Organising a community action summit
I blogged about one of these in greater detail in October 2013 – see here. In January 2014 I had a meeting with David Cleevely CBE, founder of the Centre for Science Policy at the University of Cambridge, and Anne Bailey of the Cambridge Area Partnership – the latter aiming to improve the work chance for 14-19 year olds in partnership with local colleges, public bodies and employers.
Both Anne and David challenged me to go further following the publication of my slidepack of ideas for Cambridge – see here. My main aim for publishing these was to put as many of the ideas I had ‘out there’ to generate further discussion. Both Anne and David amongst others picked up on these.
Some background context
A number of things had been coming to a head towards the end of 2013 for me. Much of it was my frustration at the pace of improvements within local public institutions regarding social media and co-operation between the organisations. What was particularly frustrating was the responses from councillors at Cambridge South Area Committee in January 2014 (see the minutes here – note the public questions I put to them, and the councillors’ responses). It felt that some of the specific ideas I had were being either rebuffed or where I was the one who had to take the initiative first. As a result, I posted a very angry blogpost that, along with a handful of blogposts that followed it ended up with over 2,000 hits put together. Not bad for what was otherwise post on a very localised issue. (See the original blogpost here). This ultimately led to me being on the front page of the Cambridge News – a newspaper that I once delivered on a paper round in my early teens!
The full article is online here. What’s notable about this is Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News found out about this through social media – Twitter. Although the News normally sends a reporter to cover local council meetings, they didn’t to this one due to a clash with another area meeting. Hence this being an example of how live reporting using social media by a local resident can end up in the mainstream press.
What problem will a community action summit solve?
On its own, I want the summit to re-engage people in how the city is run and for them to have their say in the future of the city. The summit itself is more a catalyst to problem solving rather than trying to resolve a single specific issue. My proposal is to use many of the principles of open spaces/unConferences that have been used successfully at UKGovCamp (see here) and apply them to Cambridge.
Traditional conferences often have audiences that passively listen to a panel of ‘experts’ – panels often lacking in diversity of backgrounds and experiences. This summit aims to bring together people from a diverse range of backgrounds but all of whom have passion for the city in common. Through a series of interactive workshops those attending will be invited to define what they see are the problems and challenges facing Cambridge. They will then be invited in workshops to tackle the problems or challenges of their choice – with the aim of everyone committing to a single one-off action or behaviour change following the event. The intention being that the sum of all these small actions by lots of people will be greater than the sum of their parts.
Sponsorship, the role of local politicians, and outside help
Not so long ago, some of my friends and contacts in the public policy world were lampooning a conference around transforming democracy because the asking price for the conference was around £200. My intention is that through sponsorship and support from key local organisations, this event will be free. That or any charges for the event will be on a sliding scale so that those who can least afford it pay the least, and the most affluent contribute the most to the costs. Perhaps the level of sponsorship will depend in part on the scale of the event as well as the profile of those backing it. It also depends on whether I and other organisers can articulate a ‘vision’ that potential backers choose to be part of.
A number of people have questioned me about this – not least because of my recent criticisms of some local politicians. It’s very tempting to run an event like this and prevent politicians and known/established political activists from coming along – as I’ve seen events in the past do. The reason being is that organisers of grass-roots events don’t like them being hijacked or being used as a platform for loud voices to broadcast slogans. At the same time, local councils are the established public bodies for representing the people at a local level, and for delivering essential local public services. Therefore they cannot – and should not – be ignored.
What should their role be? Cambridge Labour Party held an event in early 2013 where some senior shadow ministers came to visit the city. The event was open to anyone – not just members of the public, hence why I went along – see my write-up here. The event had the MPs in ‘listening’ mode, asking lots of informed questions of the residents that were there, summarising what they were hearing back to confirm they had heard what people were saying. This went down well with the people there, because the workshops were about trying to solve some very tricky public policy problems.
With the above in mind, my intention is that politicians and political activists should not be excluded, but that they should be both clearly identifiable. Furthermore, said politicians could be restricted to the example set by the MPs above: Only allowed to ask questions (and not loaded ones such as “Would you like to buy our paper/join our party?”) or to summarise what they have heard from those attending.
This helps explain the need for sponsorship other than venue & refreshments hire. There are a number of very skilled facilitators I’ve met during my years in Whitehall. These individuals are ones that have a track record of successfully running these events across the country while providing a decent level of external challenge to those attending. It’s their ability to ensure that everyone gets to speak along with providing that external challenge (and examples from other parts of the country) that I feel Cambridge needs.
The role of digital and young people
Digital and social media
One of the themes of this event is to try new approaches – in particular ones that have not really been tried ‘at scale’ in Cambridge in this context. The first is the role of digital and social media. A number of smaller events in Cambridge have used digital and social media very successfully. What I want to try at this event is the use of this in a manner similar to UKGovCamp, linked above. Can we use social media to link to audiences outside the venue? Can we use digital media – in particular audio-visual to showcase some new ideas to solve existing problems, or to get people engaged in existing democratic processes?
Conspicuous by their absence at local council meetings are young people – something I’ve raised regularly recently with councillors. It’s not that young people are not interested. Having met several of the recent Cambridgeshire contingents of the National Citizen Service programme, and having spoken to staff and students at a couple of the local sixth form colleges about their community programs, young people want to take part. But are we making things accessible for them and relevant to them? How can they contribute to the design and content of the day? (As opposed to just inviting them to turn up).
Making things accessible for the parents too
One of the things I’ve become aware of in recent times is the barrier the lack of childcare availability can have on accessibility. At the same time, parents with young children can be some of the most active in local communities. I see this first hand as a governor of a local primary school. Hence creche facilities for the youngest, and perhaps a primary-school-orientated series of workshops may help parents take part. One of the reasons why their participation is essential for me is because the city council in my view all too often overlooks the role that schools can play in local communities. Not surprising given the division of responsibilities between city and county councils – as described halfway down this blogpost by one of my local councillors. My challenge back to the council is how to overcome this divide.
Piloting some of the new approaches
With a number of the things I want to try out, several are ones I’ve seen used successfully before – just not in Cambridge. It was with this in mind I brought together Anglia Ruskin Students Union, the Cambridge Student Hub and Transition Cambridge together to organise a ‘Skillsfest’. Similar to events Transition Cambridge have run before, I wanted to see if the principles and their experience could be applied to, and shared with a student audience. I blogged about our first meeting here. The result of that meeting is that we will be hosting a skillsfest event on Sunday 2 March 2014 at Anglia Ruskin University’s East Road Campus from 2pm. Once we have confirmation of the event details (we’re still at confirming workshop stage), they will be posted on Transition Cambridge’s website and through social media too. The learning from this event will feed into the community action summit.
I’m in the process of writing up a project plan for a community action summit – aimed at attracting an audience (at this stage) of between 200-300 people. (I did say I’m aiming for ‘scale’!) If what I’m describing interests you, please drop me an email at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com.