Archive for category Lambeth

A street. Celebrating a multitude of stories

Last Sunday, we held our third annual Sudbourne Road Street Party. As ever it was a personal, neighbourly and community affirmation of the simple power of human connection (

Place and our association with it is a funny thing. The two places I tend to speak of most often are Belfast and Brixton. I’m always interested in how others respond to my stories of these two extraordinary places and how they (among others) shaped and continue to shape me.  The stereotype is of course of two troubled places; gritty, associated far too often (and always sadly) in the minds of others with division and decay (social, economic, political, economic). And yet, for those of us lucky enough to call either of these places home, that is just one story from among a multitude. And one which denies both them and us the glory of their true, complex, gritty, divided and yes, in parts decaying, selves. And in doing so the stereotype prevails, grows stronger, pushes out the possibility of another reality, an alternative narrative.

The danger, the limitations, the challenge of these “single stories” is articulated in this wonderful talk by Chimamanda Adichie: 

And last Sunday as I watched neighbours and friends come together in a simple celebration of shared place I was struck by the limitations and distorted reality of Brixton’s oft told “single story” and the possibility in the alternative story we – in a simple act of gathering to celebrate our physical communion in SW2 – were (and are) writing. As I watched friends and neighbours come and go I wondered at the multitude of stories that made last Sunday what it was and our street what it is and Brixton what it really is more often than it is not……and in doing so we too regain(ed) a kind of paradise.

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An Education – our Primary Focus (Part 4)

Feeling almost hopeful today after reading The Guardian piece on Frank Field (former Labour minister, now the Coalition’s “Poverty Advisor”)) preparing review on ‘how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults’.

Apparently, Field said he said he was disturbed by research showing how accurate a prediction can be made as to where a child will be in their 20s, by looking at their ability at 22 months and just before five years. Narrowing divisions in children’s readiness for school at five was central to tackling divisions in later life, he said.

He is right to be disturbed. But he shouldn’t be surprised.

Certainly this has been known to the wonderful Sutton Trust Charity for some time and even an uninformed observer such as myself has been bemoaning the lack of interest in and commitment to progress interventions aimed at supporting the development of disadvantaged children in their most formative years. My three previous posts over the past year on the subject: herehere and here.

This has been a particular concern of mine in Northern Ireland where most of last year was spent arguing on post Primary education when the real prize is – as the Sutton Trust continually point out – closing the cognitive and associated aspirational gap among children way way before we start to concern ourselves with means of post primary selection.

Anyway, maybe Field is starting to listen and will follow through on the plans outlined in the article. If so that’s commendable but I also hope this is only the start.

In Northern Ireland I hope @conallmcd and NI Minister for Education, Caitríona Ruane take notice. Closer to home I hope that @cllrstevereed and @chukaumunna pick this up and recognise it is for this very reason that local residents are so concerned about plans for an extension of the Ofsted rated Outstanding Sudbourne Road Primary School (and nursery).

What I wrote in March of this year seems still to be relevant today. Shame. But saves me re-typing:

“Consistently on this blog I have maintained that while some form of streaming or selection is a must in any mature and inclusive education system, our real focus should be on primary education; on ensuring our administration of that education is innovative and inclusive enough to support pupils from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and encouraging an ethos of and commitment to  ”concerted cultivation” of our young children among parents and local communities.  We are currently failing our young people during their most formative years”.

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The Big Lunch 2010 and the importance of “social capital”

The Big Lunch 2010 - Sudbourne Road“I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit… If he may come into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors” (Hanifan, L. J. 1916)

Last Sunday, 18th July, the residents of Sudbourne Road, Brixton, gathered to celebrate “The Big Lunch 2010”. Under appropriately blue skies our sleepy, if perfectly formed, slice of south London was transformed for an afternoon into a theatre of food, music, dancing, playing, face painting, badge making, ice cream slurping and neighbourly celebration.

