Category Archives: Events

Top 10 messages from DTYE event

This Thursday we brought together a fantastic crowd of 25 thinkers, social entrepreneurs, funders, youth workers and young people at the RSA in London to explore some of the messages that had been emerging so far in our Young People and Digital Technology exploration.

In a packed two hour session we took some headline challenges faced by young people (youth unemployment; lack of youth influence of local decision making), and dug a bit deeper into them to find underlying challenges and unmet needs. With that as our context, we looked at the messages identified so far, which had been printed out as cards, and discussed them in groups to see how they might be relevant to the challenges.

I’ve just been working through all the notes from Thursday, and by looking through all the cards (which people could rate for importance), looking at which messages were chosen as relevant, and looking at the messages which have had attention in the online document so far, I’ve pulled out what look like the top-10 themes for us to explore further. Each message includes a brief summary, and then a link off to more details where you can also directly add to our working document – adding key questions for us to address in our follow up explorations, or sharing links to examples we should explore and draw upon.

This list is not set in stone, and might still change quite a bit before the final write up (you can make the case for changes in the document too…), but here’s the list as it stands today (the numbers are from the original set of cards):

Emerging messages

Planning a project that will use digital technology to address key challenges that young people face? Think about how you might:

19. Blend online and offline
Digital and online innovations don’t only have to be delivered online. Online tools can support local community building and action – and projects should plan to work both on the web, and in local or face-to-face settings.

6. Use games to engage
Adding an element of gaming to your project can provide the incentives for young people to get engaged. Collecting points, completing challenges and competing with others can all spur young people on to get involved and stay involved.

7. Address the innovation gaps in the back-office
Not all digital innovations have to be about directly using technology with young people. Putting better tools in the hands of frontline workers, and intermediaries who work with young people can create the biggest benefit.

17. Support young people to be creators, not consumers
Digital technology can enable young people to be content creators: “youth can learn video making, digital engagement etc. – and if it aims to be social and community focused – imagine the possibilities!”. Many youth don’t take advantage of digital opportunities for creativity – and action to support them to do so is important. From creating multimedia content, to providing feedback on the good and the bad – young people can be involved in shaping digital resources developed to support them.

3. Encourage co-design/co-design with young people
The only way to create services for young people, is in collaboration with young people. User-centred design, agile and iterative design methods all provide ways for young people to be involved through the process of creating innovative solutions.

4. Consider the livelihoods of the future
Digital technology is not just about easier ways to find a job: it changes the nature of work. Home working, portfolio working, freelancing and co-operative business structures are all enabled by the Internet. Better CVs and job information won’t solve the unemployment crisis: we need to use digital technologies to create and support new ways of working and making a living.

18. Use digital tools to enable peer-to-peer learning
In the Internet age education doesn’t have to be top-down, digital tools allow for peer-to-peer learning: helping people come together to teach, learn and collaborate.

24. Use technology to personalise services
Digital technologies can be used to aggregate content from multiple sources, and customise an individuals experience of online information. Young people out of work or education are not a homogeneous group: and have many different needs.

30. Be network literate and create new connections
Although young people might be using online social networks like Facebook all the time, the connections they have to inspiration, role models and opportunities for volunteering, education or employment can be limited. Think about how digital tools can help you to map out networks, and to make new connections that broaden the horizons and increase the resources accessible to young people.

30. Recognise the diversity of youth 
Who are the young people? Although there are many similarities across the 16-24 age group, there are also some key differences in how they use technology.

Join us online discussing young people engaging through digital tech

Today is a high spot in our exploration, with Nominet Trust, of how digital technologies can support young people to engage socially and economically with their communities. We are meeting with 25 of the brightest and most enthusiastic people in field, both young and older, to build on the ideas we have crowdsourced so far.

We’ll be tweeting from the RSA, so you might like to see the agenda and materials to help make sense of the messages that we’ll be sharing, and pitch in with your own.

Here’s the agenda. Tim Davies has done a terrific job of taking the messages from background research, our open crowdsourcing doc, and blog posts, and creating a set of cards that will help focus group discussion.

