Raising the bar on local democracy


Having received over 500 positive and constructive responses to a public consultation on Cirencester Town Council’s budget proposal and always seeking to raise the bar even higher, I was interested to learn about innovative democracy at a conference in Manchester, part of International Week for Democratic Innovation.

It was good to see that Frome Town Council – a former winner of Council of the Year in NALC’s Star Council Awards – had shared on Day 1 about their democratic revolution which underpins an ethos of developing participative ways of engagement and decision making; I attended on Day 2.

For those who know me, I am usually of a positive disposition, change brings opportunity and new ideas enthuse me but on this occasion I became a little disheartened that as a sector we weren’t really mentioned or at the heart of this conference; some people I spoke to weren’t aware of the significance of NALC or of the role of parish and town councils in influencing, participating and directly delivering to meet the needs of local communities. Raising the profile of our sector must remain a task we all have a part to play in.

When the Government first announced the Innovation in Democracy Programme, I was excited because I saw this as a great opportunity. In Cirencester, we have been discussing how we can engage more regularly and effectively with the public to help us shape policy and decision making through a continuum of engagement.

For whatever reason we don’t always get engagement right, sometimes we are not effective in reaching out and giving the public an opportunity to shape policy and have a voice in decision making, so what I did find refreshing, was an openness around what works well and that which doesn’t.

Whilst the parish and town sector didn’t take centre stage, I was particularly inspired and influenced by the key note speakers and those I met in workshops.

Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Borough Council made me think about co-opting residents on to groups and committees in a non-voting capacity “citizen participation is a journey, a learning process”.

I was also particularly struck by the Our Place project in Waltham Forest and the level of engagement with young people; this made me think of sharing about the work of NALC and parish and town councils in citizenship classes within  secondary schools and colleges.

Speakers spoke of a deliberative wave and being ambitious about citizen participation; a random thought got me thinking about what on earth to do with the Annual Meeting of the Parish! Let’s not ditch it, let’s use it. Re-brand it as a Citizens Assembly and an opportunity to start a meaningful conversation. Let’s innovate. Building on NALC’s ultra-localism prospectus, working together at a local level to help communities help themselves. Engagement which shapes policy and decision making.

This was one conference I came away from, knowing I had to do something proactive at a local level; to play my part in raising the bar and delivering meaningful democracy.

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Innovating Local Democracy Conference