“That’s democracy, son…”

25 Feb

‘How can we rehabilitate politics and democracy?’ is a question I spend a good deal of time thinking about. So when Durham County Council invited me to their participatory budgeting event in Crook where £500,000 was available for the local community to allocate I jumped at the chance.

It snowed. A lot. But it made no difference at all. As we walked into the school, a father and his 11 year old walked in next to us. The boy had on wellies and was clutching his ipad. He asked his father “What do I have to do though?!” His father said,

“You look at all the ideas and you vote for the ones you like best. That’s democracy, son.”

The event was busy all day. There were queues of people registering to vote, at each stall to learn more about the projects they could choose from and then at the polling station. People of all ages attended, mostly in family groups or going with their friends. Held in a local school, the event was staffed by council workers who had been recruited specifically to develop a participatory approach, they have honed their skills and it ran very smoothly with people ably shepherded through the different elements of the process.

Cllr Simon Henig at PB event

Cllr Henig talking with residents at the event

People queue to vote at Crook Participatory Budgeting Event

People queue to vote at Crook Participatory Budgeting Event

I accompanied the Council Leader, Cllr Simon Henig who is a real democracy geek. (He teaches politics at a local university). He has run local referendums, devolved hundreds of thousands to be spend via these local area partnership structures and he was visibly thrilled to see the queues going out through the doors at this event, seeing people motivated to vote. This is just one element of the work they are doing to increase democratic participation and it was very successful. Over 1000 people voted out of a population of around 12 -13,000.

PB ballot boxes

Do I think using digital tools could work with this style of event? Of course! All the projects made videos which could be shared using social media, conversations and Q&A on the projects could have happened before or during the event for local people who couldn’t make the event for some reason…maybe because they were working for example. If people register on the website then even voting could happen online. You can use online polling for example. Having participated in the event, it would be great to keep the conversation live using social media. You might find that the event has provoked the interest of people who want to help with a project and this ongoing conversation would enable the projects and the council to enable this volunteering and further participation.

What I thought was best about this approach? Definitely that age 11+ kids were voting and participating. This opportunity to participate in the democratic process makes sense on so many levels: To encourage participation in the successful projects; To encourage an interest in local democracy from the earliest possible age. I think you could even include much younger children, many of whom were at the event and really interested in what was happening.

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