The go-between wears out a thousand sandals, according to a Japanese proverb. In deepest Holloway last week that fate befell those playing the role of councillor in our game simulating the government's new neighbourhoods policy.
As conference organiser Kevin Harris reports, the game aimed to simulate what will happen in a few years when "double devolution" takes hold, and public service delivery moves down the ladder beyond councils to offer more contracting opportunities to nonprofits, and more opportunities for active citizens.
Drew Mackie and I were relieved when participants readily agreed to move from presentations to interaction, to form groups, and develop descriptions of fictitious (but pretty realistic) neighbourhoods. To spice things up, they threw in plenty of problems and then passed the challenge to another group, while inheriting someone else's neighbourhood. After that, their task was to come up with ways in which different agencies, organisations and community groups would plan and carry out improvements. It was a revised version of our first run last November. As Kevin reports:
The first version of the game had been uncannily realistic but we had struggled to integrate the policy role. On this occasion we diluted it but Drew introduced a role for ward councillors - and it was fascinating to watch how, in two of the three groups, the councillor ended up being a butt for complaints from the community groups and systematically ignored or by-passed by the service agencies. Watching one group was like watching a game of tennis, and reminds me that I've often been puzzled as to why anyone would want to become a councillor. It just doesn't seem a pleasant way to spend one's evenings.
Earlier Kieran Drake, from Neighbourhoods and Citizen Engagement at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, had provided a full briefing on how policy is developing, and explained the enhanced role councillors might have. They would move from the back benches to the front line, becoming leaders of communities and empowered advocates, while calling on support from council officers running neighbourhood management. You can download the presentation here, together with others from Gabriel Chanan and Paul Hilder.
It all sounded fine in theory, but then things don't always turn out the way the policy makers hope. Games are one way of testing out what may happen. In this case it seemed that councillors could end up being pulled in two directions, trying to build bridges but just as likely to get in the way. Is that a mixed metaphor? I'm not sure, but it was all pretty hilarious since people managed to have fun exploring the future of Slaghampton.
Kevin highlights the complexity of what the government plans:
Presentations and discussion at the conference, as well as the game, confirmed that this agenda packs a hugely complex set of issues. The scope and power of agencies, the formality of neighbourhood agreements with service providers, the skill-levels of councillors, the worries about burn-out among activists, and so on - all sorts of unanswered dynamics and tensions. To their credit, the ODPM have long-since recognised the importance of strengthening local government and enhancing the role of councillors.
While there were clearly a lot of tough issues, I found some support for the way things may develop. I asked two people from what could easily become opposite sides of the fence what they thought. Folake Segun works for Croydon Voluntary Action, and Theo Fasoyiro for Croydon Council. They were very positive about the new policies and the benefits they may bring. However - and this to me is the key issue - they emphasised that it is because the public and nonprofit sector have a good working relationship at present. Where different sectors don't get on so well the new arrangements are going to be pretty challenging, and the role of councillors particularly so. In that case, start ordering sandals now.