So…shall we do this Cambridge democracy thing then?

Summary

Organising democracy workshops for early 2017 in and around Cambridge, noting the 2017 Cambridgeshire County Council elections are looming

But first this:

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“A democracy workshop?”

Yes – like the one we organised in June 2016 around the city deal

“How did it work?”

We brought together just over a dozen of us from across the city, which meant people were working with others who they had not met and would otherwise not meet either socially or in local campaigning. We explored Cambridge’s local institutions from the perspective of local residents rather than from the perspective of the institutions. It’s the step that many introduction courses miss when starting out: they put the institution first rather than the citizen or learner. Have a look at this new free e-learning course from Parliament (which I strongly recommend) but also note how introduce it from the perspective of Parliament first rather than citizen first.

“This free online course will introduce you to the work and role of the UK Parliament. From setting the age at which we start school to deciding pension policy, the UK Parliament makes laws that impact our lives, our work and our wider society.”

Turn the above around to: “Who decides at what age you have to start school? Who decides on the rules pension providers have to abide by? Who decides how much child benefit you get? Who brought in child benefit in the first place?”

That was the approach we went with, but built it around 2 principles:

  • Lines of funding
  • Lines of accountability

We learnt about where funding for the various public services came from – and what we defined as a public service & how they evolved over time. We also looked at what happened in return for that funding – how each different layer was responsible for the funding it received.

Once we had established the basics of services in our communities, we looked at when things broke down/went wrong and lines of redress. It was from there that we were able to move into discussions about what was happening in and around Cambridge and how we as citizens could influence proceedings.

“It still sounds very….*heavy*”

This is why I want to think now about how we make what is an incredibly complex, intellectually taxing and time-consuming subject area one that is much more digestible for people. In terms of main aims, they’d be something like:

  • For everyone to have a basic understanding of how our city functions
  • For everyone to know who to contact and how, when things go wrong
  • For everyone to have chosen one policy area that they’d want to give a bit more attention to, knowing that there are other people scrutinising other policy areas who they can contact for further advice or support.
  • For everyone to have met at least one person who they want to stay in touch with.

“Yeah – that’s a lot for a couple of hours”

That’s why I’m wondering whether to break the whole thing up into a series of workshops dotted about the city – in particular so that people can meet up more than once to talk about what they’ve learnt and found out.

Democracy Club comes to Cambridge

Some of you may have heard about the Democracy Club. One of the club’s founders, Sym Roe has just moved to Cambridge. Which is splendid for someone like me as they’ve already started building the online tools that will be really useful for voters in the 2017 elections – have a look at https://democracyclub.org.uk/projects/. They are on Twitter at https://twitter.com/democlub and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/democracyclub/ too.

Where my workshops fit in is getting as many people who are at the heart of our communities in a position where they can talk knowledgeably about both the election processes and the online tools to local residents.

“Shouldn’t the council be doing this stuff?”

My take is that until Parliament gives local councils the necessary powers and ability to raise their own funds to pay for things like this, civic society has to step in. It may be the case that some of the work we have planned, if successful, becomes something that councils or local institutions take on themselves.

Democracy being about more than voting

That’s one of the things I also want to get across to local residents: Democracy is not a spectator pastime. It requires people to take action for it to succeed. And yes, at a local level it feels that the amount of time and effort put into it does not seem to match the outcomes at the other end, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. For example:

Cambridge City Council is asking Cambridge residents for views on how to improve local neighbourhoods with funding from developers. Depending on where you live, there’s a fair amount of money available. Rock up to your area committee to find out more – or email your councillor via https://www.writetothem.com/ (for which you only need to know your postcode to find out who they are & how to contact them).

It’s not just local councils or Parliament either.

Are you a regular health service user? If so, you may want to know about Healthwatch England. (Though I detest the language of “national consumer champion in health and care”). Every county or equivalent has one, and we have one in Cambridgeshire – http://www.healthwatchcambridgeshire.co.uk/

Crime an issue? The Government brought in directly-elected police and crime commissioners a few years ago. You can find yours at http://www.apccs.police.uk/. In Cambridgeshire we have Jason Ablewhite and he is scrutinised by the Cambs & Peterborough Police & Crime Panel.

There are a host of other organisations and public bodies that have various scrutiny arrangements beyond these. I’m still trying to get my head around all of them so that at least we can start mapping it all.

Anyway, interested in your thoughts how we might go about all of this.

 

 

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