The purpose of the session was to see if we could redesign the council meeting so that people would find the format more engaging so that they might actually want to get involved.
The first step was to choose a current, popular media format that could inspire our thinking — Crystal Maze came top of the online poll I set up before the event but, as not everyone knew what that was, we went with BBC Question Time.
The method I used was based on the miracle question (see my previous workshop using this here). At the start I asked:
Imagine that overnight miracle happens and council meeting become like BBC Question Time — what would you notice that was different?
From that question the group developed a story of what their day would be like and we worked back from that to see what practical steps we might take to move towards that preferred future.
Here’s the story they told.
The Day After The Miracle
Over breakfast we’re listening to Radio 4 who are discussing tonight’s meeting and the topics that will be discussed. The BBC are pretty heavily involved in the whole event so it’s natural that they would be discussing it. In fact there are lots of journalists who come along — it’s a brilliant source of stories.
Over breakfast we are talking about who’s going to the meeting. The kids are involved in the discussion; they talked with their friends at school, on facebook, and, as the meeting will be discussing the new skate park, they are pretty hyped up about it. They debated it at yesterday’s citizenship class and made a video that will be presented as part of the meeting.
The skatepark issues, along with all the other topics, only got announced yesterday and most people, including the councillors, only find out the morning of the meeting. The topics are decided by an independent local body, run by the BBC, that agrees the questions with the local citizens who will be asking the questions (they apply and get selected by lottery). The questions that are agreed form the agenda for the meeting — all of the boring council stuff is dealt with in other ways.
Anyhow, at the school gates the conversion is really firing up. George, who is going to be asking the question about the skate park tonight, is one of the parents and is the centre of attention. It’s no surprise as the kids have been lobbying hard.
At work people are picking up the topics when they log into their computers — discussions follow. Some are talking about the topics — others are moaning about the format.
That evening we are all discussing it again over tea. Who’s going? Who’s on the panel? What’s likely to be asked? So then we set off — don’t want to be late!
The venue is the big, modern local theatre. You are welcomed as you arrive by assistants with clip boards, offered a coffee and shown to your seat. You have great view — everyone does.
Once everyone is sat down the ‘warm up’ act explains the process and gets everyone in the right mood.
Then the panel come in. Like the start of a darts or wrestling match with dry ice and ‘Eye of the Tiger’. There are eight altogether; four councillors from the ruling group, two from the opposition and two celebrities; Sandy Toksvig and Jeremy Clarkson (to boos). Now Graham Norton (our host) arrives on the stage and the meeting begins.
After each question from the audience the panelists all get the chance to make their points as do other members of the public. People are watching at home of course and, at various points, twitter explodes with anger.
At the end of each topic the issue is decided by electronic voting in the hall and this is binding on the council.
At the end everyone agrees that it has been another great meeting and are already talking about the next one.
Ok, so you may or may not think that this scenario is very likely but it did help us to come up with ideas that might make council meetings more exciting for the public.
In summary, council meetings would be so much more likley to involve the public if they were topical, welcoming, contested and unpredictable.
Taking topical first, the point here is that if you want people talking about the meeting then the meeting had better be about something people are talking about. Practical suggestions include:
- Involve the local media (including hyperlocals) in designing the meeting and planning agendas — this will also encourage publicity
- Have some of the agenda set around public questions rather than council business
- Get schools talking about the issues being discussed in meetings — not just ‘how local democracy works’
Welcoming is the first star on Nick Booth’s Five Stars of Open Local Democracy. Suggestions here include:
- Have a venue that is set up for the public (not councillors) with a theatre style experience
- Welcome people when they arrive — offer refreshments
- No “boring council business”
- A small number of councillors on a stage
- Involve other local ‘celebrities’ that people might want to hear from
- Have an independent host / compare
Contested means having genuine debates and people getting involved because they passionately agree with some points being made and passionately disagree with others. Outrage on twitter tells you it’s working! You could try:
- Picking issues that genuinely divide people
- Allowing additional comments from the public
- Have a selected audience that represents all shades of opinion
Finally, council meetings would be much more exciting if the outcomes were unpredictble. Political balance and party politics means that the majority of votes are a foregone conclusion — decisions are taken not made. Instead you could try:
- Audience electronic voting to give snap verdicts
- Online polls to indicate public opinion on an issue
Even if these were advisory (we thought they should be binding by he way) they provide a sense of drama that would not otherwise have been there.
In thinking about these ideas there are some words of caution.
In making council meetings more entertaining we need to remember that we don’t lose their primary purposes. Of course not everyone likes Question Time or talking about politics and angry exchanges might put many people off. Involving the media might mean seeking controversy for its own sake.
Our Idea to Develop
The notwestminster format asked each workshop to come up with one idea to work on. Ours was:
Develop an independent mechanism that councils could use to identify topical agenda items for meetings using public input
Guess we had better get on with it then.