Working on local democracy

Posted on 10/06/2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags:

Sometimes it’s tempting to think that the phrase “local democracy” is an oxymoron. Lots of it isn’t especially local in nature – so much of what local government can and can’t do being prescribed by government, even with the onset of English devolution.

And lots of it doesn’t feel especially democratic either. Most people’s interaction with local government is limited to voting (and, in fact, a majority don’t even do that) or transactional issues – booking a bulky waste collection, organising the admission to school of a child or paying rent to a local authority landlord. Particularly assiduous or civic-minded people might sometimes report broken paving slabs or non-functioning streetlights.

The democratic elements of local democracy are increasingly hidden from view – a fact easy to forget for those who work in the midst of the democratic process. Decisions are made on local people’s behalf in forums which are ostensibly public, but of how much of this are the public really aware? We hear that the public – that great, amorphous blob of people – are apparently galvanised into action only when something threatens to adversely affect their neighbourhood and community, and that apart from this, public trust in local authorities is higher than most other parts of the public sector. But this seems worryingly complacent.

Recently local government professionals and activists have been coming together to try to thrash out some of these difficult issues, and – importantly – to come up with some practical solutions. This started with discussions at #localgovcamp (the unconference for local government professionals) and the inaugural meeting of a loose collection of people calling themselves #notwestminster last year.

The #notwestminster discussions quickly led to the identification of some key “local democracy design challenges”, which are used to focus effort on identifying solutions.

We’ve been getting increasingly interested in this agenda (after all, we think that, along with accountability and transparency, involvement is a key element in good governance, and must be absolutely central to local democracy). We’re therefore very pleased that the LGA has agreed that as part of our 2016/17 funding package they want us to look into this issue further, and work with councils, councillors, activists and other interested parties to support the development of solutions to some of these challenges.

We are planning to look at three in particular – social decision-making, making it easier to access, share and use data about local democracy (agendas, minutes, reports and so on) and what has been called “digestible democracy” – making the process and systems involved in local democracy easier to understand. Dave McKenna, Swansea’s scrutiny manager, who has been extremely active in all this, has pithily described this last challenge as, “How can we present local decision making so it’s less obscure like modern jazz, and more popular, like rock and roll?”. Jazz-lovers (I am not one) might consider this unfair, but you get the point. 

Tackling these issues in the round is a significant task, which is why we’re working with others to make it happen. We’ll feed some of the results back at the next #notwestminster in February. Our initial plan, though, is that our contribution will consist of a few components:

  • Some trialling and piloting work in individual councils. We want to work with a small number of councils to develop some local, practical solutions to some of these challenges, and to start implementing them.
  • Some workshops, where we bring together people from the councils we’re supporting, along with other people active as part of #notwestminster, and talk about the wider applicability of what we’re doing;
  • Some roundtable meetings, where we bring activists and practitioners together with decision-makers – to talk about the practicality of what we’re doing and what we can do to bring some of it a higher profile in the sector.

We plan to launch this work with an initial meeting in July to get some interested people around the table and talk about:

  • The kinds of solutions to the design challenges which we might be able to work collectively to put in place;
  • The geographical areas in which we might provide support;
  • The kinds of outcomes that we’d be aiming to achieve from our involvement.

This meeting will probably take place in 15 July and is likely to be a half-day – we’ll be circulating a (loose and flexible) agenda, with some discussion points, in due course.

I’ll be blogging about those discussion points, and inviting comment from people, in the run-up to the meeting itself.

We’re keen to get some input from anyone who’s interested in these issues, but particularly from those working in councils who might want to use our support to try some different approaches to things like how reports are written, how council meetings are organised and run, how public meetings and consultations are organised, and other issues relating to the three challenges we’ve set out. While we’ll be sending out invites to particular people we’re keen to be involved, our meeting in July isn’t exclusive and whether you want to send in some comments beforehand to inform discussions or to attend in person, let me know – my contact details are 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.