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Wednesday, 7 October 2015

86. Rock and roll local democracy

Imagine that overnight a miracle happens.

Local democracy becomes like rock and roll; stripped back; simple; easy to understand; emotional; exciting; and fun.

How would you know? What would you notice in your daily life? In the morning? At work? In the evening?

These are the questions I shared with two sessions at GovCampCymru. Below is my summary of the wonderful answers I got from the GovCampers.

The questions were inspired by the miracle question; a technique used in solution focussed brief therapy. The purpose of the miracle question is to help people to understand their preferred future so that they can begin to start thinking about the small steps that might move them in that direction. After all, if you don’t know where you are going you will end up some place else.

I used this technique, albeit in a very crude way, to get some ideas from the GovCampers, thinking as citizens, about what rock and roll local democracy might look like.

The ‘local democracy should be like rock and roll’ idea comes from Lawrence Pratchett who argued that local democracy is too much like jazz — an obscure hobby for the dedicated few. It come’s from Pratchett’s chapter in the rather excellent book: British Local Government into the 21st Century. Definitely worth a read.

Someone suggested, brilliantly I thought, that local democracy is more like baroque than jazz — not only obscure but never changing and from another time. I really like this metaphor although I'm hoping it doesn't upset any baroque aficionados out there.

The two sessions were also an experiment in user research for democracy design. As I've argued before, democracy and citizens have been a Cinderella in the government design world. This was certainly not the case at GovCampCymru — maybe I was looking through democracy tinted glasses but I would say that it was the main theme of the day.

Anyhow, here is my write up of the two sessions followed by some suggestions for some small steps that might be taken towards making the miracle happen. A big thanks to everyone who took part — with any luck I have done your wonderful ideas justice. I had fun and I hope you did as well. Biggest thanks go to the two Sarahs — @SarahPrag and @WorkTheWind — who took the notes in the two sessions. Kudos guys.

The morning after the miracle

So, you wake up and local democracy is like rock and roll.

You put on your favourite democracy t-shirt. It’s got the logo of your favourite local democracy collective on the front and a list of all ten of the 2015 meetings on the back.

Check your phone and fire up twitter. Several of your friends are buzzing about a couple of meetings taking place later. One is about the homelessness policy for the area. The other is about a budget decision; the local council has money for a cycle path or a library. But not for both.

Facebook next and your friends have already set up a group to campaign for the cycle path. You are not so sure but you mull it over while you shower.

Now you head for the kitchen to get the breakfast ready.

Flick on the radio just in time to catch the ‘citizens update’ just after the weather. Yes, there are two meetings later and they both sound like they are going to be popular. You've done campaigning on the homelessness issue before but they mention on the radio that Councillor Jeremy — a major local celebrity — will be going to the cycle path meeting. You know you can’t go to both. Tough call.

The kids come down and they excited about the cycle path meeting. They heard about it at school the day before in the daily ‘junior citizens’ session. It used to be just one lesson a year on ‘how the council works’ but now it is every week, and they get to talk about the issues being discussed by the council. They like it much better. After a while the argument gets a bit overheated — as ever the oldest and youngest can never agree -one wants the cycle path, the other says the library is more important.

Outside the school you talk to some of the other parents about the meetings. Two of them run the facebook group for your street and they are pretty up on the issues through the debates that have
already taken place online.

The work day

You've got the kids to school and finally arrive at your desk. The roadside posters and billboards advertising today’s meetings had kept them in the front of your mind while you were driving.
Straight away you see emails about the two meetings from co-workers and a feature on the staff intranet about the same thing. All the usual comments and questions have been added to the intranet story. It’s just what people do while they are having their first cup of coffee and getting their minds in gear.

Next you watch the 2 minute videos on youtube promoting the two meetings— over 10,000 views for each — wow — these are hot topics!

