On Friday 29th June, the Practical Democracy Project came home to Delib’s HQ city of Bristol, UK. With previous events having taken place in London, Edinburgh and Manchester, and a recent one in Wellington, New Zealand, it’s safe to say the Practical Democracy Project is going global, and this is just the beginning; the movement is growing and we plan to keep this momentum going.

With each event that happens, we’re aiming to get people together from the worlds of civic society, tech and government to discuss practical ways of improving democracy, opening up honest discussions and mapping out how to create a better democratic experience for everyone.

Keeping up with the locals

As the event was close to home this time, we got in touch with our friends at Bristol City Council and managed to secure some of Mayor Marvin Rees’ time to open up the day. The Mayor talked about his background and how he got into politics, stating that ‘the world is run by people who turn up’ and that activism can’t just be for the pursuit of social media likes and retweets but must work towards proactive and positive change.

We also heard from Jon Toy, the council’s Consultation and Engagement Manager, who talked about the challenges they have been facing in coming up with their new consultation and engagement strategy. Jon highlighted the issues around response rates, representation, accessibility and consultation fatigue and the team is working to address these. They are asking people to give views on how improvements can be made to these areas.

‘Bristol’s next big boyband’: a panel discussion

After Jon and the Mayor, we opened the dialogue up to the floor with a panel discussion, including Tim Borrett, the council’s Acting Director of Policy, Strategy and ICT. People were able to ask questions and Tim, Jon and the Mayor gave open and honest answers, giving an opportunity for real conversation that both parties may not usually have. Breaking down barriers between citizens and local government in this way can help to foster genuine discussion and can lead to real change and is ultimately what we designed the Practical Democracy Project to be.

A question from the floor about making consultation and its data accessible to people allowed the Mayor to speak about Bristol City Council’s budget consultation. They asked people to tell them what they were prepared to deprioritise, a task that the Mayor believes is a ‘test of a genuine activist’: when people are able to think not just about what they want from a budget, but about what they’re willing to give up in order to focus on their priorities. If children’s mental health is important to you, are you willing to take away from adult’s mental health, green space or buses to give more money to it? It’s a balancing act, and getting the public involved in these decisions informs the process and gives citizens an understanding of just how difficult budget setting can be.

We also thought about the role of elected officials in the democratic process, with Jon, Tim and the Mayor all agreeing on the importance of getting out there, engaging with citizens and being involved, not just being held accountable. They made the case that there are a wealth of democratic organisations in Bristol as well as the council; it is ‘easy activism’ to talk about the council and what they’re doing or not doing, but there needs to be conversation around the NHS, universities and police service too, to ensure everyone is working from the same page. They argued that mature democratic conversation is what Bristol needs, not just disdain for politicians and activism for activism’s sake.

A few people from the audience commented on what could be perceived as an ‘us and them’ approach where politics are concerned and there was general consensus that councillors are also citizens and that frontline engagement with the public and working together to inform consultation is the best way of avoiding silos.

Panel discussion captured by @LemonGazelle (thanks!)

The panel discussion ended with a question from a member of UK Youth Parliament in Bristol, who asked about the council’s plans to engage more young people to get involved with politics and consultation. The Mayor spoke again of the budget consultation where they went into Bristol College with their Budget Simulator on a tablet and got students to complete it, getting them talking and thinking about the decisions that go into a council’s budget, an enlightening experience for teenagers who might never have previously thought about local politics. Tim agreed on the importance of this, stating that while the panel may have looked like ‘Bristol’s oldest boyband’, they also needed to think of ways other than simply ‘putting things on social media’ to really reach the young people who aren’t currently ‘turning up’ to let their voice be heard in political matters. They spoke of how vital it is that youth parliament and youth mayors come along to events to be the voice of the next generation and to represent those who perhaps can’t get involved for one reason or another. Tim suggested that the discussion with young people should always be framed as ‘here is a problem, here are some solutions we think might work, but tell us what you think and lets work together on it’.

