Reflections from We’re not in Westminster – Local Democracy for everyone

Remember this date : Saturday 7th February 2015, because on Saturday in Huddersfield a special event We’re not in Westminster – Local Democracy for Everyone took place that created the space, time, inspiration and curation to bring together an amazing group of people to discuss and suggest small and big changes to how local democracy works.

Thanks to all the people involved from sponsors, organisers, participants and most importantly the attendees who gave up a Saturday to talk about local democracy – YES they really did…

The format of the day was well structured and professional – the hard work and planning by those behind the scenes really paid off on the day. The discussions and planning around the sessions beforehand allowed them all to have a clear active and action based focus, so all participants were engaged in trying to work through problems and suggest solutions…this approach I think worked perfectly for an event which has a specific focus and required more curation and facilitation than say an event like localgovcamp.
The mix of the day with sessions and lightning talks helped maintain the broader context and purpose around why we’re all there…
So in what appears to be a standard way of reflection on these types of events here are my  reflections and highlights.
  • People will travel to things they care about. Huddersfield for the majority of people is not on any mainline so did take some time travelling to, in my example it was a 6 hour train journey with 3 changes so it was a real commitment to make that journey and many people made the journey to the event which is why it was and is a success. My hat goes off to everyone who made the effort to attend, participate and give their views, ideas and energy.
  • Sharing values and visions doesn’t always mean you’ll share the same opinions and this is a very healthy place to be and we should ensure that we bring in as many different voices into these discussions as possible.
  • Curating events in the manner that was applied to this event is perfect when you want to have a specific focus on a topic and want to deliver value and outputs as it focuses the energies on that which is perfect.
  • It takes more than just money from sponsors to make an event fly, but without them you only have an idea and energy. No one should under estimate the huge amount of effort required to get these things off the ground and huge respect to the team at Kirklees Council in making it happen.
  • A highlight for me was when a couple of councillors from Kirklees in Tim Davies session on 20 ways to work with open data said they would like to see how Open Data could help them deal with a local issue around people feeding pigeons…they found some options and ideas from the group work and I really hope they share their learning and outputs as it will be with small stories like this that things like open data can really start to show some value to the non believers.
  • Another highlight was the clear diversity of people in the rooms – councillors, academics, people off the street, council employees and those passionate around democracy. The quality of discussions I witnessed really showed through because of this.

There are some great insights on the hashtag #notwestminster which i highly recommend checking out – John Popham created a storify if you want to check that out

Working with @curiousc and Co @Public_i


I’m very excited to announce that from the end of this month (w/b 27th February 2012) I will be working 2 days a week for a fixed period of 6 months with the lovely folks at Public i as the Citizenscape product manager.

Why am I doing this?

Well that is a good question, I didn’t need to look for additional work, nor was I actively seeking to leave the council, in fact I’m very happy working at the council and we have lots of work to do and push forward as well as some of the additional things that I’m trying to push forward with Sarah Lay like the new Content Strategy Community, all of that will still happen as I’m not working alone and have lots of amazing people to work with to help make these things happen.

But I see this as an opportunity to experience a different culture, different ethos and working with people who are trying to solve a problem I care deeply about – the impact and opportunity of social technologies on democracy.

I’m already doing lots of things in my spare time so volunteering wasn’t ever an option here and I do love working on a variety of topics which are actually at their core linked around a set of common issues:  empowerment, engagement, social capital, participation and of course “digitalness”.

What will I be doing?

First and foremost I’ll be working with the development team and the rest of the good folk at Public I on helping them improve the overall user experience and focus of the Citizenscape product.

I’ll be providing constructive disruption and challenge and hopefully help make it a solution which helps the democratic process evolve.  Obviously 2 days a week is limiting so it will be a challenge but one that will also be a great learning curve for me as well.

The CitizenScape pages  state a set of assumptions which I feel are a good starting point to focus my thinking around the product – are these assumptions still correct for example.

The assumptions behind Citizenscape are simple:

Council’s should not be building social networking sites themselves – there is already a lot of activity online. Local Authorities need to connect to that rather than starting from scratch

You need tools that reach out and exist on the sites that people are already visiting – not waste your time trying to get them to visit you

The social web encourages co-creation and participation – this makes it the right place to start to engage people in democratic debate

On the whole they are still valid..but how does this actually translate into real life…

It is important for me to state up front that the product doesn’t quite work yet, I mean it does work technically, but in terms of the real opportunities I think it has some way to go.

The current version does make me think whether or not I could achieve perhaps 70-80% of the output within some free products like pageflakes or netvibes…that isn’t to say the existing product is poorly made or developed because it isn’t but the challenge is trying to build or create something that is actually still hard to articulate and explain even with the assumptions listed above.

In addition to that another challenge will be to either accept that aspects can be replicated on free platforms and move onto understanding the real value of the remaining 20-30% or increasing the opportunity of the whole product.  I’m not sure what the answer is yet but that is something I’m looking forward to working on over the coming months – whatever the answer, it has to be sustainable.

Will I succeed?