People are talking about the issues by their desks. Your manager comes over and asks you if you are going along later. Tickets are going fast on Eventbrite for both so you might need to get your skates on she says. Meetings like this are usually popular with people queuing round the block to get in.
OK, this is the nudge you need so you get some of the last tickets for the cycle path meeting and dive into your work tasks.

As with most offices, the work day finishes at 3.00 to give people proper time to get involved in democracy meetings. Of course more people had to be employed to get the work done in shorter hours so it worked out pretty well when that change came in.

Of course democracy is not everyone’s cup of tea — it’s a bit too energetic and edgy for some — but it’s easy to tune it all out if you want to. It’s your choice.

The evening

You and the kids get to the cycle path meeting in plenty of time.

They don’t hold these meetings in the townhall any more. It’s in a community centre that has a cafĂ© bar — you get a yourself a well earned beer and lemonades for the kids.

The whole thing has been organised by the local collective and crowdfunded online. You didn't get involved in arranging this one but you have volunteered for many others. It’s been much better since all these smaller local groups and parties have started to happen. Things feel so much more relevant than when everything was organised through the old style national parties. All grassroots and DIY. Maybe more punk than rock and roll.

The main hall is packed and you find your seats and realise that, wow, you are sat next to Councillor Jeremy. Yes he has had his fair share of scandals (just check out the local papers over the last twelve months!) but you like the way he makes his points and he is your generation and you do feel you have a lot in common. A leather jacket and bright red mohawk hairstyle isn't everyone’s cup of tea but there you go.

Of course these days you can speak to any councillor, not just the one who was elected for your area. A whole range of people are councillors. Men and women of different ages, backgrounds and culture — you just pick the one you identify with most and talk to them. You picked Councillor Jeremy.

Before the meeting starts Councillor Jeremy listens carefully to you and the kids and makes notes on his tablet. He knows that he will be explaining the decision to everyone later so he is taking his time to make sure he understands what everyone thinks. It’s not long though before he’s talking to the others who have spotted him as well as signing autographs. Everyone recognises him of course and everyone feels like they know him.

Soon the debate is underway and people are making their points. There’s also plenty of questions and comments coming in via social media from those outside the hall. People are excited, the room is noisy but it’s all good natured as ever — it’s great to feel part of something. You feel proud to be involved.

Yes, local democracy is like rock and roll and you know what the best part is?

We are the band!

10 Small Steps

The purpose of the miracle question is not just to help people articulate their preferred future but to help identify small steps towards making it happen.

In the same vein, this story that came out of the two sessions, and the wonderful imagination of the GovCampers, suggests a few small steps towards rock and roll local democracy. I've listed them below (they also link pretty well to the #Notwestminster Local Democracy Design Challenges).

  1. Merchandise — t-shirts and mugs for your local democratic process. Why not? If you are proud of it let people know
  2. Advertise the issues to be discussed that day using radio, TV and social media
  3. Make and share short videos to get people interested in the issues (also check out this)
  4. Junior citizens sessions in schools that discuss live council issues
  5. Feed council topics through established local facebook groups
  6. Advertise democracy events on posters and billboards
  7. Use internal comms in councils and other organisations to encourage staff to take part in the local democratic process
  8. Hold meetings to discuss single topics of public interest held in friendly venues and ticketed through eventbrite (definitely not like council meetings). Or, even better…
  9. Support and encourage local groups to hold meetings on issues that the council is deciding on — help people to crowdsource and crowdfund these events
  10. Encourage people to get in touch with the councillors they identify with most when they have any issues — not just their local representative

Thank you GovCampCymru — hope to see you next year.

Originally posted on Medium

Photo Credit: W N Bishop 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

85. Driver diagrams

Driver diagrams are logic charts with three or four levels.  They are a neat way to capture the links between strategy and action.  They provide a one-side-of-A4 description of what you are trying to do and how you are planning to do it.  They also show how different services contribute to broad outcomes and how all these contributions link together.  Driver diagrams are now at the heart of our One Swansea Plan (the overarching strategy for the area).  We rather like them so I thought I would share.