10.30 – 10.45 - Introductions

10.45 – 11.15 - Identifying unmet challenges

We’ll be digging behind headline challenges of youth unemployment and young people feeling excluded from their communities to identify the unmet challenges where digital innovation may have a role to play. Working in small groups. 

11.15 – 11.45 - Identifying messages for digital innovation

Taking the unmet challenges, we’ll be building on the messages that have been shared and shaped so far to identify key provocations that can encourage effective digital innovation

11.45 – 12.30 - Sharing ideas and experiences

In small groups, or altogether, to discuss examples and ideas that point the way to disruptive and effective digitally enabled innovation.

After the event we’ll digest the conversations and ideas, and make that the basis for a fresh round of blog posts and other explorations. That will lead to a set of online resources and a report. As the Trust says:

The findings will be used to inform Nominet Trust and  help us shape and develop a specific challenge that will identify projects that can equip young people with the confidence, skills and motivation to address the social challenges that they and future generations face.

Tim and I have had enormous encouragement, support and expertise from Dan Sutch and Rachael Gant at Nominet Trust, so we really feel that tomorrow’s event, and the overall process, will play a useful part in shaping further developments. We’ll post more next week on how you can join in. Meanwhile, please follow and contribute on Twitter with the tag #dtye.

If you want to see how far we are reaching, take a look at this analysis (h/t Rachael), and please help us reach further.

Link summary

 

 

People love Thornton Heath (and other places too). Here’s how and why

A couple of weeks ago I went to a conference in Manchester about the theory of asset-based community development … starting with the strengths in a community rather than the problems. Glass half full rather than half empty.

Last Saturday I went to south London, to see the results of ABCD in practice at a celebration day for I Love Thornton Heath. Over the past few months a group of residents have explored their neighbourhood, and their neighbours, to find the good things that are happening, and think about what more could be done.

On the day, people were greeted by Sarah Taylor and Paul Macey of Croydon Voluntary Action, and Cormac Russell of Nurture Development, who I interviewed in Manchester. Around the room were posters showing the local resources, networks and ideas already gathered in September at the Thornton Heath Festival.

Cormac emphasised that this wasn’t a formal event, but a chance to meet their neighbours to carry on developing understanding and ideas, with professionals in a support role. “Why have a meeting when you can a party”? It was about telling stories, celebrating success, thinking what we can do ourselves using people power, and where we need external help.

As you can see from the videos I shot, it was a very creative and lively affair. We looked at the work of a group of community connectors, trained by Cormac, and led by Paul Macey working one day a week. They found people had an appetite to connect, through sharing stories, and had brought people together. We looked at what people might be able to do on their own – through existing skills in the community – where they might need help, and where outside support was needed. We concluded with groups discussing where they wanted to take action.

The eight video are compiled into a playlist which will play through – or you can see them separately here on YouTube. Cormac talks through his presentation in the second video, and you can see the slides below.

Afterwards I asked Sarah to provide some reflections on the process, and what happens next:

The ‘glass was overflowing’ in Thornton Heath on Saturday with riches that can’t be bought. It’s incredibly fulfilling working with people who, despite challenges, have an abundance of skills, knowledge, energy and commitment to give to their area and community. Local people and what they bring, their ‘assets’, are so often under valued at a cost to us all. The next steps in Thornton Heath are for Community Connectors and groups of neighbours in Thornton Heath to continue to develop their plans on what they want to act on together with a view to coming together again in Feb/March 2012 for a community planning session. Alongside this a Community First Thornton Heath Panel will take form, with support from CVA, to help local people who are developing inspiring community projects in Thornton Heath to access small grants to enable their work.

Here’s Cormac’s presentation

Discovering hidden treasures thornton heath the story sofar

Cormac has written a primer for other areas interested in the ABCD approach – available here.

While the success of initiatives like I Love Thornton Heath depend ultimately on the skills and enthusiasm of residents, it helps to have the support of a local agency with resources, and the believe in a different approach. In this interview Rachel Nicholson, of NHS Croydon, explains how hearing Cormac at a conference led to Croydon Council and NHS Croydon commissioning the initiative as a pilot project, through Croydon Voluntary Action.

