on how we generate and develop ideas through Notwestminster.
Carl talks about our journey and shares the evidence we’ve contributed to the Councillor Commission, based on the Real Representation challenge that was part of our 2016 Maker Day and main event.
We’d love to hear where your #notwestminster conversations have taken you. If you’ve something to share, please email us at rewiring.democracy@gmail.com or tweet us @LDBytes.

It’s really important for me to start this post with a thank you.  As one of the Notwestminster organisers I’ve been lucky enough to have seen this thing build from an idea into a bit of a movement that has at its heart a lot of good will from like-minded people.

Organisers, sponsors, supporters, workshop hosts, speakers and participants have all selflessly given up their time to contribute to doing some pretty wonderful things in the name of local democracy.  I salute you all.

Turning to the main theme of this post.  It’s partly my take on the magical things that happen when you start on a journey, a journey where you have a rough idea where you’re going but have no idea what will happen and who you will meet on the way.  It’s also my crude attempt to end that journey (for now) by summing up my experience of the Friday and Saturday at Notwestminster 2016.

NOTE TO SELF – The only down side of organising these things is you don’t get to be involved in as many of the great workshops as you would like.

The journey part of this post began at We’re not in Westminster any more in February 2015. In retrospect one of the greatest things we did last year was to be fairly dictatorial (not very democratic I know) in insisting that workshop hosts come up with three ideas or actions that they would commit to progress.  Anyone wishing to put those ideas into action only had to sign up and continue the conversation.

Whilst I would be lying if I said that all 48 ideas were worked up into prototypes and embedded in local democratic culture and practice, I do think we created a bit of a marker post for the next step on our journey.

We took those ideas, did some crowd sourcing along with a bit of clumping and collapsing and ended up with 19 local democracy design challenges.  These have become a bit of a route map for the rest of the journey.

Next stop was LocalGov Camp last September in Leeds.  Thanks to the wonderful Phil Rumens we were able to use the Friday before to hold our first Local Democracy Maker Day where three of our challenges got their first airing.  Much has been written about this in various blog posts.  For me it was a significant waymarker – we had taken real challenges and brought people together to begin to solve them.


Fast forward to Friday 12th February 2016 and I’m sat in Huddersfield about get stuck into our second Local Democracy Maker Day.  The challenge for the group I was involved in was ……

Real Representation: The job of the local councillor is to represent their constituents yet their wards can include as many as 25,000 people, all different, all special. How can councillors better reach out to people in their community so that everyone can be properly represented?

During the course of our design challenge we:

  • Had a passionate discussion about the opportunities and challenges associated with representation – it’s complex, multi-layered and involves difficult choices, dialogues and decisions.  A rise in participatory democracy presents both opportunities and barriers.
  • Picked a “live” issue playing out in Huddersfield to begin to explore how the representative role works and how it could possibly be done differently and better.
  • Employed a user story approach to begin to understand the different, and often competing, needs for the representative and the diverse communities and perspectives they have to endeavour to represent.

Whilst our group didn’t build a digital prototype, we did come up with a set of factors and considerations that provide a design brief for how councillors can reach out to the people in their community in order to provide Real Representation.  The inter-related building blocks are:

Devolved Resources and Responsibility – The model of representation is changing.  Councillors are facing a bit of a pincer movement at the moment.  Less resources and reductions in service, on a simplistic level, make it harder for councillors to solve problems in the traditional and paternalistic way.  With this in mind it has never been more crucial for councillors to have the resources to mobilise and enable communities to develop solutions for themselves, particularly where the council is no longer able to deliver such services.  Engagement and consultation around service changes and different models of working is crucial in developing a new and effective form of real representation.  Our group suggested that councils should review and refine their approach to corporate consultation with a view to doing less at a strategic level (often seen as tokenistic) and therefore freeing up resources which can be devolved to the ward level.  This will deliver a more meaningful model of consultation and engagement and as a consequence enhances and reaffirms the representative role.

Mobilising and Communicating – More than ever before real representation will involve the ability and capability to mobilise and communicate with and on behalf of communities.  Network building will be a key skill and enabler.  Councillors will need to be effective in communicating directly to and with residents whilst reflecting views and aspirations back to the council.  Traditional methods, whilst important, will need to be enhanced with more innovative and responsive approaches.  Opportunities presented by social listening, real time ward based intelligence, self-organisation tools and crowd funding technology were all cited by our group as important factors in modernising the representative role.

More Time – It may go without saying but if you want real and effective representation it is important that councillors have the time and space to do it well.  Based on the real experiences of the councillors in our group there are a range of factors and issues that indicate that this is a real challenge.  For example it is clear that there are real time pressures in balancing the direct community leadership role with the attending a plethora of meetings.   The intention of the Local Government Act 2000 may have been to free up councillors to spend more time in their wards but evidentially and anecdotally the volume of meetings haven’t reduced to allow this to happen.  This situation has been compounded further by the plain and simple truth that we “still do meetings like we always have”.  Our group advocates the need to develop a framework that facilitates doing meetings differently, with a greater focus on engagement and collaboration in communities as the starting point rather than the current town hall centric approach.  This should involve more digestible democracy (we need to join up the design challenges) and a greater use of digital collaboration tools as part of all meetings.  Only then will there be a real drive to bridge the gap between communities and decision making.

Tools and Skills – Councillors alone cannot free up more time to represent.  If they could, they would have done it already.  Our group concluded that there needs to be a more holistic and imaginative approach to how councillors are supported.  Such support should include better intelligence, mobile technology, a more enabling approach by council officers AND given the current climate should be cost neutral.  In addition we explored some of the “softer” skills that may be required as the representative role changes.  Being an enabler, problem solver, networker and influencer requires a shift change in the type of developmental support councillors should expect.

Thanks to the following for their contributions to the group discussion:

David Bundy
Annabella Ashby
Ricky Clarke
Andrew Wilson
Elizabeth Shassere
Andy Nash
Perry Walker
Michelle Veasey
John Austin

At the end of the Maker Day we fed back our design brief and made an immediate commitment to action.  Our findings would form part of a submission to the Councillor’s Commission roundtable that would be taking place on Day 2 of Notwestminster 2016.


Less than 24 hours later I find myself, armed with crude flip chart notes, sat with Professor Colin Copus in his round table session.  I had the chance to summarise our findings from the previous day and also received a commitment that this blog post will form part of the evidence that goes into the Councillor Commission’s final report.

So this is the end of the journey (for now).  I hope this provides a grain of evidence that Notwestminster is not just an event.  It is an action focussed movement that happens to get together once a year.  A year ago we had 48 great ideas, this is the story of how one progressed into something tangible.

Powerful stuff eh?

 

Carl Whistlecraft
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