Small steps of democratic change

really couldn't chose a picture for this one

This is a personal reflection on the work that I have been supporting at Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in my role as a trustee of the Democratic Society.

I joined Demsoc back in 2010 as a governor (non-exec director) and have worked with them ever since. It’s gone from being very much a UK based startup to an international think tank based in Brussels which is doing all kinds of democratic innovation work.  I give my time to Demsoc because I think its working in an arena where I can add value and – let’s face it – we desperately need our democracy to evolve. I also really like and admire the people involved which is a prerequisite for doing anything with your free time as far as I concerned.

Most of the time I am doing non-exec stuff; chairing meetings, nagging people about accounts and asking the annoying but important accountability questions but there are two projects I am actively involved in at the moment.  One is Public Square which I am on the advisory board of.  I’m really excited about this and will write about it later in the year as it starts to take shape. The other is the work we are doing with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council, helping them to think about how they engage with residents, with their citizens, in the aftermath and ongoing tragedy of the Grenfell Towers fire.

We are a very small part of the work that is going on there but I think it’s important and it certainly is teaching me far more than I imagined.  The work we are doing is picking up from the independent review of governance at RBKC that was commissioned the Centre for Public Scrutiny*. You can read the full report here. Demsoc supported CFPS in doing the review and are now working with RBKC to bring some of the recommendations to life (the council are working with others and also independently on other recommendations).

The part I am helping with is this one:

Full Council to continue to provide space for the public to address councillors, which places contributions from the public at the centre.

The Demsoc team meets, greets and briefs the residents who want to speak.  We are there to make sure that they have everything they need and that we are supporting them in what is sometimes their first-time public speaking. Not all of them are inexperienced – the range and knowledge in the room is amazing and again proves the case for asset-based approaches to community engagement.

My role is simple:  I facilitate the first hour of the council meeting in order to make sure that the citizens who want to speak actually get heard. My qualifications for this are a lot of facilitation experience and over 10 year’s experience of working with Councils to make their meetings more effective.  My other qualification is enough confidence to be able to hold a room of potentially hundreds of people – this is a dubious skill but comes in handy. It’s one of the hardest roles I have ever done – certainly when compared to the amount of time it takes – but part of what makes it hard is the fact that it is very difficult to measure and understand the impact this small intervention is having.

To get under the skin of what impact this work is having I think we need to be looking both at evaluating the process but more importantly the effect that it is having in two more intangible areas; trust and communication between the council and its citizens and impact on decision making.  Are we both helping people feel ‘heard and seen’ by the council but can we see this translating into changes in the way in which the council makes decisions?

There are signs of change and the fact that slots to speak fill up within an hour of being made available shows there is an appetite for what is happening.  More than that the diversity is impressive with a huge range of topics being raised – really showing that citizens want to be part of the democratic process. But change is slow work and we need to make sure that we are actively measuring and evaluating what we are doing so we can properly understand what does and doesn’t work.

The mechanics of the process seem to be effective.  The ritual of the full council meeting is an important one for lots of reasons and giving citizens meaningful voice in that forum is the right thing to do – it’s a useful democratic innovation though clearly not enough on its own.  It also means that citizens are right at the front of every agenda – a reminder to politicians at the start of every meeting of why they are there.  We are iterating the approach each month but we are provably at the point where we should capture some evaluation feedback and then let the process ‘stick’ for a while so we can explore other effects because the process change is simple.  Getting the power, trust and privilege right in order to make the most of that procedural change is what’s hard and that’s what I want to reflect on here.

To say that there has been a breakdown of trust in the democratic system in RBKC is a massive understatement.  Clearly not for everyone in the borough but for a significant group of people nothing the council says can be trusted.  This is not just a question of things like ‘we’ll get back to you in 72 hours’ but much deeper questions of trust around the process, intent and the facts that are being evidenced and presented.  For some residents there is no pathway to a shared view of the truth and it seems difficult to imagine how one will be created until after the inquests are over and some deeper healing has been achieved.

Even without the backdrop of Grenfell it is striking how unrepresentative the representatives feel to major areas of the borough. The people leading the council, with very honourable intentions, are a million miles away from the life experiences of the some of the people they are representing.  As my colleague Mel keeps reminding me, this will always be the case in some way and so perhaps the question to ask is whether this process change helps to both remind representatives of the breadth of lived experience in RBKC but also build confidence in the citizens that that awareness to present is the Council’s decision making.

And this question of citizens being present in the councils’ decision making is important because the ritual of the formal meeting is one of the reasons that politicians too often fall back into the habit of party politics rather than real listening and empathy.

There is a lot of discussion around facilitation about the concept of ‘safe space’ and psychological safety.  It’s about creating an environment where everyone feels that they are able to contribute and also – and this is really important – that if they contribute, they will be listened to.  This small change to the council meeting process is both about creating safe space but also about doing in a place where it makes a difference – where it can affect decision making.

The Demsoc role in this piece of work is all about creating safe space but safe space can’t be without challenge if it’s going to be effective because without challenge we avoid confronting the lack of connection and understanding which is at the root of so many of the problems.  Without challenge we can’t address inequalities of power and we can’t hope to help to rebuild trust.

It would feel wrong to write about this and not talk about privilege as this piece of work makes me enormously conscious of my own privilege and the fact that much of what is unfolding at the Grenfell Inquiry speaks to a systemic blindness to parts of our society.  This is uncomfortable stuff but unless we get better at talking about it we are not going to be able to confront and address some of the very visible divisions in our society.

This blog is intended to be an honest and open place and therefore feels wrong to write this piece and not talk about the fact that this work forces me to confront my own privilege. I have never been so acutely aware of my white educated middle class privilege. The work has changed the way I think about privilege and has embedded this thinking not just this work but everything else I am doing. This is an uncomfortable and important area of learning for me as I suspect it is for others.

More practically and less personally my own privilege is compounded by the privilege of the facilitator role. One of the questions we must ask going forward is whether who carries the role is vital as this develops.

I am therefore left with a whole set of questions that I hope we can explore in the next phase of the work:

  1. Are we having an impact on trust and communication?
  2. Does the space feel safe to all of the participants?
  3. Do we need to introduce more challenge into the process in order to get into deeper discussions or is this not the right forum? If so, what forums does this need to be working with?
  4. And more specifically could the role of the facilitator shift towards more active advocacy for the residents and decode some of the political platitudes the residents get back and ask more challenging follow up questions?
  5. Can we see a change to the pattern of decision making?
  6. Are we able to measure changes to the degree of trust that people have in the democratic process?
  7. What role does privilege have in democratic trust – do we need our representatives to be properly representative?

At the last meeting we had a bit of an interruption – a young man wanted to speak and got angry when he felt that he was not being given that chance.  It got a bit tense and the differences in the room were hugely present.  But he was then given a speaking slot (he stepped in as someone else from a group he is part of was not there) and he calmed down. He apologised to the speaker he interrupted and then when it was his turn spoke powerfully and eloquently about his experience of living in RBKC.  I won’t try and capture it here but I would urge you to go and watch the webcast – the power and honesty of his voice and story made an impact.  Without the changes that have been made to the way the council meeting is run he would not have been able to speak as part of the democratic process.  Without his own passion to make RBKC better he would not have turned out on a wet January night.  Its a tiny green shoot but at least it is there. And there are several others, the fact that people keep signing up and asking to speak and the fact that it is becoming a forum where people bring the things that are important to them.

So I am going to keep doing this as long as the Council asks us to help, because bringing citizens into the heart of the democratic process is what is desperately needed and these small changes will – I can only hope – make a difference in the long run.

*another organisation I am a non-exec of – more on that in another post)

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