I spent a couple of days last week with the We Live Here Team at the Creative Councils Camp in Birmingham so this post is an attempt to capture some thoughts from the experience.  My first thought is that I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the team – thank you all….

The point of the camp was to help the 17 ideas that have been chosen for development time to explore their projects and to start to…well…develop.

Two immediate things struck me from the experience, the first was the fact that the NESTA team seem to be running a genuinely open process and that they want the best ideas to do well – with no real agenda as to what ‘best’ means in this context – I hope that they are able to keep this up.  The second thing was the quality of the 17 groups (yes – I modestly include us in that statement).  I met some fantastic people and heard some really brilliant ideas from the other groups.  There is some but not excessive crossover between ideas and there are some obvious collaborations if we can all figure out how to collaborate in what is ultimately a competitive process but if we can manage it then there is an opportunity to connect together transformational change in Local Government.  Before you get too excited I did say opportunity – lets see if we can avoid cocking it up.

And just to reflect on the point about competition / collaboration – clearly the ‘journey’ from this point is intended to reduce the 17 down to 5 projects – and this would normally mean that people did feel a sense of competition.  However it is I think a testament both to the nature of the participants and the quality of the event that we all felt the event was far more collaborative than participative which was great.

The event was a mix of plenary and breakout groups were we got chance to run through our ideas with other participants and the NESTA team – the format made sure the idea was challenged and explored by others and this allowed us to build on it and fill in a lot of gaps.

I’m fascinated by some of the event design stuff and so will reflect in that in another post – but this is what I felt from the POV of We Live Here – in no particular order:

Practical stuff:

  • We have to be able to communicate this to people who are not embedded in the process and thinking – its still highly abstract and if we don’t put this on the top of our list we will fail
  • There is no getting away from the fact that we need to be able to cost out what we are doing and also the potential savings from the approach – at very least we need to show that We Live Here is sustainable and does not add to the bottom line.  We believe that better democracy means better decisions and better decisions cost less in the long term but this is a little pollyanna for a finance director and so we will be expanding on the work that Anthony started in his Democracy Pays white paper and drilling down a little deeper into this.  It will also help with the budgeting process.
  • We really need to decide on how we are going to structure and track the project management  – and also how we are going to do it.  Innovation projects are not going to sit well with  PRINCE 2 approach and so this needs thinking about.  I have an interest in amending the AGILE approach for this kind of thing but I also want us to speak to NESTA as to whether or not they have some suggestions for project management tools for this kind of project.
  • Though we think that the principles behind We Live Here – the need for a civic space – are very portable its also true that the idea is very much in the right place and the right time.  Emma is going to capture the conditions and try and delink this from the method as we think this will help other people implement any learning from the project
  • We also pulled out the nuance that we need to draw a distinction between the fact that we want to change the way in which we make decisions through greater citizen participation from the fact that we also need new structures for democratic engagement – practical structures of time and place.  Breaking the problem down in this way will help us to plan I think
  • As we identified when we last met we really need to be clear on which processes / programmes / projects already happening within the council we want to connect to with this project.  This might be a matter of working out short, medium and long term goals but the two obvious areas at the moment are the scrutiny process and the neighborhood councils programme.  Given that these are at different stages of development this is one for Council colleagues to work through but whatever we decide on will form the ‘democratic contract’ I mentioned before.
  • We are still keen that one of the first things we do is to map the current civic participation in the city but we think that we need to try and provide a self reporting process for this as well to make this easier.  Podnosh also made the excellent suggestion that we use this as opportunity to demonstrate some of the stuff that people are doing and gather examples as we map.
  • One thing that we did surface was the fact that in the first iteration of this project we don’t expect to reach everyone – we are going to be focused on the Hansard “Willing Localists” and try to connect to the people who are interested in participating but currently don’t see the point or don’t find it convenient.  Once we have some momentum with this group and have demonstrated greater demand for greater participation) then we will look at the next layer of people who are further from participation – that is perhaps where this will get really interesting.
  • Also – I think I have persuaded people to carry out the scenarios of doom planning session – excellent – nothing like a little doom….
  • The idea of civic space is very abstract and lot of our motivations for the project are aspirational and transformative.  One of the things that came through for all of us from the feedback we got from people at the Camp was the need to try and root this vision with a practical delivery path that is much more tangible.  Alongside this we need to think about our communications approach as its essential that we start testing some of these concepts on the people we want to work with to check that they are clear and appealing.
  • We still want to the do the values / principles capture that I wrote about in the last post – I see this linking to an Agile project management approach

