A year in the life of a better local democracy

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Setting off on a journey together

Election week is one of those times when many of us who are part of local government don’t have time to kick the proverbial table leg (though we might fall over it accidentally). But on the eve of the 2016 UK elections, I’m taking half an hour out to write this, because there’s something that needs to be said. And that thing is this…

Something amazing has quietly happened over the past year. I’ve been thinking back to conversations with the Notwestminster gang in Spring 2015, in which we talked about the clear need for people to be able to find out about their election candidates more easily. We thought about how we could do something locally, but we knew that this same issue stops people from voting across the country. And in the midst of this, I got an email about Democracy Club’s YourNextMP site, and I got a bit excited about the prospect of maybe adapting a tool for the General Election into something that could work for the local elections too.

On 29th April 2015, during the intermission at the Election Special PechaKucha night that we were live tweeting in Huddersfield’s Media Centre, I tentatively asked a few questions…

…and so we got talking with Democracy Club that evening. This led to a gathering of Local Democracy Bytes, Democracy Club and LocalGov Digital Makers in Birmingham a couple of months later. What I hoped to learn that day was whether anyone thought it was feasible to develop a YourNextCouncillor or some such, and what it would take to make it happen. What I didn’t expect was for Democracy Club to come with an aspiration to do this for every election in the UK.

Now, I knew that was a big ask. Many people would not think it possible. Probably even everyone in that room didn’t think it was possible. But when Sym Roe quietly said “we’re aiming, by next May, to make it possible for everyone to find out who they can vote for in every election in the UK”… well, I believed him. And if you’ve been paying the slightest bit of attention, you’ll know that he kept his word.

For our part, we promised to do whatever we could to help, such as explaining how local government works, sharing contacts in the sector, and getting the word out to people that this is important work that we all need to support. We also agreed to work together in any way we could. This led to our first Local Democracy Maker Day, a fringe event of LocalGovCamp in Leeds that September. We organised this jointly between us – LocalGov Digital Makers, Democracy Club and Local Democracy Bytes. It was a really inspiring day in which I learnt much, and our friends from Democracy Club were right at the heart of it.

Because people came to work on our local democracy challenges and stayed for the whole of LocalGovCamp, this also meant that the Unconference the day after was packed with sessions about local democracy too. We could not have hoped for more.

Back in July 2015, I said that we’d started on a journey together, and by the Notwestminster event in February 2016 it felt like we’d already come a long way. Importantly, along the way we’ve made new and stronger connections between those of us who care about our local democracy. That’s really what Notwestminster is all about – the connections between us, and how we can find ways to work together to improve things.

Seeing Sym and Joe from Democracy Club arriving at the Media Centre in Huddersfield, in the place we’d first spoken via twitter, somehow closed a loop for us. It was an arrival, but it also made the journey still ahead suddenly very real…

Just a few short weeks later, and a little short of a year since we asked that first tentative question, a small but ever-growing army of democracy wombles quietly did something extraordinary:

I have sat in meetings over the past couple of weeks and told colleagues that this is amazing. I regret to say that I have received some blank looks in response. But not always. Either way, I shall keep on saying it – and you should too.

I know it’s been hard work to get this far – much harder than it should be. For everyone who has pored over mountains crappy PDFs to get this data together, and to make it open, thank you. There’s much more to do to improve things, which is why we all need to keep going.

For everyone else… please be a part of a better local democracy.

All you need to do is say it will happen, and find people who can help.

What’s next?

Diane

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