Consultation as unfashionable knitwear

We had a really great We Live Here project meeting earlier this week and so this post started as an action research one – however it got a bit out of hand as ever its also influenced by a couple of other things I have been up to this week hence this post turning up instead! If you find that a bit dull then you can just jump here to the WLH stuff.

I was at the launch of the SEEMP Localism and Accountablity Network yesterday and had the unenviable post-lunch slot which I used to talk about how the network society could be used to reframe engagement as well the need for Councils to step out of the way and allow some relationship collision to happen and trust in the ability of people to bring about good outcomes. I went a bit free range but the slides below are at least a basic guide to what I said:

There were some good speakers – Andrew Bowles, Leader from Swale, talked about the Kent approach to Localism and William Benson (CEX of Tunbridge Wells) talked about some of their engagement work, including hack days, ward walks and a full on assult on Morrisons – brilliant! There was also an excellent speaker from the LGA who took us on a canter through the Localism Bill – in summary not as local as we thought so take the general power and competance and run as far and fast from Westminster as you can.

We also heard from Imogen from the Westgate Hall Community Trust – a community interest company. They have a fascinating founding story that I am hoping to talk to Imogen about in more detail and blog about separately.

I went out for dinner with a very dear friend of mine last night who lives in Australia – which was lovely. There is nothing special as time spent with someone you can talk to about anything and everything. We ended up laughing like maniacs about the fact that she has no idea about what I do – despite having read this blog and following me on twitter. I think we can safely assume that she is not alone. However, later when we were chatting with her parents I started to explain (they really are very polite and did ask) and it turns out her Dad is involved with the ‘Hoathly Hub‘ – a hyperlocal site for their village. Talking about that, and how it relates to local decision making made the whole thing come clear.

Why am I boring you with this? Good question.

Often, when we talk about community or democratic engagement I think we over-complicate things. A lot. I am obviously more guilty of this than most but I think we mystyfy the process of community engagement and turn it into something or a ritual. Sometimes ritual and process is important – protocol afterall is a mechanism for stopping people killing each other – but it can also be used to try and control a situation. I am now acutely aware that part of my motivation for creating a formal agenda is a desire to control what we are going to talk about – just doing a list of stuff to be covered feels very different.  The people who do this stuff within their community just get on and do it so it is no surprise that they are perplexed when faced with practitioners and professionals trying to formalise something that to them is a natural extension of their social life.

One of the points I made at the SEEMP event which got some willing and unwilling nods was the fact that we often use community engagement as a buffer between the citizen and government that covers what can be inadequate democratic representation – a cosy jumper that reassures us but stops us having to have unpleasant but sometimes necessary confrontation.  We preserve relationships but we don’t always make progress.

Are we helping anyone by doing this? I feel very confident that a lot of members could if asked step up and work more effectively and I know the public could. Perhaps if we want to demonstrate leadership in social change we need to start by trusting people.

One comment
  1. Markus Schaal

    December 3, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Great Post. Yes, it is all about democracy in the end. Talking to people comes way before defining a process. Right. So why do you go on? Should not people like you explain the government that they ultimately fail to establish better democracy by implementing open governance?


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