councillors

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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Different with Digital: Opportunities and Challenges for Local Democracy

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Different with Digital, 31st March 2015, live stream #PSA15Guest blog by Sonia Bussu

On Tuesday 28th March 2015, the Local Politics standing group (part of the British Political Studies Association) hosted a innovative panel at the PSA general conference in Sheffield. The panel was called “Different with Digital” and was true to its title. It went digital all the way, in terms of content and delivery.

In terms of content it had three great papers on how digital and social media are impacting local democracy; in terms of delivery, for the first time in the history of the PSA (I think!), the panel was webcast and people not attending the conference could take part in the Q&A via Twitter. I was particularly pleased with these digital developments, since, after convening the panel, I was unable to attend in person in the end. The Local Democracy Bytes crowd was great at taking over and delivered an excellent panel.

You can find out more about the PSA panel at:
How will digital change local politics?
How will digital change local politics? – Storify

When I convened the panel, I saw it as a spin-off of an event I organised in London a few months ago for Involve. There we explored how local representatives are using social media and how that’s affecting their relationship with the local community. At the time, we concluded that as a tool of party politics social media might actually expose politicians and make them vulnerable to virtual attacks and naïve mistakes. The great potential for social media seems to lie instead in engaging and mobilising residents and activists around local issues and local needs, offering spaces where citizens can put forward and discuss ideas, away from party politics.

You can find out more about the Involve event and our conclusions at:
Social media and local political representation: a game changer or all hype? Watch the video
Social media and local representation: the end of a love affair?

The Local Politics panel had a broader scope and looked at local democracy beyond just local representatives. Listening to the panellists and the comments from the real and virtual audience, I thought of Marshall McLuhan’s words: “We shape our tools, and then they shape us.”

The three presentations (on the role e-petitions can play at the local level; evolving digital models for councils and councillors; and Twitter use among Bristol’s councillors) clearly showed that we’re undergoing an adjustment period in terms of changing communication styles and modes of interactions between institutions and citizens.

Some (institutions and / or individuals) are adjusting faster than others, in a wide spectrum that goes from denial or lip service; to transfer online of existing offline practice; to sanctioning or at least prescribing strict rules on the use of social media to (artificially and ineffectively, I’d say) control potential backlashes; and finally toleration and experimentation. Overall, under the pressure of social media the relationship between policy makers and citizens seems to be becoming more immediate, direct, and informal. But is it more meaningful?

I’ve recently come across a very interesting article by Tim O’Reilly (#SocialCivics and the architecture of participation), who encourages policy makers to rethink civic participation as standardised parts and the unit size for participation. What does it mean? Put it simply, the larger the unit of participation, the harder it is for people to take part. To me that means sharing accessible political content online that can talk to and engage with different audiences in different ways and through different platforms (e.g. Twitter users behave differently from Facebook users for a start). But also breaking down big issues into local issues, so as to make them relevant to people’s lives, and using social media more effectively to listen to and take in people’s input in a two-way dialogue, which at the local level can be more immediate and tangible.

In this respect, as one panellist put it, social media has the potential to make politics and democracy more local.

There are a number of challenges though.

A big one is the issue of institutional capacity to feed public input (which is generally of a qualitative nature) into policy making (which traditionally relies on more quantitative evidence). This is an aspect where (local and national) policy makers should really experiment with, with a bit more courage (through trialling and prototyping).

As an expert in deliberative democracy, I feel social media pose a big challenge to high quality debating and risk fostering greater polarisation. This might be particularly relevant in the case of e-petitions, which are growing in popularity and could play a big role in local democracy.

E-petitions show systematic bias in the selection of relevant information and fail to consider counter-arguments. We might then want to consider how to offset these risks by combining online and offline deliberative tools. One example that springs to mind is the Citizens’ Initiative Review, which started in Oregon in 2010 and is becoming very popular in many Western states in the US.

24 voters are selected through stratified sampling, so as to be broadly representative of the demographics of the state. They have 5 days to deliberate, after listening to opposing arguments and expert views on the issue. The final statement they produce goes into the official voter’s pamphlet. This method has proved to increase public knowledge and understanding of the issue. Voters would seem to trust these peer statements more than official ones, also included in the voter pamphlet.

There is a lot of innovation out there, which is inevitably altering the relationship between traditional institutions and modern societies. How and if these transformations will alter the balance of power between representatives and citizens and translate into meaningful democratic change is hard to predict. But local councils and councillors shouldn’t miss this opportunity to revitalise their democratic role in the community.

 

Do you have something to say about digital local democracy?

Guest blogs welcome – please email us at rewiring.democracy@gmail.com or tweet us @LDBytes

 

Digital Local Democracy – The 21st Century Councillor

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 Brainstorm by Jessica Lock from The Noun ProjectWorkshop idea by Ken Eastwood & Cllr David Harrington


All of the workshops at Local Democracy for Everyone have been created by our participants. We’re sharing a summary of each workshop idea to help you decide what you’d most like to participate in – and so that everyone can start to share their comments about each idea.


Digital Local Democracy – The 21st Century Councillor

The challenge:

We have all seen how the digital revolution is empowering citizens to engage in campaigns or community issues in different ways. Against this backdrop, the role of elected representatives can become unclear. This workshop seeks to explore this issue in further detail, considering the opportunities presented by digital technologies.

We have seen how social media and other digital tools are enabling self-organisation and facilitating campaigning, whether against an oppressive regime in an overseas country, or an unpopular planning application much nearer home.

Facebook, forums and blogs are increasingly being used by local communities, to have their own place on the web. An online mixture of parish newsletter, noticeboard and discussion forum, these ‘hyper-local’ websites are enriching communities by connecting individuals with shared interests, often based on place and belonging.

Ken Eastwood has experience of developing online communities, including for a West Yorkshire village and Parish Council, and believes that there is opportunity for community leaders and elected representatives to engage with citizens in new ways.

David Harrington has been reaching out to citizens making use of technology including by running ward surgeries online using Skype.

Together, we are interested in how elected representatives can make use of digital technologies and in the opportunity presented by online communities.


#notwestminster #cllr


Ken EastwoodKen Eastwood
@keneastwood
Digital Nomads

Ken Eastwood is the founder of Digital Nomads. He has 26 years local government experience, latterly as an Assistant Director and member of the leadership team at Barnsley MBC.

Ken has significant expertise in transformation and technology enabled change. An author of articles on digital innovation and new ways of working and delivering services, he is a well known commentator on the digital agenda. Former Project Nomad national eGov board member and founder and national lead of Public Sector Nomads, Ken has been at the forefront of mobile & flexible working for over a decade.


Councillor David HarringtonCouncillor David Harrington
@cllrharrington
Cabinet Member for Corporate Management and Finance,
Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council
& LGiU Online Councillor of the Year 2013

First elected in 2005, re-elected in 2007 and 2011, as an Independent, David represents Ingleby Barwick which is believed to be the largest private housing estate in western Europe. He was the first Ward Councillor in the North-East to use social media as a means of engagement in 2008. In 2013, he was awarded the title of Online Councillor of the Year by the LGiU and CCLA for his innovative use of Skype and Twitter for engaging with residents.

David Harrington – Your councillor