Stepping in and stepping out: How to involve councillors in digital design projects

Local councils are engaging more and more with digital design projects (sometimes called ‘agile transformation projects’ or similar). Recent conversations at Localgovcamp, with Jonathan Flowers and with FutureGov convince me that we need to think more about how local democratic structures can be adapted to work with these projects. Below is a suggested framework, but first something about why this matters.

An Awkward Relationship

The new agile approaches being employed by many councils are experimental and iterative and they are a big change from the old ways of doing things; a change from top down, waterfall project management.

What doesn’t seem to change so much, however, are the democratic structures that sit above these projects. Cabinet, scrutiny and committee arrangements were designed with a different type of organisation in mind and they just don’t work as well for digital design projects.

For designers, the corridors of local power can seem like a mysterious and distant world where decisions can be difficult to understand. For councillors, on the other hand, the culture and jargon of the design process can seem just as alien and incomprehensible. As Jonathan Flowers suggests in this post, the tempo of council meetings, and the expectation that something final to sign off will be presented, just doesn’t fit with the iterative world of agile.

It’s not just the failure to communicate and collaborate that worries me. As projects get bigger so the stakes get higher and so so does the risk that a failure of politics will have bigger consequences.

The good news is that councillors are people who want to make a difference and do some good in the world. They are also very hands on. At the same time, digital designers are creative and always looking for better ways to do things.

Three Principles

For councillor involvement in design projects to work I think the following have to be true:

  • Political groups will be open to the flexible involvement of councillors who will be working in different ways— simply turning up for committee meetings will not be enough, different styles of meeting will be needed
  • Different councillors will have different roles and that’s fine — some will be ‘signing off’, some participating and some challenging.
  • Officers will also be open to councillor involvement in projects — to know the projects, councillors have to learn with them and need more than second hand briefings

A Framework

Thinking about councillor involvement starts with the double diamond for design (see this from the Design Council). The four stages of the process each suggest a different mode of working and therefore a different way that councillors might be engaged. The diamond also suggests five reporting points where the more formal engagement might take place.

Wikimedia Commons

In this framework I’ve also drawn on some of the roles suggested in the 21st Councillor report which is well worth a read. It doesn’t deal with design specifically but it does suggest what the new roles of councillors might be.

I know that some will worry that councillors involved in something cannot also scrutinise that process. I disagree. The only formal limit is that councillors cannot scrutinise the decisons that they have been involved in making. Other than that, any councillors should be able to participate regardless of what their formal role might be in the process.

As my localgovcamp conversation with Councillor Peter Fleming suggested, involvement in the process helps councillors to be knowledgeable about both the problems and the solutions, when they are being asked to make decisons at the end.

This all means that councillors should expect to be stepping in and stepping out of the process.

Not all councillors will want to be involved at all stages. Some might want to be involved in only part. But those councillors who are not formally on cabinet or committees, but have been involved as a participant, can still come along to formal meetings and give their advice.

So, instead of the double diamond, councillor involvement might look more like hopscotch. Like this in fact:

The hopscotch of councillor involvement in design

Stepping In

The roles are as follows (those with an * come from the 21st Century Councillor report):

  • User Researcher — councillors have great community connections and community knowledge and should be an asset to any user research team.
  • Advocate* — when the problem is being defined, councillors can bring the voice of the community into the discussion.
  • Entrepreneur* — councillors in this role can help to problem solve, forge new partnerships and help the ommunity get involved in developing and prototyping possible solutions
  • Orchestrator*- when the preferred concept is being refined, councillors can help to convene groups for testing and build relationships to support the deveklopment of that solution in the final stages

Stepping Out

Reports are required at each to stage to capture what has been done and to seek permission to proceed. It might be that only the initiation and sign off reports need to go to cabinet/committee and could therefore be subject to further ‘call-in’ scrutiny at that stage. Hopefully the process will have been robust enough to mean consensus over what was being agreed.

One way to manage this is to take reports to scrutiny first and then to the executive once scrutiny have had a chance to add their comments. Review of the project could take place 6 months / a year following sign off.

Putting it into Practice

Of course this is very much a prototype of what the process might look like and, given that every council is different, much experimentation will be needed.

Also, as Jonathan Flowers suggests, the four stages of the double diamond can be messier than the diagram suggests and that we might need to think of ‘tap dancing hopscotch’ when discussing councillor involvement.

So, we may need to try this out in a few places, but hey, that’s what design is all about, right?

Thank you Jonathan Flowers for the comments on my first draft.

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