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Wednesday 7 October 2015

86. Rock and roll local democracy

Imagine that overnight a miracle happens.

Local democracy becomes like rock and roll; stripped back; simple; easy to understand; emotional; exciting; and fun.

How would you know? What would you notice in your daily life? In the morning? At work? In the evening?

These are the questions I shared with two sessions at GovCampCymru. Below is my summary of the wonderful answers I got from the GovCampers.

The questions were inspired by the miracle question; a technique used in solution focussed brief therapy. The purpose of the miracle question is to help people to understand their preferred future so that they can begin to start thinking about the small steps that might move them in that direction. After all, if you don’t know where you are going you will end up some place else.

I used this technique, albeit in a very crude way, to get some ideas from the GovCampers, thinking as citizens, about what rock and roll local democracy might look like.

The ‘local democracy should be like rock and roll’ idea comes from Lawrence Pratchett who argued that local democracy is too much like jazz — an obscure hobby for the dedicated few. It come’s from Pratchett’s chapter in the rather excellent book: British Local Government into the 21st Century. Definitely worth a read.

Someone suggested, brilliantly I thought, that local democracy is more like baroque than jazz — not only obscure but never changing and from another time. I really like this metaphor although I'm hoping it doesn't upset any baroque aficionados out there.

The two sessions were also an experiment in user research for democracy design. As I've argued before, democracy and citizens have been a Cinderella in the government design world. This was certainly not the case at GovCampCymru — maybe I was looking through democracy tinted glasses but I would say that it was the main theme of the day.

Anyhow, here is my write up of the two sessions followed by some suggestions for some small steps that might be taken towards making the miracle happen. A big thanks to everyone who took part — with any luck I have done your wonderful ideas justice. I had fun and I hope you did as well. Biggest thanks go to the two Sarahs — @SarahPrag and @WorkTheWind — who took the notes in the two sessions. Kudos guys.

The morning after the miracle

So, you wake up and local democracy is like rock and roll.

You put on your favourite democracy t-shirt. It’s got the logo of your favourite local democracy collective on the front and a list of all ten of the 2015 meetings on the back.

Check your phone and fire up twitter. Several of your friends are buzzing about a couple of meetings taking place later. One is about the homelessness policy for the area. The other is about a budget decision; the local council has money for a cycle path or a library. But not for both.

Facebook next and your friends have already set up a group to campaign for the cycle path. You are not so sure but you mull it over while you shower.

Now you head for the kitchen to get the breakfast ready.

Flick on the radio just in time to catch the ‘citizens update’ just after the weather. Yes, there are two meetings later and they both sound like they are going to be popular. You've done campaigning on the homelessness issue before but they mention on the radio that Councillor Jeremy — a major local celebrity — will be going to the cycle path meeting. You know you can’t go to both. Tough call.

The kids come down and they excited about the cycle path meeting. They heard about it at school the day before in the daily ‘junior citizens’ session. It used to be just one lesson a year on ‘how the council works’ but now it is every week, and they get to talk about the issues being discussed by the council. They like it much better. After a while the argument gets a bit overheated — as ever the oldest and youngest can never agree -one wants the cycle path, the other says the library is more important.

Outside the school you talk to some of the other parents about the meetings. Two of them run the facebook group for your street and they are pretty up on the issues through the debates that have
already taken place online.

The work day

You've got the kids to school and finally arrive at your desk. The roadside posters and billboards advertising today’s meetings had kept them in the front of your mind while you were driving.
Straight away you see emails about the two meetings from co-workers and a feature on the staff intranet about the same thing. All the usual comments and questions have been added to the intranet story. It’s just what people do while they are having their first cup of coffee and getting their minds in gear.

Next you watch the 2 minute videos on youtube promoting the two meetings— over 10,000 views for each — wow — these are hot topics!

People are talking about the issues by their desks. Your manager comes over and asks you if you are going along later. Tickets are going fast on Eventbrite for both so you might need to get your skates on she says. Meetings like this are usually popular with people queuing round the block to get in.
OK, this is the nudge you need so you get some of the last tickets for the cycle path meeting and dive into your work tasks.

As with most offices, the work day finishes at 3.00 to give people proper time to get involved in democracy meetings. Of course more people had to be employed to get the work done in shorter hours so it worked out pretty well when that change came in.

Of course democracy is not everyone’s cup of tea — it’s a bit too energetic and edgy for some — but it’s easy to tune it all out if you want to. It’s your choice.

The evening

You and the kids get to the cycle path meeting in plenty of time.

They don’t hold these meetings in the townhall any more. It’s in a community centre that has a cafĂ© bar — you get a yourself a well earned beer and lemonades for the kids.

The whole thing has been organised by the local collective and crowdfunded online. You didn't get involved in arranging this one but you have volunteered for many others. It’s been much better since all these smaller local groups and parties have started to happen. Things feel so much more relevant than when everything was organised through the old style national parties. All grassroots and DIY. Maybe more punk than rock and roll.

The main hall is packed and you find your seats and realise that, wow, you are sat next to Councillor Jeremy. Yes he has had his fair share of scandals (just check out the local papers over the last twelve months!) but you like the way he makes his points and he is your generation and you do feel you have a lot in common. A leather jacket and bright red mohawk hairstyle isn't everyone’s cup of tea but there you go.

Of course these days you can speak to any councillor, not just the one who was elected for your area. A whole range of people are councillors. Men and women of different ages, backgrounds and culture — you just pick the one you identify with most and talk to them. You picked Councillor Jeremy.

Before the meeting starts Councillor Jeremy listens carefully to you and the kids and makes notes on his tablet. He knows that he will be explaining the decision to everyone later so he is taking his time to make sure he understands what everyone thinks. It’s not long though before he’s talking to the others who have spotted him as well as signing autographs. Everyone recognises him of course and everyone feels like they know him.

Soon the debate is underway and people are making their points. There’s also plenty of questions and comments coming in via social media from those outside the hall. People are excited, the room is noisy but it’s all good natured as ever — it’s great to feel part of something. You feel proud to be involved.

Yes, local democracy is like rock and roll and you know what the best part is?

We are the band!

10 Small Steps

The purpose of the miracle question is not just to help people articulate their preferred future but to help identify small steps towards making it happen.

In the same vein, this story that came out of the two sessions, and the wonderful imagination of the GovCampers, suggests a few small steps towards rock and roll local democracy. I've listed them below (they also link pretty well to the #Notwestminster Local Democracy Design Challenges).

  1. Merchandise — t-shirts and mugs for your local democratic process. Why not? If you are proud of it let people know
  2. Advertise the issues to be discussed that day using radio, TV and social media
  3. Make and share short videos to get people interested in the issues (also check out this)
  4. Junior citizens sessions in schools that discuss live council issues
  5. Feed council topics through established local facebook groups
  6. Advertise democracy events on posters and billboards
  7. Use internal comms in councils and other organisations to encourage staff to take part in the local democratic process
  8. Hold meetings to discuss single topics of public interest held in friendly venues and ticketed through eventbrite (definitely not like council meetings). Or, even better…
  9. Support and encourage local groups to hold meetings on issues that the council is deciding on — help people to crowdsource and crowdfund these events
  10. Encourage people to get in touch with the councillors they identify with most when they have any issues — not just their local representative

Thank you GovCampCymru — hope to see you next year.

Originally posted on Medium

Photo Credit: W N Bishop 

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