Bristol City Council has been given £395,000 of UK government funding to test whether councillors and officials, often under attack from activists in their local communities, can learn not only to react positively but actually provide support to their critics.
The project is funded under the Government's e-innovations programme:
The focus of e-innovations is to encourage practical examples of new and innovative approaches to joined-up working, effective service delivery and community engagement which are sustainable in the long term.
The Campaign Pack funding is being spent on software that will provide an online home for any campaign, and ways to develop pamphlets and other materials; a guide to campaigning; a forum for campaigners to share experience; piloting; and development work to make the tool available to other local authorities. The project description says:
Falling election turnout is citied by many as evidence of the growing crisis in democracy. The Community Campaign Project starts with a different premise and an open-mind as to what might be achieved.
The Community Campaign Project’s starting point is that it is not lack of opinions or ideas which leads to this sense of disengagement. Rather it is the lack of ability that individuals and communities have to make their voices heard and a lack of trust that anyone will listen when they are.
Campaigns start with people with ideas. This project sets out to prove that by providing the right support, encouragement and access to tools, councils can help “people with ideas” to become effective community campaigners and in so doing, can show themselves to be effective community leaders.
I'm on an advisory group for the project that was recruited when most of the development work had been done, and I'm still not really sure why we are there, or whether I will stay. I'm developing a suspicion that we may be a tick box, as in "you must have an advisory group if you are getting Government funds". I hope I'm wrong.
However, I think I can say without breaking any confidences that there is some lively questioning from a few of us about how far it is realistic for councils to provide platforms for campaigners ... and whether any campaigner really trying to make a difference would use a council-hosted platform.
For me the problem is the use of the term 'campaign'. If the project aimed to create a set of tools and processes by which councils, community groups and many other interests in an area could work out when to agree and when to disagree - and then get on with it - that would make sense.
But campaigning is something different - it is about challenging, and councils don't usually like that. I've heard of quite a few situations in which councils have restricted or closed down online forums just because contributors disagreed with them. Are they really going to host and support active campaigns?
On the advisory group we are being urged to be positive, and wait until we can actually have a go with the online platform. On that basis I thought "don't get cross, get creative", and came up with a couple of ideas.
The first is that the campaign tool could provide a great learning experience to help councillors, officials and activists understand each other better. How about a mixed group gets together for a few hours to invent a possible campaign issue - not a real one, so tempers are not frayed from the outset. They work out who might be involved on council and community sides. Then they exchange roles, and start campaigning with all the support that is planned as part of the project. At the end they get together to talk about what they have learned from each other, and how the campaign tool might be improved. (I'll declare an interest here ... I would love to be hired to help on that one).
The second idea is that the project staff and advisory group reflect on the experience we are currently having in trying to share ideas. As the project proposal says " ... it is the lack of ability that individuals and communities have to make their voices heard and a lack of trust that anyone will listen when they are" (which leads to this sense of disengagement). If the advisory group starts to feel that it isn't being taken seriously, I think we have the perfect reason for raising this lack of attention strongly with the council. If they won't take seriously people who are meant to be advisers, what hope will there be for community activists?
Either way, it is an experiment, and I certainly wouldn't want to criticise Government for trying something different. I just wish they would also be prepared to provide at least some recognition to the thousands of campaign activists and community volunteers who have struggled over the past decade or so to understand online tools and make their benefits available to people in their neighbourhoods and communities of interest.
Ah, that gives me the third idea. Look more widely at what else is happening in the field, and invite others to contribute ideas through the project's online forum or blog. These days advisory groups don't have to be closed.