This weekend I went to a “think/hack/do” event organised by Good For Nothing. The objective of the event was to help Lambeth Borough Council in its ambition to become a “cooperative council” – one that seeks deeper cooperation with residents.

In local government there seems to be quite a lot of apologising. There are shared assumptions, held by council workers and the public alike, that a) The council is the most inefficient organisation imaginable b) Every decision it makes will be the wrong one, in at least nearly everyone’s opinion c) They have absolutely no idea about technology, and should abandon all of their intuitions and listen to certified geeks as soon as they touch a computer. Everything you say has to be preceded by excoriating yourself for having the temerity to be white, middle class and literate. But Lambeth Council doesn’t have so much to apologise for – the more that I learned about what the council does the more respect I had for it – it does a lot.

I was part of a team that took on a brief to make all parks work as well as the best ones (ie. Brockwell Park  – whose major advantage is a very active community group). The first thing we did was gather some opinions, including  interviewing people on the streets and leaving marker pen and board at four locations overnight.

What I took from our research was this: local government is completely paradoxical. Councils are genuinely deeply motivated to make life great for residents, and have an admirable commitment to inclusivity . They have money, power, control over infrastructure and time.  Despite this residents frequently regard them as malign, and the decisions taken do sometimes look perverse.

This is one little gem we turned up: a turfed public space that the council had spent money digging up and making lumpy to prevent kids playing football. Sounds stupid, but it seems it was done at the residents’ request – apparently windows were getting broken by flying footballs.  No doubt the locals reserved the right to blame the council for the lack of facilities for young people.

Another seemingly trifling concern which preoccupies the council is ensuring there is no surface that a homeless person might use to comfortably sleep on. Our entire urban landscape is designed not for our amenity, but to “design out” a vulnerable demographic. On the other hand, mitigating the impact of street drinking and rough sleeping on the community is obviously a connected issue – and one frequently mentioned to councilors.

I spoke to a 70 year old man in a cafe and gave him my laptop to do a survey on (who was instantly two finger scrolling his way around the page – he obviously owned a Mac, confounding expectations).  At the time we were exploring the idea that parks are seen as hostile because of the amount special regulation around them – every park in Lambeth has a board with 45 by-laws at its entrance. However, we soon found that a lot of people wanted the regulations – that’s why they got there in first place.

What’s I found fascinating about the challenge the council faces was that it isn’t, at least exclusively, a lack of money.  The problem is one of finding out what the community wants – all of the community – not the “sharp-elbowed middle classes”, as we unfairly referred to them.

Three disposable thoughts that came to me during the process:

  • This is not rational ignorance. Unlike national politics, in local debate there is a good chance your voice will be heard. Moreover, rather than abstract national politics you will be changing actual things that really affect you – traffic, crime etc.
  • However, it’s also the case that although many people would benefit from interacting more with their council, they don’t in fact have time to get informed and communicate their views. As previously mentioned, only those sharp-elbowed middle class have the time and skills to do this.  Deliberative democracy, where randomly selected representative groups of citizens are paid to spend time thinking through problems could be an answer. Jury service for the local council essentially.
  • Publicly funded organsiations often seem reticent about promoting themselves. When I was at the BBC, there was a constant refrain that we should “do less and promote more”, but we still found ourselves building brilliant web products that no one ever heard of because the budget for marketing didn’t exist.  All of us at the hack day were pretty clued into what happens in Lambeth, but we were constantly saying  “What about x” only to have the Ian from the parks department say that it already existed.Hackney Council did an advertising campaign at bus stops a while back – but it was completely generic “We’ve refurbished 20 playgrounds this year” etc. Perhaps they could do adverts asking the public about the three issues closest to that bus stop – with a number to text.My limited experience of council-culture gave the impression they aren’t naturally going to bang their own drum.

Finally, isn’t this a lovely example of online conversation around a shared space? The design of the Clapham Common Skate Park was discussed extensively on Facebook, on page set up by the council. It’s still a busy page with lots of people chatting about it.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clapham-Common-Skate-Park/144717115599888

 

 

 

 

 

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