Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the Notwestminster 2016 event which was held in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire in the UK. Which, as it says on the tin, clearly wasn’t in (or about) Westminster – this event was focused squarely on local government and local democracy.

Giving up a weekend to attend a conference and chat about democracy might seem a little on the keen side – but I have to tell you, it was fantastic. I really enjoyed the combination of lightning talks (20 slides with 20 seconds per slide) and workshops, being able to learn while I listen as well as participate.

One of the standout lightning talks for me was Matt Clack from Hackney Council who tackled the subject of empathy and personal experience in local government. He contended that, as councils have moved to automated systems and specified behaviours for employees, there is a danger of losing the connection between local government and the people. This leads to deterioration of trust and lack of engagement. Citizens want to be listened to and to trust their council. Matt was arguing that personal stories and relating to people on a personal level can be incredibly powerful. I agree! More human, less robot, please.

Another talk that inspired me was Chloe Brown (@KirkleesYC) from Kirklees Youth Council. Chloe spoke about the current lack of political awareness of young people and how having a good political education today will give youth a head start for when they can vote at 18. This is a really interesting topic, and it is in all our interest to get involved and see change through at both the local and the national level. When I was younger, I didn’t really care about politics because it didn’t seem relevant to me. Hindsight is always 20/20, and I wish I’d gained a broader depth of knowledge sooner.

During the afternoon on Saturday, I attended a session run by Sarah Allan (@SarahAllanUK) from Involve on how to get citizens involved in local decision-making. This topic is particularly close to my heart as it is, quite literally, my day job. I can teach our customers how to use our consultation platform until the cows come home; however, the other, equally important, bit of the consultation process is the public engagement strategy. Slapping a consultation up online won’t make a difference unless citizens know about it and get involved.

I work with a lot of wonderful local councils and central government departments. Two of the things I tend to go on about in my training sessions are 1) designing a consultation with respondents in mind and 2) engaging with citizens so they can respond. In a nutshell: you can build the best consultation in the world but if people don’t know it’s there they can’t get involved. And if people aren’t involved, that’s sad – not least because you can’t use their input to make an informed decision.

Sarah presented an approach to designing the public engagement strategy where the discussion with respondents is key. These are the three points that really stuck with me from the session:

  1. Involvement: some respondents are losing faith in government. This could be restored through improved interaction between the two parties. Getting citizens involved in a discussion before the actual consultation is key here – and should be a dialogue and not a narrative. This will help departments know exactly what to consult on and how to frame the questions.
  2. Plan ahead for results: if you know what you are looking to do with results, you will be able to effectively analyse the information provided. And plan accordingly for time.
  3. FEEDBACK TO RESPONDENTS: I am sorry for shouting that. But it’s true. You need to complete the feedback loop: you asked, they said – so what have you done with that information? By letting respondents know the results, you build trust with them, demonstrating that their valuable time giving you information was worth it.

To read more about Involve’s work, have a look at the report ‘People & Participation’. They also provided a useful framework with their Key Design Questions.

Want to hear more about building consultations and engaging with citizens? Book a training consultation day and we’ll come and talk to you about consultation best practice and how to use Citizen Space and Dialogue to engage with citizens.

All in all, Notwestminster was really well run; I take my hat off to the organisers, and I’m looking forward to next year already!

Photo credit to Anthony Mckeown