Experimenting with local democracy

Huddersfield is weird. To the casual visitor it looks a lot like many towns in Britain- ethnically diverse, fairly deprived, getting on with it. There’s no outward hallmarks of thriving civic engagement and it’s based in Kirklees, which is not a real place.

And yet, once a year people from across the country descend on the Media Centre in the town to throw themselves into discussions and projects to ‘hack’ democracy*. The council’s Chief Executive will join a group of proud geeks on a Saturday to promote her vision of residents as citizens. People will will spend a Friday night listening to pecha kucha presentations about democracy.

Notwestminster is now in its third year and shows no signs of slowing- all 3 events under the banner were sold out, and the breadth of people’s backgrounds was vitalising: some local government wonks, some academics, several members of the local youth parliament, some social enterprises working to change the system from the outside, a few ex-council folk finding it hard to let go, and a few people with no connection to councils who just wanted to see what was going on. The final group are definitely the most surprising.

I really liked the reflections form produced by the Satori Lab, known as Phil’s questions. Using these as a basis will make this blog too long, but here’s my reflections from 2 days of hacking democracy:

What did I learn?

Just how broad-ranging the opportunities are within local government to adopt design experiments in the day job, along with the wider principles of design thinking. I’ve been peripherally aware of a lot of these approaches for while now, telling myself that it wasn’t possible to implement these from the ground up in a rigid organisation like a council. This weekend showed me just how easy it is.

Nick Taylor introduced us to the hackers ethic, that urges people into: doing over talking; to make things, break things; to share what we do; and to prioritise collaboration and community. As a design team we definitely failed on the first, but we threw ourselves into collaborating and sharing.

How will I behave differently?

The design experiments model is a great way to plan for change. The way health and social care operate is transforming, so people in services like Public Health are well placed to use design experiments to restyle the services we provide and the way we tackle shared problems. I will be using this for a number of projects, and have Notwestminster to thank for it.

What held me back?

In some practical ways, we were held back during the experiments day by our group’s diversity. Having people from varied experiences and backgrounds meant we did spend a lot of time discussing concepts instead of solutions (talking not doing), often just trying to find a shared language. This diversity of course led to interesting discoveries and reframed perspectives, but in actually producing an experiment we were beaten by the clock.

What surprised me?

That a 6 minute talk at a democracy geekfest can reduce a room to tears. Emily Warrillow is a member of the local youth parliament, and her account of her friendship with the late Jo Cox MP was inspiring and agonising. Her presentation is here (from 24:07), please watch it. It was so clear what Jo’s death meant to Emily, to her community, to this part of Yorkshire, to the country.

What got in my way?

Very little. There’s never enough time to meet everyone you want to, sessions clash that you really want to contribute to, there still hasn’t been a breakout session at the Magic Rock tap. But with so much to pack in to 2 days there’s no way you’re getting it all.

What did I let go of today?

There were points in the event when I stopped looking at issues as a council wonk (it’s a hard cloak to shrug off), and threw myself into problem solving from other people’s perspective. The workshop run by Louisa and Hannah had us in full workshop mode, and the design experiments day gave us the space and scope to challenge our thinking about how people want to engage with their local council.

Democracy hackers hard at work (image: Anthony McKeown)

What happened today that gave me a glimpse of the future?

I’m still not very engaged in the public sector innovation movement that has been richly thriving for years, so coming along to events like this is really refreshing. It feels like the culture of openness and social impact is becoming a force that can’t be turned back, though there’s sadly still very few people from frontline services involved. We talk about bins all day**, so it would be great to have colleagues responsible for recycling policy joining in.

What frustrated me?

The enthusiasm and desire in the room to make tangible changes, against a seemingly unwinnable task to completely reshape councils’ relationship with their citizens at a time when all we’re doing is responding to funding cuts. This sounds more negative than it’s meant to be, I just want to want to see better public services at the pace that these events suggest should be possible.

What did I do today that I do every day?

Talked too much. Always.

What will I do tomorrow?

This has taken too long to write, so “what will I do tomorrow?” has become “what will I do today?”. I’m already using the framework we produced for design experiments in a couple of new bits of work, and we’ve just been accepted onto the Design Council and LGA’s accelerator programme for this project. The spirit of Notwestminster is changing the way I do my job.

Shout outs: The team at Kirklees, who do such a great job of hosting this event. Diane makes this happen, not least by chronicling the event through the LDBytes live tweeting, which took the social media experience of the event to the next level. Carl, David and Spencer are brilliant hosts and are doing great work to champion Kirklees’ ethos of treating people as citizens not customers. Beyond this ‘weird’ local authority, Dave is a driving force and far too modest. He’s kept me excited about civic transformation when it was no longer part of my day job. I have no idea how Anthony manages to take so many great photos of every session. And thanks to everyone who comes along and makes Notwestminster what it is, embodying the hacker ethic of doing over saying.

Other people have written more intelligently and succinctly than me- here’s Diane, Dave, Matt, Joe and John.

*This isn’t really as much of a coincidence as I make it sound. Kirklees council are doing amazing things to reframe the civic dialogue in their area, working with residents, not at them. The democracy commission is a great example of their bold approach.

**We did talk about other things, but there’s also going to be a lot of bin chat.