We are looking out for other models and examples of people powered change that can be taken up by local groups and their supporters, so if you know of them do get in touch.

Reporting from the People Powered Change workshop

We are facilitating a workshop on People Powered Change for Big Lottery Fund to develop ideas on how BIG can be more than a funder. Background here We started with a presentation from BIG’s director of communications and marketing, Linda Quinn. (Update below with reports from discussion groups)

 

The videos below are in a playlist – starting with an interview with Linda. You can see the videos individually on YouTube here. I’ll add more later

Update: As you’ll see from the videos above, we undertook some mapping of who’s who in field, based on the working connections that people had. Drew Mackie circulated a questionnaire, and he’ll analyse the data and produce a map.

After that we offered a set of flags, each of which had one of the ideas listed in the earlier post here. Drew auctioned off the flags and also invited people to develop their own.  Those people with a flag then invited others to form groups, and developed three minute reports, which you can see below. This is a playlist, so videos will play one after the other … or you can see them individally on Youtube here.

Peter Wanless, chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, joined us in time to listen the report back presentations. As you can hear in this interview, Peter was keen that the the dialogue started in the room continued in some form from now until proposal are put to a BIG committee. We’ll report back later on how that might be achieved.

Further updates:

 

Developing People Powered Change ideas: the workshop

Today the team exploring developments for the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change (PPC) are running a workshop in London with some of the people we’ve interviewed on this blog, and who have provided ideas along the way. The background, and a summary of the key ideas from posts, is here.

At the workshop we’ll be hearing first from Linda Quinn, the director of communications and marketing at Big Lottery Fund, with an update on the vision for PPC outlined here.

After a question and answer session, we’ll break into groups to develop some of the ideas we’ve found in our exploration – and invite people to throw in some new ones.

It should be fun: we’ve put the ideas on flags – so people pick up one they want to champion (or write a new one), see if they can gather some supporters, find a table, and then develop a presentation on:

  • What can BIG do itself to become more than a funder in supporting People Powered Change?
  • What might we do together?
  • What might you be able to do, with non-funding support from BIG and partners?
Drew Mackie and I are pretty confident the flags will work well to help people find others interested in their idea: we’ve used it before. Drew and I will be helping groups connect with others across the room, and encouraging some clustering of ideas, and John Popham and others will undoubtedly be tweeting with the hashtag #ppchange – as you can see here.
We’ll both do some video too. When that gets up on this blog will depend on the wifi. Here’s the starter ideas that are going on flags:

Investigate models
A range of emerging models for People Powered Change could inform future funding programmes (e.g. ABCD, Community Organising, Transition). How should BIG explore this?

Social App Store
Smartphone apps and “how tos” supporting community action, assembled in a Social App Store, could be more effective than toolkits. Is this feasible?

Support hyperlocal
Could hyperlocal websites play a big part in helping groups funded by BIG tell their stories? What would be needed?

Share project stories
What range of methods and supported might be needed to help funded projects share their own stories?

BIG social reporters
BIG staff could become social reporters, making storytelling and network building part of their work. What would be needed to achieve his?

Promote peer-to-peer learning
BIG wants to encourage peer-to-peer learning between funded groups. How best to achieve this?

Network building
Should BIG help build and connect existing networks or create new ones for funded projects?

Internal BIG comms
Which systems would best promote social networking within BIG and integrate with external network development?

Socialise evaluation
How could BIG make governance social – moving from paper-based to web-based evaluation, with projects reporting their activities?

Social innovation
Encourage development of social innovations – supporting, piloting and funding through a hub or existing spaces and networks

Map funding
Map and share who’s funding what and where, to encourage collaborations: nationally and by supporting locally

Now there’s an iPhone app for community engagement

An extra bonus from the ABCD conference in Manchester last week was meeting two community mobilisers, Corrina Milner and Andy MacDermott, with their iPhone app for engaging with people in Milton Keynes.