Reflections on the concept

  • One of the things that the way in which we were asked to articulate our idea was the fact that we have really been able to nail the problem that we are addressing.  Put simply:  Not enough people are participating in decision making.  There is wider argumentation about why we think this is a Bad Thing.
  • There is a tension here though which connects to the tension between co-production and democratic decision making and that is the challenge of connecting open processes with specific services.  This is in fact easier for us than for other projects as we have tremendous support from politicians and we are starting from a listening position and then seeing where people want to go – it will be far harder for projects that want to focus on a specific service area to both run open processes and keep the conversation in that area.  Some of this can be done be selecting people based in interest (That;s how we have been managing it in the CRIF project) but as we know this is not always enough and the other projects may want to consider how they will handle new demand that is out of scope.
  • One of the things that struck me about a lot of the conversations that we had over the course of the two days were the number of assumptions that we all make about what “the community” know and what they are interested in.  We do it as well.  Our representatives just don’t have the tools they need in order to access this knowledge and where previously it felt acceptable for them to have an attempt and fail the fact that the tools and technologies and in fact expectations and context have changed and developed creates one of the pressures that mean we have to reconsider the connection between citizen and state.  Its trite to say it but the fact that big brands and monitoring social media and responding personally sets a new level of expectation that spills over beyond the digital channel into everyday life – this is the expectation that we are trying to meet

Conclusion

So – where does this leave us?  I think our next step really needs to start to do some more detailed planning and out some structure on all this – it will help us move forward and also help us to take our rather abstract vision into a more practical realm.  In structure terms we are starting to see a vision/concept arc and a practical/exploratory one and I think that will work for us.

The CityForum event we are running on the 5th October (this is a followup event from CityCamp Brighton) gives us a focus for getting on with this as though its not a We Live Here event specifically its clearly an opportunity to widen the discussion around the idea.

On a more theoretical level I continue to think one of the central questions of this project is how we reconcile that tension between representative democracy and greater levels of participation and coproduction.  I think we need to be doing some fairly detailed thinking about firstly the pre-existing process that have space for more co-production but also where the limits are – this is really what we meant when I talked about exploring real localism in the wild.  One of the implications for greater citizen participation is the opportunity for the citizens to exert greater power on the context that the Council sets for a particular conversation at the moment.  This is another area where we need to be thinking about new forms of process and I return to thinking about how agile can help and also perhaps about how you would involve citizens in something like Gerry Stokers suggestions around experimentation within policy making.

I also think that there is an important conversation that all the projects in the Creative Council programme need to engage with around how we evidence and explain the new context that we are all working in not just in terms of financial squeeze – we need to make the case for change beyond the need to save money otherwise we will always be forced down a ‘make efficiencies’ route by people who do not accept a new analysis rather than being able to aspire to transformation.  The new values of a new context challenge orthodoxy – and I think this is at the heart of driving innovation.

However I also I find all this talk of innovation a little tiring – it’s not the biggest problem – it’s translating and implementing an idea beyond the innovation team and embedding it in the place. It’s about accepting the need to change the idea in the face of fear or established practice and go more slowly.  I think our feedback from the Creative Councils Camp was hugely helpful – we have a vision but we really need now to concentrate on making it work in the real world.

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