We got the idea of using driver diagrams from health, specifically our local public health team who use them in the Public Health Strategic Framework.  The idea of including them in the One Swansea Plan then came ‘bottom up’ from various partnership and policy coordinators who saw the approach and really wanted to use it.

In our plan we have six population outcomes – conditions that we want to achieve – for example Children have a good start in life or People learn successfully.

For each of the population outcomes we have produced a driver diagram that includes:

  • The Population Outcome 
  • Primary drivers that describe what needs to be in place for the outcome to happen
  • Secondary drivers that describe the most important things that we need to do to achieve the primary drivers 
  • Key Indicators to help track progress

For example, for the Population Outcome ‘Children have a good start in life’, a primary driver is ‘Babies are born healthy’ and a secondary driver that contributes to this is ‘Improve the health and safety of pregnant women’.

This example could also be written like this:
Children have a good start in life when babies are born healthy so we need to improve the health and safety of pregnant women.
While not included in our current plan, each diagram can also include tertiary drivers; a fourth column that covers the services, projects and other activities that contribute to the secondary drivers.  We will be adding these as we develop the driver diagrams further.

Each diagram has been developed through our Multi Agency Research Group by subject experts and through wider consultation.  In June 2015 we held a workshop to refine the diagrams.  We know that the diagrams will not be perfect and we intend to update and improve them every year as part of updating the plan.  

Our strategic partnership (Swansea Local Service Board) will use the driver diagrams to set their priorities for each year.  If you are working in Wales then you might like to know that this approach is entirely compatible with the Well-being of Future Generations Act and that the secondary drivers can be used as well-being objectives.

Looking forward we will continue to develop the approach. The one area that we definitely need to explore is how the driver diagrams can be used to get the public more involved with the strategy.

Monday, 14 September 2015

84. The Local Democracy Publication Stream

Inspired by the recent Local Democracy Maker Day and LocalGovCamp, the suggestion here is that all council ‘democracy’ publications should be provided in a single stream (rather than by individual committee) on the Council website.  Each publication would be tagged and described by a short summary (snippet).  These snippets would provide a source of open data that could be used to build third party websites and apps to connect citizens with the local decision making process.

As Carl Whistlecraft says the Local Democracy Maker Day was something that seemed unlikely even 12 months ago.  Even though I wasn't there it got me thinking - the long distance power of the GovCamp!

It was particularly good to see the interest in one of our Local Democracy Design Challenges; making local democracy more digestible.  In particular people are asking to see local democracy publications being made more accessible via short summaries – or ‘snippets’.   These are issues we started discussing at the notwestminster event last year.

Following that Notwestminster event we have been using short summaries for all of our scrutiny reports, letters and agenda packs here at Swansea Council. These are all published via our scrutiny publications page.  We put the summaries at the top of all of our documents and in the web page that we publish them in.  Each webpage is also tagged so that the single stream list of all of our scrutiny publications can be filtered by the user.

Here are some examples of short summaries from Swansea’s Scrutiny work:
This is an agenda pack for a meeting for the Schools Performance Scrutiny Panel taking place on the 21 September 2015. The main item being discussed relates to the School Improvement Service. 
This is a letter from the Child and Family Services Scrutiny Performance Panel to The Cabinet Member for Services for Children and Young People following the meeting of the Panel on the 10 August 2015. It is about the Child and Family Services performance report. 
This is the report by the Social Care at Home Scrutiny Inquiry panel about support for older people to remain in their own homes. It contains conclusions and recommendations.
I've written about the scrutiny publications page and how it was developed here.

What if all council publications linked to the democratic process were published like this, in a single stream with all the documents tagged and each with a short summary?

Not only would it be easier for people to find things but it would provide a stream of open data that could be used for third party sites and apps.

I like the idea of a democracy dashboard, suggested at the LD Maker Day, to help people navigate the democracy data.

