The Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, pledged to create a Democracy and Civic Participation Commission to look at alternatives to the Directly Elected Mayor model which would then be put to voters in Newham to determine in a local referendum.
Six independent commissioners were appointed to assess how the council can better engage, involve and represent all Newham’s residents. This ‘Democracy and Civic Participation Commission’ was given two main tasks:
- To examine both the Council’s current Directly Elected Mayor system of governance, and the alternative types that exist in English local government, and to make recommendations on the best system of governance for Newham’s future; and
- To explore ways in which local residents will have opportunities to be more engaged and involved in local decision-making and the Council’s work.
Having looked at a range of evidence the Commission would present its findings and recommendations back to the Council.
Democratic Society was commissioned by the Council to support the Democracy Commission’s work.
To do this we partnered with the Centre for Public Scrutiny. They helped gather evidence from outside the borough, including running public evidence hearings, and helped the Commission create their final report.
Our role was to help design and deliver a programme of public engagement so that the Commission’s recommendations were informed by the experiences and views of Newham’s population.
To do this we had to take account of Newham’s political and demographic context, in particular:
- All of Newham’s councillors are from one party.
- It has a very young population, with a median age of 31.9 compared to a London average of 35.3, and 38% of the population is aged 24 years or under.
- It experiences a lot of population churn, with over a fifth of its residents having arrived or left Newham between 2017 and 2018.
- It is very ethnically diverse. Nearly three quarters of the population is of black or minority ethnic heritage. This diversity is also reflected in residents’ main languages - around 20% of the population has one of the South Asian languages as their main language.
Early on we were asked by the Commission to focus our resources on hearing from seldom heard voices.
We designed our approach primarily to hear from people who are typically less likely to be heard. Alongside this, we also created opportunities for those with an active interest in the topic to share their views.
To reach seldom heard voices, we reached out through existing networks in the borough. We worked closely with the Council’s eight community neighbourhood managers to understand what opportunities there were for engagement in local neighbourhoods.
Where possible, we harnessed existing community assets like Council-hosted groups, Council venues, and independent voluntary and community groups.
This was greatly assisted by working with Andy Paice, who worked with us as an associate on this project. Andy is a resident of Newham who had previously worked with the Council on other engagement projects.
To ensure as many local people and groups as possible could be involved, we held a planning meeting with a range of community group members and representatives.
This allowed us to set up a fortnight of intense engagement activities in the borough. During this fortnight we engaged with residents in a variety of ways:
- Stalls in public spaces – including a tube station, a supermarket entrance, a leisure centre and several libraries and community centres.
- ‘Coffee mornings’ where people could sit down with us in groups for a longer time with free coffee.
- Piggy backing on existing community events and meetings – such as an ESOL class, a youth centre, a Co-production Forum meeting, a community forum, and existing community coffee mornings in libraries.
- Three public events in the evening, and one on a Saturday afternoon.
- We also ran an event for young people in St Bonaventure's School, with help from Newham Citizens.
Alongside this, we also set up an online platform for people to share their views. This was live for two months, and was set up using Engagement HQ.
Through each of these activities, we gave people a chance to share their views on six themes matching the Commission’s six lines of enquiry.
We pledged to share these findings with participants via contacts in their groups, community neighbourhood managers, or by contacting participants through email addresses shared with us.
During the fortnight of engagement activities, we spoke to over 300 people across the borough, collecting over 2,000 comments. A further 41 people left comments through the online platform.
Our findings are presented in a report which was presented directly to the Democracy Commission. We also presented these findings to the Commissioners in-person to inform their recommendations.
The Commission’s final report was launched at a public online event on 6th July 2020, using Facebook Live. This event included a chance for members of the public to ask the Commissioners questions. You can see a recording of this event on the Council’s Facebook page.
Immediately afterwards, the Mayor and members of her cabinet responded to their findings and recommendations on the same platform.
Impact and Learning
Our engagement activities reached parts of the community whose voices are traditionally under-represented, including people for whom English is not a first language, young people, and people with learning disabilities.
We were able to hear their views and experiences and communicate these to the Commissioners and the Council, including, for example, people’s concerns about a lack of reply and a lack of transparency.
The impact of Covid-19 was an obstacle to giving our participants timely feedback on the impact of their involvement. Despite a delay, the Commission have now launched their findings and recommendations at a public online event, and we were able to advertise this to participants through the feedback channels we’d arranged.
It is too early to say what impact the Commission’s recommendations will have on the borough, but the Council have already provided an initial response.
This project really emphasized the importance of working through existing networks and events. This approach helped us reach people who otherwise wouldn’t have been heard. On the flipside, the public events and online platform reached considerably fewer people.
One challenge we faced was that the topic is quite broad and abstract compared to people’s daily lives. We designed exercises to make this as engaging as possible, but really it needed breaking down a bit more to help with this.
Alongside our public engagement report, we published data about who we reached, and reflections and evaluation on the process in a separate engagement evaluation report. One challenge we faced was how to monitor our reach without asking too much during these interactions. In hindsight, we could have gathered more data about this than we did as people were quite forthcoming.
Another learning point was not having a more co-productive approach. This was something we’d initially pushed for. Without this, we encountered some concerns about the role of the Commission and why local people didn’t have greater involvement. This could also have helped with breaking down the topic and involving residents more in designing responses to what was heard.
At the end of this project, one thing that’s stayed with us is how much residents appreciated us going out and talking to them, taking the time to hear their views and experiences, and committing to updating them on what would happen next. There was a lot learned from having these conversations and we really enjoyed getting to meet everyone.
For further information about this work, please contact Mat Basford on email@example.com.