Informed consent in public policy


Some thoughts & challenges from the workshop “Private power in public spaces: a corporate human rights workshop” at Cambridge Festival of Ideas” 

I took Puffles the dragon fairy along to a superb workshop (see here for details) that was an educational experience (but for different reasons) for most, if not all of us that attended. Fortunately the scripts are going to be available in the new year – ideal for schools and colleges. The reason being is that through drama and audience interaction, everyone is able to learn about democracy, public policy and human rights issues in a much more engaging and interactive format.

The workshop had three very good freelance actors playing different parts at different times. The theme was water rights in a developing country in the context of those rights being sold off to multinational utility firms. Sound familiar? Trying to differentiate the different language between locals and the multinational corporation representative was done in ‘Allo-Allo-style accents. (With the lady playing the villager in a developing country choosing to speak in a cockney accent to further break stereotypes about what conversations in villages in less industrialised countries might look like through the eyes of Westerners). We (the audience) were then invited to watch the play again and ‘intervene’ either with advice or, initially in my case (& later others too), a good haranguing of the actor playing the corporate type who was not willing to answer questions. (He played the part brilliantly).

There was also time for breakout sessions for people to discuss issues & ideas in groups, a BBC Question Time-style interrogation of the second act (where there was a UK minister in role on the first day, a special adviser and a CEO of a multinational). What was striking, not just for me was how the scene seemed plausible in real life.  In that scene was a CEO threatening to make life difficult for a minister if he (it nearly always is a he) did not get his way – from media statements to reducing funding & support to a political party.

Finally, when asked to come up with some solutions to the huge range of complex problems raised, the most popular suggestion from the group was for widespread nationalisation of water provision and for that provision to be provided not-for-profit in firm principle.

What made this workshop work?

I was one of the few people in the room who has explored these issues from an academic perspective in detail at degree level. What I mean by that is that I had something to compare it to in terms of delivery of content. Lectures, seminars, reading webpages and wading through academic books in those days were the means. This was just before the days of social media and people making documentaries on independent digital video and podcasts. Most importantly for me, it did the following:

  • It got people active – they weren’t sitting down theatre style for 3 hours
  • It got people talking to each other – engaging their minds and emotions
  • It got people thinking about solutions
  • It got people wanting to find out more

On that final bullet point – and despite my prompt at the end, I felt the only thing that was missing from the workshop was ‘next steps’. My challenge to everyone in the room was to ask them what action they are going to undertake, or what are they going to do differently as a result of attending that workshop. Personally I think this is a useful prompt/question/challenge for any political workshop – however big or small that action may be.

What I’d have liked to have seen at the end was information on either the issues, or local groups and organisations that campaign on the issues raised. (Another plug for Shared Planet next weekend for any students reading this – for example).

Can we have the workshop again? 

I asked Patrick Morris, the artistic director of Menagerie (the theatre company that put on the production) if they’d be running it again, as well as on making the scripts available online. While the wider programme that the workshop was part of is now moving on, as a standalone workshop it is a very useful introduction to human rights in a much wider context. Specifically in schools and colleges. My suggestions?

  • Run the workshops again, scheduled to coincide with Cambridge Green Week in Spring 2014
  • Link up with People and Planet to get the workshops delivered to a much wider audience
  • Try out the workshops again in local schools and colleges as part of their citizenship education
  • Try out the workshops with existing community groups
  • At future workshops, bring along information for people to find out more and how to get active.

One issue for Cambridge University’s campus of buildings between Sidgwick Avenue & West Road

It is a dead zone for mobile phone signals. That might be all very well to stop students using mobiles, but if you’re hosting public events and want the public to live blog and live tweet, it’s useless. Please get mobile reception sorted, offer free wifi to the general public or host your events elsewhere where the public can access mobile phone signals.

Local issues raised in the workshop?

One of the key themes that came out of the workshop was that of informed consent. When public authorities and big business do things in local communities, how do you go about engaging with the community and get their consent? This matters in Cambridge because I don’t believe the buildings that have gone up around the railway station have had anything near the level of active engagement and community consent needed to make a sustainable thriving community that people can be proud of.

Yes, the developers may have met their legal requirements, but those legal requirements have created a space from which those with the money can extract the maximum financial value at the expense of those already living there. What I mean by that is they have built many ‘units’ suitable for the rapid turnover of population (see this photoset) – with all of the fees that go with it. Cambridge Leisure Park is also full of bland corporate franchise clones – but business-wise it has a captive audience of short-term residents that are more likely to eat out, or London commuters understandably moving into housing that is slightly cheaper than in the even-more-inflated capital city. There was little economic incentive for the developers to make the buildings look nice on the outside – just comfortable enough on the inside for commuters to buy them up or to make them reasonably let-able.

What would the area around Cambridge railway station have looked like if the developers were required to make a much greater effort to engage the community proactively, rather than doing little more than the bare minimum? What would the area have looked like if the needs of the city were prioritised ahead of the desire of investors to make quick returns? What would the area have looked like if local people were involved in the designs at design stage, and with a continuous conversation throughout? Chances are not like the bland blocks we currently have at present.


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