Local democracy in action: a reflection on the #notwestminster conference

On 10 and 11 February, we attended the #notwestminster conference in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. This event brought together tens of people from local authorities, universities and tech startups to attend a series of design experiments and workshops centred around strengthening local democracy – however far we happen to be from London. We found the event thought-provoking and it really got us thinking about our work in digital civics, and in particular our work around digital local democracy.

The first day operated like a mini-hackathon – get a bunch of people in a room to make things in a short space of time. Having been victorious in our attempt at the marshmallow challenge, we went from strength to strength and worked in our team to come up with a design provocation or “experiment” around enhance local democracy. Whilst other teams were designing apps and digital tools for participatory budgeting, our team took it back to basics and came with something rather analogue – a box that could be used to collect in-situ views on a design proposal, but would encourage two-way interaction with the comments to begin a conversation around local issues.

We all felt that citizens simply “having their say” by depositing comments in a black-box fashion did not truly represent local democracy, so we sought to challenge this by subverting the typical interaction one would have with a voting box – by being able to take your comments back out of the slot! We trialled our design experiment on the streets of Huddersfield to great effect, and we seemed to generate a lot of interest standing outside the local shopping centre!

Interviewers asking questions on a streetThe second day was the main event of #notwestminster, consisting of a series of talks and workshops. The ‘lightning talks’ covered everything from how community work and engagement in local groups can foster active citizenship, and how a council of the 21st century can look, to a very personal and inspirational account of working with the former MP local to Huddersfield, Jo Cox.

Participants could then freely choose three out of a total of 13 one-hour workshops throughout the day. The topics covered were again broad, with a focus on how councils can better collaborate with citizens and communities. We attended workshops on better handling discussions around local issues through software-based argument mapping, how hyperlocal conversations in action can enable self-organisation of people, and on citizen engagement strategies for councils. We also attended an interesting psychogeographical walk to three places in the neighbourhood. On the walk we were asked to reflect our feelings for the place through a questionnaire and a discussion afterwards. This fun and fascinating experience can be a valuable tool for our own work around place-making and understanding the significance and richness of places to communities and visitors.

We both found the conference to be very engaging and not like anything we had attended before – bringing together a diverse range of democracy practitioners and researchers to exchange ideas and knowledge that we could take back to our digital local democracy work here in Open Lab. We look forward to keeping in touch with the contacts we made, and hopefully returning again next year!

The organisers made a Storify for the two days, which can be found here: https://storify.com/LDBytes/

Written by Sean Peacock and Sebastian Prost.

Author: Sean Peacock

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