Who knows, I’m lucky to have such an opportunity and to be able to explore this in such a “low risk” environment…I won’t know until I try, It may not work out, or it may work really well…

I want to thank Catherine Howe for allowing me this opportunity to start with and for believing in me enough to allow me to temporarily adopt one of her projects and help steer it forward…that in itself is an honour and a privilege.

All I know is that along the way I’ll be learning, sharing my thoughts and thinking here on my blog.

Socialising Councillor Locality Budgets


This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but I’m not aware nor can I seem to find any examples of, councillor budgets being proactively published but also socialised in that people can request or suggest ideas locally for consideration and social voting.  I can find information on how much money has been allocated by councils but not exactly what the money has been spent on and more importantly what social value or social return on investment has been achieved.

I guess on a basic level you would just connect the process to the Simpl product or something similar which allows people to suggest ideas, request resources etc.

This area seems like a great opportunity and starting point as these budgets are not about funding services but are about contributing to local projects…

In Devon certain principles have been agreed by the Council to guide the use of locality budgets and to ensure financial probity, value for money and accountability, which are;

  • The project or activity not being able to be easily funded from another source (the principle of “investor of last resort”).
  • Consistency with the council’s current policies.
  • Evidence of value for money (perhaps measured in part by match-funding leverage secured).
  • Appropriate levels of auditing and accounting are in place
  • The extent to which the investment encourages or triggers partnership working
  • Enabling a wide range of organisations to be able to apply for funds
The current publicity for the funds and the projects is guided by our policy which is currently:

Following every County Committee meeting, the Council’s press office will issue a list of grants which have been made and bring this to the attention of local media. Local groups and Councillors are of course free to seek their own publicity.

For me and I’m speaking in a personal capacity here, this is a wasted opportunity…simply stating we will issue a “press release” and local media are welcome to take these up is an easy way out….This is public money and councillors should be pro-actively seeking to promote the projects and impact they have had with their budgets…after all these are the kinds of things on the ground which could actually help people get re-elected, simple things like new swings in a park, flood lights at a skate park…these are local issues that I’d like to see addressed in my community.
I’d be interested to hear from any council or anyone who has actually socialised or pro-actively published the budget available, spending so far and what is remaining, as well as the impact of that money.


A challenge to Open Democracy – Bloggers excluded from council’s Twitter accreditation


I have read with great interest an article and supporting posts about Tameside Councils decision to accredit professional journalists and allow them to tweet live within council meetings and in effect ban anyone else from doing so.

A council in the north of England has taken the unusual step of accrediting professional journalists to report from meetings using Twitter in a move that in effect bans local bloggers.

The decision by Tameside council means that local bloggers, members of the public and even their own councillors are not permitted to tweet because they are not members of the press as defined in law by the Local Government Act of 1972.

via Bloggers excluded from council’s Twitter accreditation | Media |

Now I’m guessing here that Tameside Council may have taken a different view if they were webcasting their meetings live like Devon County Council and many others do.

The use of the Local Government Act 1972 to in effect reduce the ability of even the councillors themselves from tweeting from within the meeting seems a step too far. Details of the Councils Official response can be found here.

Any council who is currently webcasting their meetings would find the same decision impossible to impose, unless they stop webcasting their meetings to the public. The challenge of course in this scenario is that anyone from around the world can effectively tweet live whilst watching the “live” webcast or even comment after the event via the archive.

So I guess my question related to this is:  Are we really using the act to manage the supposed abuse of twitter? Or are Tameside Council trying to solve another problem relating to individuals and what they say?

Either way, I am concerned about the longer term implications should other councils see this as a way to “control the message” and restrict the opportunities to engage and participate in local politics and decision-making.

This feels like we are going back to a “behind closed doors” approach which is in my opinion “anti social” and not very “democratic”.

The challenge here is that we need to support councils and more importantly reach the staff working inside to better understand the potential of these tools to increase participation and involvement in local politics and decision making.   We also need to have an effective discussion in the wider public sector about the role social tools can play in shaping public services.

Consumers vs Citizens – Democratic Society, Four rules for councils’ democratisation work


I’ve just seen an excellent presentation by the Democratic Society on “Four rules for councils’ democratisation work”. It has got me thinking about a few things so i’m going to share some random comments and observations:

First and foremost, we need to remove these “titles” (Consumer, Customer Citizen, Service User etc) and start to focus on PEOPLE. We can use the titles only to help guide us in our method and approach, but we should stop referring to People in those ways as it only confuses us and the people we engage with.

In Local Government we need to recognise (and most of us do) that People have different roles when interacting or engaging with us. They can be either be a consumer of services via websites or contact centres, face to face etc OR they can be citizens who we need to involve  in the design and shaping of what those services look like and feel like in the first place.

Organisations need to refocus to ensure that People to People connections and relationships are understood. This will inevitably have a huge transformational impact on the way we structure our services and how we involve people as well as the internal structures and networks that exist, not just in a single organisation but across the public sector as a whole.

Ok, random thoughts over – check out the presentation and see what you think?