How digital can support local democracy – reflections on #notwestminster 2016

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to get along to Huddersfield for #notwestminster, the second annual get together for everyone with an interest in improving local democracy.

#notwestminster local democracy workshop on supporting local councillors. Photo by Anthony Mckeown CC BY-NC-SA 2.0#notwestminster local democracy workshop on supporting local councillors. Photo by Anthony Mckeown CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Through a combination of lightning talks and structured workshop sessions, we explored solutions to a wide range of problems facing local democracy – everything from how we provide citizens with the basic information they need to take part in democratic life, to how we recruit the next generation of councillors  and equip them with the skills and behaviours needed to support civic participation.

What I really liked about notwestminster was its strong practical focus, which we encourgage participants on the Digital Action Plan to develop. Having ideas is the easy part, delivery is the hard part. Notwestminster seeks to overcome this problem by having participants pitch for support to take forward and implement suggested improvements.

In defence of councillors

Looking back at the day, two things stood out for me the most. The first was Professor Colin Copus (@ProfCopusLG)’ talk, ‘in defence of councillors’. As a former local government officer and campaigner in my spare time, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of local councillors but I have also seen how councillors, at their best, are uniquely placed as democratically elected representatives to protect and champion their communities.

Growing the civic conversation

The second thing which stood out was Nick Booth’s appeal to public servants (both councillors and staff) to ‘grow the civic conversation’. What this means we should alway be thinking of ways of helping more people who are civic minded to get involved in their communities and create some civic good. You can read some of Nick’s ideas for doing this in this blog post.

Developing digital capabilities

Common to all discussions was the important role digital has to play in the future of local democracy. While it was brilliant talking to councillors such as David Harrington (@cllrharrington) who understand the value of social media to growing the civic conversation but it was clear many councillors could benefit from the kind of digital confidence and skills training we offer through our Digital Action Plan.

For citizens to be able to participate in local democracy, as a minimum they need to access to clear, impartial and (crucially) engaging information on how and why they should get involved in their local communities. If we are truly going to reinvigorate local democracy and widen participation, we need public servants who are confident to engage online, creating opportunities for democratic participation that work with the grain of modern life.

Putting ideas into practice

I have signed up to provide support around digital skills to the local democracy improvement projects. I will keep you posted on what happens next.

You can watch all the talks from #notwestminster over at rewiringdemocracy.

You can catch up with discussions from the event on Twitter at #notwestminster.