Mobile apps are the little programmes that work on smartphones, and increasingly on desktop computers, to handle specific tasks. Initially they were for basics like calendars, databases, and email but now there are thousands of them.

Community mobilisers are out in the community hearing about people’s concerns and issues they want raised with the council and other agencies, and also picking up ideas for action. As Corrina and Andy explained to me, it can be difficult to capture a lot of conversations during the day and make sure that they are forwarded to other people, or gathered for future action.

The iPhone app allows that to be done through text or photos. Back in the office, the conversations captured on the iPhone can be reviewed in real time. Corrina explains that they find content can be categorised as ideas, interests, issues and also as impacts – when changes have occurred.

I was particularly excited to find the app in use because it confirmed a prediction that I reported the other day from Steve Dale, at a seminar on the Business of Collaboration, when he said that the future of online sharing is mobile, appified and people-centred.

I think that the development will interest Linda Quinn, the director of communications and marketing at Big Lottery Fund, who told me earlier she would like to see apps playing a part in People Powered Change. Andy says he can see a future in which residents are using the app for themselves – not just to report issues, but find solutions from others in the community.

Both Corrina and Andy emphasised at the end of our conversation that they believed that the community and voluntary sector should embrace new technology – not to replace face-to-face or telephone contact, but to complement and amplify it. There’s clearly scope for testing the app in other situations – so I hope BIG or other agencies might put it on the list of innovative solutions they wish to promote.

The app is not yet in the official App store, because some bugs need ironing out. Here are some screen shots of the app in action, I hope to get a more detailed specification later.

 

Meanwhile you can see Steve Dale’s excellent presentation here.

SHINE 2011; Social Enterprise, Story-telling and Change

On Thursday, I was at Shine 2011, which billed itself as “the UK’s leading unconventional conference (or unconference) for socially-minded entrepreneurs”.

Arriving just after the start, while things were already seemingly in full swing, it took me a little time to work out what was going on, as there seemed to be so much happening in different parts of the interesting space that is Hub Westminster. But, after a while, it started to make sense, and I joined a session on money issues for social entrepreneurs.

I was particularly struck, in this session, by the contribution of Dave Dawes, who describes himself as a “nurse social entrepreneur”. Dave talked about what social entrepreneurs get wrong when seeking financing for their projects, In particular, he was critical of those who invest all their efforts in chasing grants. Dave says everyone is after free money, but they rarely take the time to consider the return on investment of the time and effort spent on filling in grant applications and pitching to funders. There was particular derision accorded from session participants to the example of the “social enterprise” which, when asked what it would do when its grant application had been turned down, replied “wait for next year’s round”. As Dave said, any organisation which is serious about being a social enterprise should be aiming to be profitable in as short a space of time as possible, and if you are making profits, you can afford to borrow money rather than chase grants. If your enterprise is never going to be profitable, it is not a social enterprise.

Later in the day, I interrupted a conversation between Dave and Mel Findlater and asked them to talk to me about some of the issues raised in Dave’s workshop session. It was interesting as well, to hear that Dave is working in a similar space to the Social App Store. 

One of the most interesting and relevant (to the work of SocialReporters.net) sessions I witnessed at SHINE 2011, was Nick Jankel‘s presentation on Story-telling for Changemakers. Nick’s presentation was of particular interest as it accords with the work we are doing to encourage organisations funded by, and associated with, the Big Lottery Fund, to tell the stories which illustrate the differences they are making to people’s lives.

The slides from Nick’s presentation are here:

One of the points that Nick makes is that people who are running interesting projects, or doing innovative things, often make the mistake of assuming that everyone else will be similarly enthused by what they are doing. This is never an automatic process, and people need to learn to communicate the story of the progress they are making.

Nick talks about the differences between the stories of the nature of the world which are told from different points of view. One is that the earth is a mechanism whose finite resources mean that humans must be selfish, protect what they have from each other, and compete for a place in the world. The alternative story is that the earth is a living system, all of whose parts are interconnected, which means that humans must share, collaborate and co-create. It is important that, if you want to change the world, you are able to tell the story of the world view that informs your approach.

