Neighbourhood forums are one of the methods for local participative democracy promoted by UK central and local government - but what do they mean in practice? We found out by inviting people to invent a place, create a forum, and tell its lifestory - all within an hour.
As Kevin Harris has mentioned on his Neighbourhoods blog, we both ran a little storytelling game this week on the theme of how to set up a local forum. It went really well, proving to me anyway that an hour's conversation among a few interested people can provide as many insights as a manual that probably won't be read much anyway.
The occasion was a Quest Trust networking event, and the reason for the particular game was that UK central and local government is pushing hard their local:vision policies for more effective citizen engagement in neighbourhoods.
One mechanism for this will be establishing neighbourhood forums to discuss local issues and action.
There'll be a national framework, and neighbourhoods charter, and locally citizens could have a chance to deal with issues like anti-social behaviour, delegating budgets to ward councillors, model byelaws, and neighbourhood contracts with service providers.
The think tank Demos has produced a learned pamphlet on Everyday democracy, and a Conservative group is promoting Direct Democracy with an agenda including local decision-making. Participative democracy is very fashionable, probably because of rising concern among politicians that people are losing interest in the non-participative kind.
Our challenge at the Quest event: how do you help people plan some practical action, and bring the policy ideals down to earth? We used a technique developed by my colleague Drew Mackie, and quite simply asked people to tell the story of a forum.
First of all, as a group of ten people, we invented a local ward - with roads and rail, schools, church and mosque, homes good and bad, greenspace and grot.... inevitablely call The Sink.
We then split into two groups each with a poster-sized sheet of paper divided horizontally into sections: starting, setting up, developing, running.... and just talked about it. Although people hadn't worked together before, the groups rapidly pooled their experience to come up with a narrative taking the forum from initial inspiration through to the very real challenges of accommodating different views and interests while dealing with the complexities of local government and public agencies.
Kevin and I spiced things up a bit by throwing in some crisis cards: bad media coverage, demands for a representative constitution, forum chair runs off with a grant....it was a lot of fun.
As Kevin reports, one of the issues to surface was that it is unrealistic to think that just living in the same place is enough to bind people together into a forum. People respond to the issues that affect their lives, or form linkages with people who have similar interests.
As one person remarked, you may be able to pack a meeting with people when the residents' parking plans change, but find only a few next time for business as usual.
We had some good ideas about how to deal with this by forming smaller interest groups that could report back to the forum, and a lively discussion about dealing with the 'loud mouths' who can take over events and turn other people off. On the other hand, without the enthusiasts you can soon run out of steam....
Kevin and I will be developing the game further with Drew, so do get in touch if you would like to know more or try the game for yourself.
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