Finding Legitimacy with Nadine Smith

Next up was Nadine Smith from the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) who was speaking about their Finding Legitimacy project. Having started her career in Bristol, Nadine was happy to be back and believed it to be a city of great potential with a promising approach to consultation and engagement.

The CPI firmly believe that legitimacy in politics matters and that the relationship between citizens and governments is fundamental to achieving success. People can feel that government is just something that is being done to them, not with them and finding empathy and authenticity in government can be difficult.

Through the Finding Legitimacy project, Nadine and the CPI have been going to different cities and countries to speak with people about how they are feeling about their relationship with politics and government. People seem to agree that with the buzz around politics, and improved digital capabilities, feeling involved and closer to government should be easier, but wonder if it really is, or if there is perhaps a missing connection somewhere.

CPI came to Bristol to interview Bristolians at 8pm on a sunny Monday evening in a ‘stuffy room full of unstuffy people’ with no air-con and people turned up to make sure their views were heard and to share their stories. People want to be engaged but sometimes struggle to know how they can get there. Nadine believes that consultation and government should be brought to the people, and that citizens shouldn’t always be expected to seek it out. Perhaps, she suggested, there needs to be more middle ground and more grassroots action to make sure that the public and government can work effectively together, to ensure citizens feel like more than just a number.

Thanks to Nic Price (@nicprice) for this photo

After some tea, coffee and cake, it was time for our very own Commercial Director, Ben Fowkes to give a brief history of what Delib does and how it came about with a chance for the audience to both learn more about us and also ask questions about our work: 

Then it was time for the final speaker of the day.

Nicky Saunter on the power of the story

Nicky heads up Transform, an organisation working internationally to bring about the legal regulation of drugs. Based in Bristol, Nicky is positive that a lot can happen in the city which has great diversity and engagement and is ‘far away enough from London’ to be autonomous and its ‘own city’.

Transform argue that billions of pounds are wasted annually fighting the ‘war on drugs’, with drugs deaths at record numbers and drugs gangs more violent – so they’re campaigning for ways that drugs policies could and should change. Nicky compared drugs deaths with car accidents, arguing that cars are regulated and have certain standards they must meet, so car accidents are fewer. If drugs were legalised and regulated and had to meet certain standards, would that not mean the resulting number of deaths could decrease?

This sort of policy isn’t always popular with politicians, and even when you have facts on your side, it doesn’t necessarily get heard. So the direct participation of people is hugely important. Telling those stories that bring it home with emotional impact can bring about genuine participation from people and lead to change. Transform are running a campaign called Anyone’s Child, to try and highlight the people who are most affected by issues with drugs. By using emotional impact and real-life stories, they are educating people on why legal regulation of drugs could be a positive step in improving the current situation. Using the love of families who have lost sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and so on to show that there are people at the heart of these issues, not just criminals and gangs, they are highlighting that were drugs regulated, their relatives might have survived. The people of the Anyone’s Child campaign have taken to Westminster to be the voice for their lost relatives and loved ones and are hoping through the power of their stories change could happen.

The day ended with an excellent lunch from a local family-run business, Nico’s Kitchen and some networking. It was great to see a varied crowd there; a bunch of people willing to ‘turn up’, to get stuck in and to work towards making a difference in the way government and citizens interact. With various opportunities for questions and a panel discussion with the Mayor himself, this wasn’t an event to come to and be talked at, but an opportunity for genuine dialogue between the public and those working at the frontline of local government. A few people mentioned on the day (between mouthfuls of cake and sandwiches) that they really enjoyed the audience participation element of the day because it felt so inclusive. Well, participation (with impact) was the name and participation was the game!

Massive thanks to all of our speakers for making it a brilliant day and also to The Foundation at Triodos Bank for providing the perfect venue. One speaker, Anthony Zacharzewski of the Democratic Society, wasn’t able to make it due to a cancelled flight, however we are sure to be working with him again in the near-future.

If you’d like to see more from the event, check out the hashtag #PracticalDemocracyProject on Twitter or get in touch @DelibThinks. The Practical Democracy Project is back on the move and could be appearing in a city near you soon. Watch this space.