#notwestminster and recreating local democracy

Posted on 05/02/2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags: ,


In a couple of Saturdays’ time an event called #notwestminster is happening. A group of people who are interested in local democracy will be getting together to talk about how it might be made more local and more democratic.

I didn’t attend the inaugural #notwestminster last year, but I heard jolly good things about it so not only do I have a ticket booked, I’ve also ended up volunteering to run a workshop. This blogpost is in part an attempt to rationalise in my own mind what I might cover (taking the lead from Nick Booth).

I want my workshop to pose the question, “how can local democracy be made to feel more relevant?”. You can find a more detailed write-up of my initial pitch here. Basically, I want to get under the skin of co-production and deliberative democracy. The idea of giving the public a more formal and direct way of influencing local decisions is a popular and compelling one which has been around for, well, as long as Western democracy has. This week the Iowa caucuses have kick-started the US presidential election process – an eye-opener for us this side of the pond, and a reminder that such deliberative processes have a long pedigree. Then again, has it resulted in a more constructive and thoughtful political process? Look at Donald Trump and you might disagree.

Over here, there have been occasional flurries of experimentation with similar deliberative techniques. My erstwhile employer, the London Borough of Harrow, ran a much-publicised open budget process in 2004, following the Porto Allegro model. But it’s not something that has caught on. Why not?

Here are some questions and discussion points that we might cover.

  • What “ways in” do the public currently have? To what extent are any of these properly deliberative? I suppose that many councils have area or neighbourhood forums, which has a deliberative flavour, but are limited to pretty operational and transactional discussions about flower tubs and streetlights which – to my cynical eyes – often seem to be heavily mediated by officers.
  • What real world outcomes, now, could meaningful deliberative democracy help to deliver in local areas without too much effort or risk?
  • What if anything could be stopping us from achieving that? For the public, I suppose it’s cynicism and/or just not being especially interested in certain issues (accepted wisdom suggests that unless it’s something that directly affects them, right now, the public won’t really engage). For public bodies like councils, the risks in “letting go” will seem substantial and there will be cost implications.
  • How could we meaningfully knit together public deliberation and participation with more traditional governance mechanisms (mechanisms which are not going away)?
  • Is this a battle between forward-thinking activists for more participation and stick-in-the-mud traditionalists obsessed by outdated rules and regulations, or is it more complicated than that? (Clue: it’s more complicated than that)

At the end of my pitch I ask, “how far *can* we go down the route of co-production, participation etc without scaring the horses?”. This question is intended to provoke discussion about whether people like me/us should be merrily going off on our own and trying to build these systems – in our own councils and even in our own communities – or whether we should be managing our own expectations more, acknowledging existing structures and diligently working within them. To follow Dave McKenna’s overarching “event theme” of “rock and roll democracy” (his blog on the subject will explain more), should we be aiming for the iconoclastic, revolutionary approach of David Bowie, or a more subversive approach, working within what looks at first glance like a tried and tested, traditional structure, but aiming to tweak it to get some more surprising and unexpected results, following the model of Half Man Half Biscuit?

Or is this whole debate massively self-indulgent?

Big thoughts then, albeit expressed inelegantly. I will post again after the event. It will, I know, be interesting.  

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.