I'm also imagining an Amazon style ‘democracy recommendations for you’ app…

Or a facebook style democracy timeline made of things recommended by friends and councillors..

Or a ‘Medium style’ ‘top democracy stories’ reflecting my chosen tags.

It’s not quite the democracy bytes idea that we've outlined before (I still think that’s the ideal).  But it would be a great step in that direction.

Anyone want to build it?


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

83. Honeybee democracy and beecision making

Honeybee Democracy is the title of a book by Thomas Seeley.  It's about how bees make decisions and, as Seeley points out, there might be something here for people to learn from.  In this post I want to highlight those insights and suggest how bee decision making might be adapted to the practice of local democracy.

The new idea here is beecision making - a method that a group of independent minded people can use to explore a range of solutions to a given problem.  This idea combines insights from honeybee democracy and from the unconference movement.  As with a bee colony there is no powerful leader and no political parties.  As with an unconference there is no formal structure or process and people are free to vote with their feet and follow their own judgements.

How Bees Decide Stuff 

Contrary to what you might think, the queen doesn't run the colony - she just lays the eggs.  Instead decision making is governed by something called swarm intelligence - wikipedia define this as 'the collective behaviour of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial'.

We know how bees decide on a new home thanks to Thomas Seeley's work.  The process goes like this:

The swarm perches on a nearby tree, then sends out a few dozen scout bees to scour the neighbourhood. Their job is to find, measure and evaluate every hollow tree or other enclosed space. When the scouts return to the several-thousand-strong swarm, they dance atop the other bees, telling them what they have found.

A potential nest must be large enough to hold ample honey to feed the colony through the winter, high enough to offer protection from predators, and have a small entrance for the same reason. The vigour and duration of each scout's dance reflect her enthusiasm for the site she has found.

The decision-making both effective and efficient, involving a "debate" over the several sites the scouts discover. When a scout returns and dances vigorously, other scouts fly off to check on her choice. Over the course of hours or days, they reach a consensus, and advocates of rejected sites simply stop plumping for them.

This selfless process works because all the bees in the swarm are the queen's daughters, and they share the common goal of colony survival. Though an individual bee is not particularly intelligent, the collective "swarm intelligence" produces impressive results. 

As Mary Myerscough points out: "Individual bees don’t compare multiple sites, but visit only one and instinctively know the difference between a so-so spot and “a bee five-star mansion,”.  There is no benchmarking or options appraisal - just the wisdom of crowds.

This LGIU post:  'What can councils learn from bees?' reflects similar work by Peter Miller:  
Miller suggests that three main lessons can be learned from the bees: seek a diversity of knowledge; encourage friendly competition of ideas and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices. 
These insights from swarm intelligence, mixed with some ideas from the unconference movement can, I think, provide a neat method of decision making.

A Beecision Making Conference 

The unconference movement is associated with events that are participant driven and reject the need for top down organisation and pre agreed agendas.  There is a clearly a lot in common here with the bees.

Starting with the idea of an unconference, honeybee democracy might be applied in practice like this:

  • A problem is framed and participants are invited to attend - 50 or more would seem about right 
  • Up to 10 participants are signed up as scouts - their job is to go away and research solutions and to select the one they like best 
  • At the conference each scout pitches their solution to the whole group then withdraws to a separate room / table 
  • A second group goes to talk to the scouts (as many as they like) and they come back and pitch to the room the solution they like best - they then return to be with the scout of their preferred choice 
  • The rest of the group is then free to roam around the conference and engage with the different solutions - once they are happy they  have found one they like they stay there (unless persuaded to leave) 
  • After a set time the conference ends and the solution that has attracted the biggest crowd is selected. 

I'm sure this can be improved - maybe it's been done already.  Let me know!


I'm struck by how much this chimes with Rousseau's ideas about democracy.  The process relies on independent individuals concerned with the common good; parties and factions would prevent this process from working.


See also the 'people swarm' idea, put forward by Finlayson and Martin that I've written about before.