NEWHAM – Where citizens are getting heard
Residents are co-creating their community neighbourhoods and deciding where to invest their citizens’ budget. A blueprint for participatory democracy in the UK?
How it all started
In 2018, the election of Rokhsana Fiaz as the new Mayor of Newham brought change to the borough of London and its 350.000 inhabitants.
After a period of political controversies, she wanted to rebuild trust with the citizens.
Her strategy: creating more transparency, more accountability and getting residents involved in decision-making.
How does it work?
Newham consists of eight community neighbourhoods. They are run by managers and their teams who take care of their respective residents.
Now citizens were to have co-responsibility for their communities.
This is how it worked:
A well-designed campaign informed the people about forthcoming community assemblies. Anybody interested was welcome to join.
The purpose of such assemblies was for residents to take charge of their community plans.
Before that, community managers drafted those plans, which suggested community activities or marked challenges to be dealt with. Now this task was delegated to citizens.
Residents had a budget of £25,000 per community for their plans.
Over a period of six months, thirty-two assemblies of about 70 participants were held.
They dealt with setting priorities; generating ideas for the community plan and lastly, deciding on where to invest the money.
A professional in group facilitation work trained the community managers so they could moderate the assemblies themselves.
The administration provided citizens with the opportunity of discussing, learning, and asking questions around local budgeting. Three interactive forum events with administrative staff allowed citizens to acquire more expertise.
In between the assemblies, working groups met to work on the details.
They were composed of 8-12 participants representing volunteering citizens, local councillors, council management (the administration) and local stakeholders relevant to the ideas set out in the plan.
The concept turned out to be extremely popular. So many citizens volunteered to join the working groups that participants were drawn by lot (sortition).
“Newham is going to become a blueprint for participatory democracy in this country. But we have to do this together. I need you all on this journey. I need your passion. I need your energy. I need your ideas, and I need your solutions. Together we will demonstrate how people can be at the heart of everything we do in this council.”
This is how Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz expressed her wish to bring citizens into decision-making in order to overcome the split between the government and the people.
Perhaps methods could be used that get citizens involved, allow for hearing and processing their views, and then come to mutual final results? In Newham this worked.
When many people express their own views and realities, you get a more comprehensive map of a complex reality – as compared to one based on a few party ideologies only. It allows for finding better solutions.
Newham’s approach welcomes tensions. The smart decision-making process diminishes conflict.
Tensions cannot be voted away as practiced by traditional politics. “51% support – tension resolved!” – simply doesn’t work.
Watch out for pitfalls
New practices create challenges. They require learning for all.
Local government needs to know what participatory approaches are all about. It takes some getting used to not only having citizens co-create input, but to also take their input into account.
Facilitators and those implementing participation need to learn how local government works.
Before the start of community assemblies, everyone’s expectations need to be clarified. What are the administration’s time constraints? What time frame is required for the citizens’ assemblies? What is the scope of the mandate for participating citizens? To what extent are results going to be implemented?
Newham’s community assemblies were successful in many ways.
Participants felt reconnected to their communities. They loved working on their community plans and deciding how the money was going to be spent.
Community managers and their teams are now fully committed to this new way of working and have also bonded as a team.
Such successes require authenticity: genuinely listening to people and taking their contributions into account.