FROME – where citizens run their town themselves
Learn from this smart way of local governance how you can make politics relevant, effective and fun in your town.
How it all started
Many Frome residents had had enough: Party politics in their Somerset town of 25,000 inhabitants had led to stagnation and arbitrary decisions were being taken.
This led a group of citizens to take things into their own hands by setting up Independents for Frome (IfF).
Based on the Localism Act of 2011, they founded a “minor party” which requires less formalities than a national party.
The 2011 local elections, off the cuff brought IfF 11 council seats out of 17.
Further breakthroughs came at the next elections in 2014 and 2019 when they won all 17 seats.
A way of working
The IfF model is predominantly a way of working, with its own beliefs, practices and behaviours.
The belief is that if a town wants to support its residents and create healthy living for all, listening and getting citizens involved is necessary.
Rather than focus on what divides a society, IfF looks at what unites it. Rather than criticise what does not work, they do more of what does.
IfF welcome disagreements as they bring in more views. They have learned to deal with conflict in non-confrontational ways.
From the start, IfF did not have a manifesto. Parties usually can’t stick to them anyway.
Instead, they campaigned for cooperating with citizens and engaging stakeholders to co-create the town’s politics.
The governance of Frome Town Council reflects the IfF movement’s way of working.
With 17 independent councillors rather than two or three party views, a broader range of opinions must be processed. To do this, the IfF Council employs independent professional facilitators. They guide members through processes to learn to listen, put themselves in others’ shoes, deliberate peacefully and then come to mutual agreement.
The council has adopted a self-empowerment approach for citizens:
The emphasis is on strengthening the community and supporting the ideas that the community wants to enact.
The council invests limited funds into organisations and new initiatives. These in turn raise money, create charities and work with volunteers. The work and the financial burden are spread across a variety of actors and bodies. This means that community services can be delivered much more efficiently and effectively than by a few Council administrators alone.
The system works like an organism with the council at the heart.
Panels form another important structural element of the way of working in Frome.
They are made up of experts and citizens; people with the relevant skills, required for a given task. Together, they work on strategies.
Panels have replaced traditional council committees and have a limited life span. As the council considers the panels to be the experts, their recommendations will be adopted.
Frome’s citizens can both suggest and choose which events will be covered by a citizens’ budget. The last budget amounted to £30,000.
Proposals are either presented at public dragons’ den events, or online with short films, upon which people can vote.
Frome is also planning its first citizens’ assembly, starting with the topic of climate change. They will bring together a random selection of about 50 people over regular meetings to advise the council.
So, what’s different?
The IfF approach differs from traditional politics, not “just” because councillors are independent citizens.
It’s also because there is the genuine desire to co-create governance with the people. It required breaking down formalities, using citizens’ expertise, empowering and engaging them and using smart decision-making processes. This takes confrontation out of politics.
It also requires courage, an open mind, readiness to look for expertise where it really is and cooperation with as many people as possible. Taking risks, allowing for mistakes and learning from them are other important elements.
In Frome, the role of politicians is being facilitators of good ideas who listen to others rather than considering themselves as the sole experts.
Even after eight years of IfF on the council, some traditional scepticism towards “politicians” prevails.
Many people in Frome still don’t know much about IfF. Disinterest in local politics was also reflected by the May 2019 elections. IfF got 80 per cent of the votes, but the turnout was just about 35 per cent.
It takes patience and engaging with even more people to normalise new ways in politics. The forthcoming citizens’ assembly provides a good opportunity.
And the successes?
The greatest success in Frome has been the change of relationship between governing and governed. IfF has transformed Frome Town Council into a place where people feel welcome, are being heard and get the support they need to co-create.
Frome won several awards for their politics such as Council of the Year or the Great Town Award.
Other towns have started copying the Frome model.
Successes have been achieved by taking party politics, formality and the ego out of politics.
Fun, humour and partying are other success factors. People, many of them volunteers, are putting time and effort into creating the holistic Frome way of politics. To keep this up, there must be fun.
Agility in fast-changing times?
Accepting proposals made by citizens and organisations and cooperating on them, gives politics an element of agile adaptation.
Flexibly adjustable panels can easily be convened for innovative tasks.
Accepting mistakes and learning from them allows for experimentation.
Having a facilitator help Frome Town Council to arrive at conclusions as one group, also adds to agility.