The basis of all Hollywood film scripts is “The Hero’s Journey” (see slide 37 of Nick’s presentation above), and this can provide a basic outline for anyone to tell a compelling story about their own work. The seven elements of the “Impact Story” are Connection, Context, Conventions, Consciousness Shift, Concept, Conviction, and Concrete Impact (slides 38-46).

After his presentation, I caught up with Nick to get him to expound on his theories. The video is in two parts, because we were interrupted by a security guard who objected to Nick’s voice echoing through the public part of the building.

Projects funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and bringing about People Powered Change, have some powerful stories to tell, as is often evidenced when they are showcased on television in shows such as the regular Saturday Night lottery programmes, and Village SOS. New social media tools, and the advent of cheap video cameras, camera phones, and other recording devices, mean that it is becoming even easier for such projects to tell their own stories.

 

Forever Manchester leads with the ABCD of community building

A conference last Friday about Asset Based Community Development gave me some terrific insights into on-the-ground principles for People Powered Change (PPC), and also some directions for thinking about the ways that Big Lottery (BIG) and other funders could in future support both action and learning. (Here’s a summary of explorations so far).

The event was organised by Forever Manchester – which is the Community Foundation for Greater Manchester – with the ABCD substance provided by Comac Russell and Jim Diers of Nurture Development UK. As Shaun Walsh mentioned in this post, the roots of BIG thinking about PPC lie in the ABCD approach (I hope you are keeping up with the acronyms so far). More on BIG and ABCD here, and also here, for earlier interviews with Cormac and Jim.

I arrived on the second day of the event, to hear Jim talking about the seven principles of ABCD, which he summarised for me afterwards. I hope to have a link to his slides later. The basis of ABCD is to start with the strengths within a community, not the problems and weaknesses. As this post by Dee Brooks summarises, t’s a glass half full view, rather than half empty – so you first map assets (people, organisations, facilities, stories) rather than starting with needs (unemployment, crime, homelessness, alcoholism). You join up the dots between assets, and then mobilise from strengths to meet needs.

At the event Cormac invited people to put these ideas into practice by sticking notes on the wall about the things they might like to learn in a community, what they might teach, where were the “bumping places” to meet people to connect, and where the social networks might be – bringing alive the strengths-based approach in the room.

Over lunch I reviewed the notes, and found two people using some string to demonstrate how the dots might be joined up: Cathy Ellliot, chief executive of the Community Foundation for Merseyside, and Corrina Milner, a community mobiliser from Milton Keynes.

Forever Manchester, and Cathy’s organisation, are foundations that raise money from donors and then make grants tailored to local needs, and are members of the Community Foundations Network. The network operates nationally as well as supporting local foundations, and is currently running the Surviving Winter Campaign, encouraging people to recycle their Winter Fuel Payments to help those in greater need.

An approach like ABCD is clearly important locally in providing a framework to inform the way that grants are made. If the application form starts with “what are the needs in your community” it could set the direction in which a local group goes. That will also be important for larger funders like BIG, and so I asked Cormac what they and other funders might do to support an ABCD approach.

He suggested a number of directions: look at the Kellogg Foundation for a set of funding criteria that could be lifted off the shelf to support an asset-based approach; value the assets they have in their organisastions, in their staff; recognise and support the local community builders like beat police and health workers; then in monitoring and evaluating local projects, look at the relationships being built and the move towards citizen-led action.

Cormac also suggested that the Big Lunch on June 3 2012 – which is supported by BIG – could be a great opportunity to have a national conversation about the way to develop People Powered Change.

Forever Manchester are already putting these principles into place, with the appointment in Oldham of the first ABCD community builder in the country. Later in the day I talked to Gary Loftus, who is the head of community building, about the journey that the organisation  has made towards this approach, and to Miz Razaq, who now has the job in Oldham. We’ll be exploring in more detail the role of the community builder. Manwhile, as I left Manchester to travel back to London, I had a hunch that the greatest inspirations for People Powered Change may lie outside the capital.

