Design experiments for local democracy

Posted on 11/07/2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags: ,

A #notwestminster and CfGS initiative

What is this?

#notwestminster brings (or bring, if you consider them to be a plural) people together to create and share new ideas for doing local democracy. You can find out more about it, or them, here .

The Centre for Governance and Scrutiny is a charity which does work on public sector governance, mainly in local government. We get an annual grant from the Local Government Association for providing advice, guidance and support to local councils. This year, following discussion from the LGA, we are focusing our efforts on helping to promote and deliver on the vision of #notwestminster – hoping that, by putting some resource into some of the more tricky issues of local democracy and local democratic engagement, we can help to effect some change.

In short, we want to plan and deliver some design experiments on local democracy.

To kick this process off, we are convening a meeting on 15 July (this Friday), between 11am and 3.30pm, in central London, to work out how this will happen. All are welcome (please let us know if you’re interested and I will forward on venue details). 

If you can’t come but are interested in contributing you can do that either by sharing your thoughts with me now – by sending an e-mail, tweeting me or phoning – by (if you work in a council or are a councillor) volunteer to be an area that conducts a design experiment, and/or following this process as it develops in the coming months, and commenting on it. We aim to do as much as possible of this in public, encouraging those involved to blog and share their progress with the wider world, inviting views, perspectives and further ideas from others as we go on.

What’s been happening?

Discussions through #notwestminster and #localgovcamp in the past few months and years have made it increasingly clear that practitioners, politicians, activists and citizens can come together to talk practically about the challenges and opportunities facing local democracy.

We have a set of local democracy design challenges to address (these having been identified through #notwestminster). We at CfGS think that we can provide particular help on three of these – open democracy data, digestible democracy, and social decision-making. However, we’re not being doctrinaire about our approach and if it seems that a particular experiment presents an opportunity for us to add real value, we’ll take that opportunity.

So we’re holding this meeting to take the first steps towards actually making all this happen.

What approach do we think will work best?

We’re going to support some design experiments in local areas. The background behind the idea of design experiments is set out here by Dave McKenna (@localopolis) – basically, we want to work with people to put in place some quick, easily-deliverable actions that will bring about some improvements in local democracy, and the way that local people engage with local democracy and local politics.

At #notwestminster 2015 and 2016, a huge number of ideas were drawn together and developed – ideas which attempted to find solutions to the design challenges I mentioned above.

At the meeting on the 15th we want to do three things:

  • Talk about what the outcomes from all this work will be
  • Talk about the solutions, and design experiments, that will lead to those outcomes. How can we work up some practical ideas that local areas will be able to pick up and run with?
  • Talk about where we might be able to offer support – which councils and areas might particularly benefits, and what help can CfGS and others round the table provide?

The outcomes

I think it makes sense to go through outcomes first, to decide what the ultimate aims of the experiments should be. What will our end result look and feel like? At the moment, the plan is to report back to 2017’s #notwestminster in February next year, and to disseminate our work through a publication of some kind, but for that to be meaningful we need to be able to show how our interventions have resulted in tangible outcomes and improvements in local areas.

The solutions

Diane Sims (@72prufrocks) has brought together 2015 and 2016’s ideas – here are some links and summaries of the ones that more closely relate to the three design challenges where we want to focus our efforts. The full list for 2016 can be found here and for 2015 it’s here. Diane has put together an ideas list which I suggest we use as a basis for discussion on the day – there’s a Google Doc here.  

I have also put together some of my own initial thoughts and reflections on some of these ideas in a Google Doc – some information inevitably replicated but it was just something I put together to organise my own thoughts for the 15th.

At the meeting, we will start by talking through the way that “design experiments” will be carried out. We’ll then probably divide into some small groups to run through some of these ideas and come up with some concrete and specific ideas for experiments we might trial in councils.

This isn’t an exhaustive list – just a selection of the ideas put forward at the #notwestminster 2015 and 2016 Ideas Bazaars that I thought were particularly pertinent and interesting and which particularly related to the three areas I highlighted above. So these are just to get us started, and I’d be keen to expand the discussion out to other areas.

What can we all contribute?

It would be good to start talking about what contribution we might all make as this progresses.

It might be useful to set up a small advisory group of some kind to manage the experiments and share learning. At this stage, we might also be able to agree what skills, expertise and other forms of practical assistance various people around the table might be able to bring.

We can also start to get an understanding of the resource commitments and practical requirements of implementing the various experimental ideas we come up with. This will help us to understand what kinds of councils these approaches might work best in. Or it will at least give us something concrete to take back out to the sector, to make it more likely that more people will sign up.

I think it would make sense if we could therefore spend some time thinking about one specific geographical area where we might be doing some design experimentation, and scope that exercise as a group (or in smaller groups), to provide a loose template for others to follow.

Next steps

A quick discussion at the end will help us to understand where we go next – timescales for experiments, the process for feeding back and sharing learning and so on.

If you’ve any questions or ideas on how we can work on this, just contact me (details below).


About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.