Across the UK and beyond, change is afoot. Innovators are empowering citizens and improving the way they engage with local government. However, by its nature this work is often localised and fragmented. This creates a confusing landscape for local democracy, locking away learning and shutting out newcomers. An opportunity exists for achieving substantial change to participation in local democratic institutions – if we can pool knowledge and tools.
Public Square is a two-year action research project that responds to this need. We’re bringing together a range of perspectives, including service design, digital transformation and democratic innovation to investigate what is needed to improve participation. By weaving together these disparate strands, we’re developing tools, frameworks, and approaches that match key unfilled needs for practitioners, councillors and citizens.
Public Square is seeking to develop a blueprint for public participation – a tested future model and a route to get there. To do this, we’re working in an iterative and collaborative way with a cohort of local government changemakers to put what we think we’re learning to the test.
We’re working with a range of experts by profession and lived experience. We work in the open to ensure our learning is widely available, including leaving legacy materials that others can benefit from.
We are using networks that have been prompted during this project to disseminate the project findings and encourage these to inform wider policy and practice.
The ultimate goal for Public Square is for services and policies developed at the local level to become more informed by expertise and insight from the public, to increase democratic legitimacy of decision-making outside of elections, and to ensure services and policies meet the needs and wants of the public.
Results, Impact & Learning
In its first year, Public Square took its action research to a cohort of four councils who we knew were interested in doing participatory democracy. Our Discovery and Prototyping reports, as well as our full Year One report on all of our first year, can be found on the Public Square Website here.
Key findings from our first year include:
- Finding that ‘innovation’ as a word and concept is arguably a barrier to success. The word is something clients are often attracted to, but the reality of system change is very rarely ‘start-up’ innovation. Rather it is a set of changes in processes, cultures and attitudes that collectively shift behaviour. Much of that is already being done, somewhere in the organisation, but is being frustrated elsewhere. There is work needed to bank what is already known, and to keep communication going.
- There is a pressing need for a replicable model for participation that moves the practice out of the experimental stage and into something which can be more widely adopted and commissioned by Councils.
- Alongside this, there is also the need to move away from a consultant-client model when engaging in participatory processes in order to encourage ownership, empowerment and agency within Councils and for residents.
- Lastly, there is a challenge of supporting Councils to engage with and involve seldom heard voices alongside those more likely to speak up, particularly given Public Square’s light at-distance involvement as a research and resource hub that cannot become embedded within Councils.
Live updates on our learning in Public Square can also be found on our blog, where we write about events and participatory processes we’ve been involved in.
For further information about this work, please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public Square is on Twitter, where we post about upcoming events, news and useful resources.