Viewpoint: How Public Square is helping to imagine a different future for local democracies

Andrew Brightwell discusses Public Square’s work with councils to revitalise citizen engagement with local democracy.

Sitting at a table in a stuffy room in Manchester in June, I was reminded why working with local government is so exciting and interesting, and so important.

Andrew Peacock, Calderdale Council’s marketing and design team manager, was taking us through an exercise to imagine how the project we’re working on might change the future for Calderdale.

Andrew was getting us to play a game he called Merlin. The idea – if you’ve not played it before – is that Merlin could not just see into the future but ‘remember’ events leading from the present day to a moment years from now. We all had fun asking made-up questions, like: ‘Do you remember when people in the council used to write agenda items for meetings?’ Until someone asked: ‘But what if there isn’t a council anymore?’

It was a showstopper. We all know the vital importance of councils and the services they deliver to millions of people. The idea they might disappear isn’t just hard to imagine, it’s downright terrifying.

Same question, many answers

As local authorities’ finite resources are focused more narrowly and they face a horizon stacked with challenges, is the idea so far fetched? The pressure on our local democracies has ratcheted up, but that pressure hasn’t yet led to renewed engagement and participation in local decision-making. In fact, giving a greater role to citizens is now a preoccupation for a growing number of different professions in different fields. We are all asking the same fundamental question, but there’s more than one answer, and those answers are coming from a wide variety of places and approaches.

It’s this problem that Public Square addresses. Our team – The Democratic Society and mySociety, funded by Luminate – are working on real democratic challenges in a small number of councils in different contexts. By testing different approaches and ways of working, we will try to develop a more coherent set of practical approaches for local democratic reinvigoration. Our hope is that once we’ve worked with this small group we can bring our learning and approaches to a much wider group next year.

A practical approach to local democracy

To give you a flavour of the work, last week in Calderdale we were involved in a second co-design workshop; working on a set of prototypes for holding public conversations about the borough. Part of a wider programme to do the groundwork for a new relationship between council and citizens, the workshop saw residents, officers and elected members working together on a plan to get these prototypes out and about and into action.

In Frome, we’re working with a Town Council that’s already done much to reinvigorate citizen participation; the home of the Flat Pack Democracy movement, the market town in Somerset is controlled by a group of independent councillors. There, we’re helping the council to develop its use of participatory budgeting, using digital tools and other approaches. Our work elsewhere, including in Glasgow, will also use the same pattern – discovering and understanding a particular challenge before designing prototypes and testing these approaches to learn from them.

Public Square is, of course, only part of a greater movement. The councils we are working with, in common with many others, are working hard to explore new relationships with citizens in many different ways. But we hope our work will contribute to a vital new future for councils and citizens at the heart of thriving local democracies.

How we’re sharing our learning

As our work develops, we’ll be sharing everything we learn on the Public Square website. As we’re an action-research programme that will mean being transparent about the difficulties as well as the successes. It will also, we hope, lead to a set of resources sharing the techniques and practices we learn about – and reaching out to other programmes and approaches that are asking similar questions.

If you’d like to learn more, you can follow our blog posts – and if you’re involved in similar work, we’d love to hear from you. You can email us at team@thepublicsquare.org.uk

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