The Good Gardeners of Democracy

Yesterday I had my first sight of the report of the Kirklees Democracy Commission. If you are not familiar this is a 10 month inquiry, conducted by a UK local council into how democracy could be made better.

You can find it here:

This is a piece of work I absolutely love — even before I read the report.

Yes, it’s a very local piece of work but it should be of interest to anyone involved in democracy — particularly local democracy. There are a few ideas you might want to kick around and plenty of inspiration about what’s possible. After all, this is something that Kirklees Council just went and did — and massive credit to them for doing it.

The Process

Before I say something about the report itself, here are some of the things I love about the process:

  1. The set up — its a small, cross party group of local government councillors working with an independent academic chair. I think this can work well for other pieces of work that councils do— scrutiny inquiries for example (and some have indeed used this approach).
  2. The community engagement — it is very bottom up, lots of people engaged in many different ways (1,000 in fact)- but how could could you have an inquiry into local democracy without very strong community engagement?
  3. The evidence collected — the commission did a remarkable job of gathering evidence from lots of very, very interesting people including academics, policy makers and practitioners. Even better, all this evidence is available on their site as videos — a resource well worth checking out in its own right (one nice touch, by the way, is the links in the report to the videos — a nice method of referencing)
  4. The deliberation — unusually (I think) for these types of inquiry, there was a substantial deliberation phase, with the commissioners working through the evidence in 11 themed sessions. There can be a tendency in these types of process for officers to simply present key findings for councillors to ‘sign off’. I suspect extended deliberation can be really helpful in building ownership and understanding as well as ensuring that the report is properly thought through.
  5. The preview meetings — this was a nice innovation within the process that might well have a wider application. Community members were invited to hear the emerging conclusions before the report went to Council (!!!) in order to give feedback to those who had contributed, to provide a final check for the report (some further changes were made) and to engage people in the next steps. I suspect this form of reporting back is also helpful to the commissioners — you only really know when you have got things as you want them when you try and explain them to others.
  6. The focus on doing — there is no sense that this is a task and finish exercise, that the report has been handed over and that is that. Indeed, the report talks about the commission as something that will continue; to develop, to adapt; to experiment. As the report says: ‘ It must always be about what happens next’.

The Report

This is a very rich report that covers key aspects of local democracy:

  • Active citizens in a civic society
  • Local democracy in a networked society
  • Councillors
  • Decision-making
  • Elections
  • Regional democracy

I haven’t (yet) had the chance to work through the report in detail (I will) but even at first reading I can see many ideas to consider and much to inspire.

And, of course this is a piece of work about democracy in one place — in one (very likeable) corner of Yorkshire. Context is everything and the individual recommendations from this report should only be applied elsewhere with care.

What it definitely does provide is a very useful focus for discussion and source of challenge — wherever you are.

Grounded Democracy

One thing that I really like about the report is the way everything is tied together by a gardening metaphor — even the sub title ‘from the ground up’ reflects the idea that democracy is not something we do — it’s something we nurture. Similarly, if we want a better democracy we need to think about democracy as an ecosystem made up of many interdependent parts but needing careful stewardship.

As the report says:

We have unearthed a strong enthusiasm for civic society — people want to have a real stake in the places where we live and work. It is fertile ground, but not necessarily stone-free or level. People have shared their frustrations about how difficult it can be to find information, to understand how things work, and to feel that we have a genuine choice.

You might almost think that the report was written in an allotment, or with a cup of tea in a garden shed. Which is great. To me it says ‘democracy is the most natural thing in the world, we just have to help it grow.

This also makes me think about the role of the Council — as head gardener perhaps? Nurturing active citizenship but also working with others; councillors, media, business etc, as this is a job too big for the council alone.

Anyhow, I think it’s an excellent report that comes from an excellent process. Congratulations to all those involved.

Now go and check it out.

And get gardening.