What happens in Huddersfield doesn’t stay in Huddersfield: Ideas for improving engagement in local government from Not Westminster 2017

Yet again ‘Not Westminster’ brought together a fascinating group of people from across the UK who work to put people at the heart of local government, and to improve local democracy, and provided space and opportunity to discuss where we go next.

We were particularly inspired by hearing from Emily Warrilow, a Kirklees youth councillor who spoke about the difference that one person can make in taking the time to kindle a lifetime’s passion for politics. Hearing Emily’s memories of Jo Cox, and her own passion for politics, powerfully reminded us what we’re all in this for.

Demsoc really enjoyed running a workshop which we titled broadly “how can local government can encourage people to engage?”. We’ll be honest – the title itself was controversial inside Demsoc, with some thinking we should shift the onus on to how citizens can be better at engaging. We chose three broad themes – Perceptions of Local Government, Opportunities for Engagement, and Active Citizens – and we want to share some of the great stuff we heard.

We asked those who came to the session to come up with experiments to put these ideas into practice which we’re now thinking about how we can take forward – and we’re keen to hear from those who want to help out.


Perceptions of Local Government

One of the strong themes that emerged was a belief that local government seems intentionally boring, bureaucratic, and prohibitive. And that councils need to tackle this by being genuine about creating spaces where people can engage that are built into the centre of the council rather than having occasional opportunities tucked away in different services. There was also a strong sense that many people don’t really know what local government actually does.

There was also the idea that councils could do more to move from talking about service-users, to talking about active citizens – and along with this the council could help foster a sense of empathy and understanding among citizens in the community. And at a more practical level there was a suggestion that when citizens are encouraged to take part in discussions and engagement exercises, those hosting conversations worry too much about separating local and national issues, rather than letting conversations be more natural.

This group came up with a couple of experiments:

  • Bring together members of the public and ask them what they think of local government, before showing them stories about what it actually does, and seeing if their view changes. It should be stressed that the thinking here wasn’t about blaming the public, but getting the council to address its problems with communication.
  • Creating an augmented reality app (like Pokemon Go) that shows people what local government affects in the environment around them – for instance showing what is spent on things like road maintenance. It’s worth noting that this might exacerbate problems around people only noticing more tangible council services, at the expense of things like social services.
Post-it note pledges of how attendees would act on what they'd heard
Alongside the discussions we asked everyone at the workshop for a personal pledge of how they’d take forwards what was discussed in their own work. This is what attendees shared with us.


Opportunities for Engagement

This group came up with the idea of a ‘Come and chat café’. This would be a regular chance for local people to get together and just talk about politics and local issues in a relaxed atmosphere. This could be run by local councillors, or just by members of the local community. It would be advertised and run in everyday language, and there would be champions promoting the conversation in the community. Getting the right issues to talk about was seen as a key factor for reaching out to people.


Active Citizens

The key issue for this group was using ‘user-centred’ design to think about how to make people more active, particularly for taking the first step. Ideas included:

  • A mailing list to sign up to if you might want to help out in the future.
  • Asking estate agents to give new residents info on how to get involved in their local community.
  • Making council’s statements of how people can get involved more user-friendly, putting info about how to get involved on all council correspondence, and putting info about community activities more centrally on councils’ websites.
  • Encouraging people to join groups like Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) as a step into getting more involved.
  • Recognising that more work is needed to enable hard to reach groups. For instance, good work is being done teaching tenants how to solve problems with their housing.
  • Telling councillors whenever someone joins their ward. And having a network of local community buddies who can help residents find out about their area and how to get more involved.

It’s not just up to the council to take on the work of getting people more involved in their community. For instance, it would be foolish for them to try and manage a definitive directory of local groups. Instead it’s about them making first steps easier, and giving some examples of where to start. In addition the council should also make sure it doesn’t get in the way of community initiatives by being too officious in its work.

This group’s experiment idea was to design what information would be needed for an ideal A4 sheet to be given to new residents via estate agents, telling people how to get involved in their community. This template could then be tailored to specific local areas.


Thanks to all our participants for sharing their thoughts. If you want to get involved in making any of these experiments happen then please do drop Mat an email on Mat@demsoc.org . I can connect you with others to work together with on these projects.