ADDENDUM

John Popham writes: Miz’s first foray into practical community building in Oldham took place during an event at Sholver Youth & Community Centre on Friday 25th November. It was a great privilege to be there to capture the first ever conversation between a UK Community Builder and local residents. By the end of the evening, practical connections and suggestions for building on the community’s strengths were clearly emerging.

Update: headline change to “Forever Manchester …”

How Charitable Trusts and Foundations can use Social Media

Peter Wanless at #ACFSocMed

On 8th November, some 30 people gathered for an event in the Guildhall, London, hosted by the Association of Charitable Foundations,on how Charitable Trusts and Foundations can use social media. Speakers were two Chief Executives in the sector who have become well known for their use of social media for both personal and professional reasons, Toby Blume, of Urban Forum, and Peter Wanless of the Big Lottery Fund. Both speakers gave an interesting insight into how they blend their personal and professional profiles to engage people using social media.

Toby gave the audience a tour through different social media tools, outlining his 5 C’s of how social media can add value to an organisation’s work: Connection, Collaboration, Commerce, Campaigning, and Communication. Toby communicated the message that no organisation can ignore social media channels today, particularly through the story of the United Airlines passenger whose guitar was broken by baggage handlers, and who released a song about the experience on Youtube which resulted in 180 million dollars being wiped off the airline’s stock value in four days, and which, to date, has had over 11 million views. From a personal point of view, Toby recounted how a tweet questioning the official publicity about banks channelling money through Big Society Capital led to him being interviewed on Radio 4′s “Today” programme.

Here’s Toby’s presentation:

Peter Wanless talked about how his own use of social media started almost accidentally, and happened well ahead of its adoption by his organisation. Peter believes his own social media use, and the example it set, both allowed him to push for its wide adoption by the Big Lottery Fund, and gave staff within the organisation confidence to experiment themselves. He admitted to initial nervousness among some staff at the way social media communication subverted some of the hierarchical relationships, but he believes that BIG is on it’s way to becoming an open, sharing organisation, which is setting an example to others. He illustrated this by describing how photos and messages from the National Lottery Awards ceremony on the previous Saturday evening were released live on the web from a number of sources, when, in earlier years, it would have been a case of carefully managed press releases going out on the following Monday morning.
Expressing a sentiment which is common to many social media users, Peter described how he has reluctantly come to accept the widely-held view of him as the “tweeting Chief Executive”, as he feels that he is on a constant learning curve.  Here is Peter’s presentation.

A lively question and answer session followed. Audience members were particularly interested in how small organisations could adopt social media when they have few resources or staff. Peter’s response was that he does most of his tweeting on the train to and from the office, when he would otherwise be bored or reading the newspaper, and he no longer needs to buy a newspaper because he gets all his news from Twitter. Toby suggested that social media should not be seen an additional burden, but that it can streamline processes and replace out-dated practices. Thus, he also no longer buys a newspaper, sends and receives a lot less emails, and blogs instead of writing policy papers.

Another issue concerning attendees was how to persuade trustees, many of whom are older people, that social media was a legitimate use of time and resources. Gentle introductions to the tools were suggested, and an approach which seeks to tie in with trustees’ personal interests. Toby suggested that the United Airlines video could be a powerfully persuasive tool.

During the discussion, Peter Wanless touched on the reason David Wilcox, Drew Mackie and I have been engaged to work with the Big Lottery Fund, when he talked about how the Fund hopes to use its influence gently to persuade organisations it funds to move themselves to approaches based on open data and sharing of their practices and lessons using social media. Here is the audio of what Peter had to say on this subject:

Peter Wanless at #ACFSocMed (mp3)

As the event wound up, I caught up with both Peter and Toby for interviews about their impressions of the day.

