A challenge for Public Square is to understand how innovation in involving communities in decision making can go from isolated examples in different places – and with different labels – to a whole-system change.
On Saturday 16 February Mel Stevens and I held a workshop at the Notwestminster event in Huddersfield where we posed this question to a wide group of people interested in local democracy. We introduced Public Square then asked a series of questions about decision-making.
Here’s a quick download of the conversations we had and some reflection about what we can take forward to the programme.
Image of the workshop, from Anthony McKeown photography at: https://www.gallery.anthonymckeown.photography/Notwestminster-2019-Main-Event/
What do we need?
For our first exercise, we asked groups to think about four questions that give different ways to think about this issue. Here’s some of the key points we heard:
How do those working on creating a better democracy support each other better?
- People working on this challenge need protected space and time to reflect on how to involve people better. This should include time for peer support. However it’s hard during a time of austerity to win the argument for making time for this within organisations.
- More could be done to empower people outside organisations, who don’t have the demands that come with this, to push for change. We need to build a broad movement in society that pushes for our vision of how people should be involved in decision-making.
- People need to let go of tribal political identities, and to break out of that silos they work in.
What pieces still need to be put in place to have a participative system of local democracy?
- There’s a need to focus on the local level. There is a lot of scope to unleash community initiative when focussing on this scale.
- We need to think beyond just the electorate when thinking about who to involve.
- We need a national movement or group focussed on promoting our vision of a democracy. We need to identify language that this movement can be built around. We need to connect isolated people who are doing things differently.
How do we combine changing councils from the inside, and supporting change on the outside?
- Councils need to focus on working with people rather than doing to. Workforce development is needed to make this a reality.
- More should be done to encourage traditionally marginalised sectors of the community to be councillors – bringing the outside in.
What barriers must we overcome to build change better?
- Risk aversion
- Policy that’s insensitive to the place you’re working in. Centralisation is a major barrier to achieving this.
- There is a vicious circle of local people believing they can’t change anything so not getting involved. But if we can turn this around we’d create a virtuous circle of people realising what they can achieve.
These were the main points that groups reported back, but you can see a full write-up of groups’ flip-chart notes here.
One point that came up in conversations throughout Notwestminster was that the language used to talk about our field needs to be clearer and less jargony. This was true in our session too – we heard a clear message that our questions could have been phrased in a more straightforward way.
Quickfire next steps
Finally, we asked participants to reflect on which these points they thought was most important to act on next. The group felt that the most important was creating a movement around improving democracy. Though there wasn’t agreement on what language would be best to phrase this around. This was presented back to the rest of Notwestminster as the key idea that came from our workshop.
We’d originally hoped to spend a bit more time thinking about the next steps and who needed to take them – including where each of us as individuals and the Public Square programme fitted into this. But as groups were keen to look at each of the questions we drafted, rather than just exploring one, we decided to let these discussions run on. One suggestion we heard for making this discussion more focussed in the future was to get people thinking about feasibility and impact of actions, which is something we could try and prioritise in future discussions.
Perhaps the strongest theme we heard from this discussion was a reminder of the pressures within organisations that get in the way of thinking about how to involve people better. And how supporting those outside organisations to themselves push for change is an important tactic for pursuing this. This will be something key to think about as this programme of action research continues.