Notwestminster: local democracy, grounded in reality

Posted on 23/03/2017 by Ed Hammond.

Last month saw the third Notwestminster get-together. I hesitate to describe it as a “conference” (because it isn’t really one of those) or an unconference (because it isn’t one of those either). Its organisers – Dave McKenna (@DrDaveMckenna), Diane Sims (@72prufrocks)and Carl Whistlecraft (@Gr8governance) sensibly sidestep the issue and don’t use a qualifier at all – “Notwestminster” is description enough.

It’s perhaps my tendencies as a former democratic services officer that make me try to categorise Notwestminster in traditional terms, in a way that would be familiar to a traditional local government audience of members and officers. But it of course defies that kind of categorisation. No other regular event I have been to provides a forum for such an enormously diverse group of people to come to together to discuss something as fundamental as local democracy. It makes attending simultaneously bewildering, exciting and frustrating.

This year, we at CfGS have been trying to pilot some local democracy design experiments (more on those in another blog in the not too distant future). Notwestminster, this year, focused on these issues too. How do we put in place some practical, realistic interventions at local level that might help local people to be able to engage more productively in local democracy – and how can we change local democracy, so that it’s more relevant to how local people live their lives?

Perhaps in keeping with Notwestminster’s ethos, this isn’t a conference report in a traditional sense – you can find a number of other blogs about what happened here. What I’d like to do is offer some more personal reflections on the experience.

The unique blend of people who attend Notwestminster means that discussions don’t turn into some wonkish, chin-scratching academic symposium – it’s about designing and delivering direct action. This is one of the things that makes it so frustrating. It’s easy to get fired up about these issues in a group of like minded people and to get enthused about going back to the office and using the ideas you’ve gleaned to change how you work, and what you focus on. But it’s just as easy to then go back to the day-to-day and be swept back along with “stuff” – carrying on with the existing way you work. The kinds of changes we talk about making at Notwestminster are small and targeted but many of them require a shift in mindset. They also require us as professionals to think about how we relinquish control, if local democracy is to mean anything.

A case in point was the particularly affecting contribution from Emily Warillow, who is on Kirklees’ Youth Council and was particularly close to Jo Cox MP. Hearing about their relationship and then about her own personal, and incredibly raw, response to Jo Cox’s murder last year is something that’s impossible to reflect on without sounding trite. But it’s a reminder that politics and democracy – the stuff that keeps us employed and to which we’re committed, as members and officers – is all about the personal. It’s about relationships, shared experiences, hope and a drive to make things better that we have in common with those around us, whether or not we agree with them.  

Notwestminster “the event” may be once a year, but Notwestminster the way of thinking has to be permanent. Have I got to the point yet where I think about the work I do from the point of view of the citizen and challenge myself to challenge others to do the same? Probably not yet; it’s a bit too easy to revert to type. But I’m hopeful that I’m getting there, and that in doing so I’m going to bring some of those different ways of thinking and working into the heart of CfGS and how we operate too.

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.