There seemed to be a lot of positive intent in the room to go away and apply the practices described by the speakers, and there were clearly some of those present who already had stories to tell. As David Wilcox and I have advocated elsewhere, one of the keys to successful social media use is the ability to tell compelling stories. Charitable Trusts and Foundations have lots of stories to tell about the differences they have made to the lives of individuals and communities, and, social media can provide them with platforms via which to tell such stories which can be far more compelling and engaging than dry and dusty reports which sit on shelves unread. As we progress through the work that the Social Reporters team is doing with the Big Lottery Fund, we are getting much support for this approach, and hope to see it much more widely adopted in future.

And, if you still doubt the power of social media; here is the United Airlines video highlighted in Toby’s presentation:

 

Can new local councils offer Power to the People?

One theme in our reporting about People Powered Change will be around the structures within which people can have influence and make decisions.

Your Square Mile – which is one of the partners in ppchange – invites people to become members of the mutually-owned organisation, and has said it aims to foster the development of thousands of local democracies as more people join YSM and engage in their communities.

But what about more traditional democratic structures? As I wrote the other day over on my personal blog, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) – which represents parish and town councils – argues that that “if local people are elected by their community to influence and make decisions that will affect their own area, it will have significant impact on improving lives throughout the capital”.

NALC are using the slogan Power to the People.

In their media release of October 17 NALC suggest the engagement of people after the recent riots, in helping clear up their neighbourhoods, could be supported by new, small, local councils.

The creation of new local councils in London would give communities a voice and this in turn could help address some of the underlying causes of the recent London riots. Local councils have already been created in urban areas such as Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford and Milton Keynes and have helped address social issues caused by deprivation by providing community leadership and brokering relationships with Government at large.

Localism and the Big Society have been much heralded and discussed by the Government and the Prime Minister himself, prompting much debate from Whitehall to town and village halls. What better way to ensure local ownership of decisions, control of assets and to get people involved in their area than to genuinely give power to the people.

Until recently Londoners were not able to campaign for the creation of local, neighbourhood-level councils like those in parishes and towns elsewhere. Their “local” is the borough.

On Tuesday evening I went along to NALC’s Create a Council event, where we heard from several people about the possible virtues of additional smaller councils that would have powers to raise money and control some local services.

I talked to David Drew, who is chair of Andover Town Council, together with Justin Griggs from NALC. David explained Andover now has a five year plan, a programme of consultation on developments with local people, and more powers than previously available to decide the direction the town may take.

Justin says local councils could put people in the driving seat in London, and bring a greater sense of community to the capital.

One area considering whether to go for a local council is Harlesden, where campaigns have already brought many improvements and the creation of the Harlesden Town Team. I talked to Leroy Simpson, chair of the team, about the possible benefits of a new local council.  He felt it was one option that would give people more ownership and governance over the improvements that they have achieved.

Not everyone agrees that more councils would be good for local engagement.

There was a lively Guardian-hosted online discussion last week on whether local democracy is in crisis, where Will Perrin, who left a senior civil service job in Whitehall to set up Talk About Local, promoting and supporting hyperlocal websites, was scathing at the start of the debate:

Local engagement structures are jarringly out of touch with the communications practices and life pressures of the modern citizen. Possibly only the courts and parliament have a greater whiff of the C19th about them.

In Kings Cross we have used a very basic website for many years now to help people access, understand and engage with local politics to make their area better. It’s run by citizens following things they are interested in and the council takes part. We discourage party political slanging and bad behaviour. http://www.kingscrossenvironment.com/

Will argues that tinkering with structures won’t make much difference: you need to follow where people are going, and for many that is online. He and others agreed that neighbourhood plans and budgeting are going to be an important focus for local discussion and decision-making. As I found the other day, talking to Richard Edwards, participatory budgeting is one way to both engage people on local issues and increase voting.

Later this week I’ll take a look at the Transition Network, that “supports community-led responses to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness”.

As Leroy said in our discussion, what’s important is looking at the options for greater people-powered influence, and deciding what’s appropriate in any community. Fortunately there are now quite a few.

Thanks to Fred Garnett for camera work with my iPad. I was using an iRig mic, which works well in noisy situations.

If you couldn’t make it to last night’s London event, there’s another one for up to 30 people on November 29 – sign up here.