Pre-dating the now ubiquitous “Big Society”, TBL is – like all good ideas – a very simple one. By encouraging neighbours and communities to come together and socialise within the simple construct of a street party, they believe we can:

  • Build and improve community spirit and engagement
  • Make the third of us who live alone feel happier, closer and… friendlier
  • Conquer our natural shyness, to open our curtains, doors and minds and look out for one another
  • Share stories, skills and tools, so we all end up richer in every sense
  • Discover common ground across age, class, faith, race and the garden fence.
  • And you know what. It might just work.

    I’ve lived on this street for over two years.  It’s a beautiful place. Yet we only knew the wonderful couple who rent the flat below us and our neighbours to the right. And really, that was it before last Sunday. And it’s interesting how that seems entirely acceptable for so long. How you can live in such close proximity to so many people and yet live so very far apart.

    I won’t deny to being a little bit cynical when Lucy Sherwood (our fearless leader for 2010) dropped the first of the leaflets for this year’s event through the door. It’s just easier that way it seems. But I couldn’t help but notice that as the day grew closer the greater my anticipation – and hopes – grew. The evolutionary psychologist in me would have diagnosed this as the natural reaction of any innately social animal, but it was also in part triggered by my long held interest in behavioural psychology – particularly when concerned with collective/group behaviour – both in the workplace and in society at large. In particular, two of my favorite studies on the role and importance of community or social capital, kept playing out in my mind.

    In 1995 Robert Putnam published a groundbreaking study of the growing fragmentation and associated dislocation of community and group life in America. Initially published as an article in the Journal of Democracy ““Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, a book of the same name in 2000 went on to be a bestseller.  According to Putnam, social capital “refers to the collective value of all ‘social networks‘ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”. According to Putnam, social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy. Putnam’s studies of modern American life led him to conclude that social capital is declining in the United States. This is seen in lower levels of trust in government and lower levels of civic participation. Putnam also says that television and urban sprawl have had a significant role in making America far less ‘connected’. Putnam believes that social capital can be measured by the amount of trust and “reciprocity” in a community or between individuals.

    Anyone familiar with life in N. Ireland or wider United Kingdom will recognise that the trends described by Puttnam are mirrored here. As The Big Lunch website itself reminds us:

  • Two million more single person households are forecast by 2019.
  • We have more rich, poor and ethnic ghettos than ever before.
  • There has been a 7% annual drop in trust between neighbours from 2003-05.
  • Social trust in the UK halved and now among the lowest in Europe.
  • While there are subtleties to be recognised with regard to some disadvantages and inequalities associated with the creation and distribution of ‘social capital’, in the main commentators agree that it can be an extremely positive force – increasing civic and political participation (“The Big Society“), contributing to our personal and collective mental well-being (The New Economics Foundation) as well as improving our physical health and life expectancy.

    Those of you who have read Malcolm Gladwell‘s excellent Outliers, will be familiar with what has become known as “The Roseto Effect”.  In the mid 1960’s medical researchers – led by Stewart Wolf (a physician) – were drawn to Roseto (a close-knit Italian-American community Pennsylvania) by a fascinating but puzzling statistic: defying medical logic, Rosetans died of heart attacks at a rate only half that of the rest of America. The men of the village smoked and drank wine without moderation. They worked out their days doing hard manual labor in nearby slate quarries. The Mediterranean diet, with its preference for olive oil rather than animal fats, had to be compromised as poor immigrants couldn’t afford to import cooking oil from their homeland and so instead they fried their sausages and browned their meatballs in lard (don’t we all?). Yet, they retained unusually healthy hearts in spite of their unhealthy diet and lifestyle. The question was: How?

    In “The Power of Clan”, a report on studies conducted by Wolf and John Bruhn (a sociologist) over a broad period of time from 1935 to 1984, they found that mutual respect and cooperation contribute to the health and welfare of a community and its inhabitants while a lack of concern for others and self indulgence have the opposite effect.

    Studying the history of Roseto, they found that early immigrants were shunned by the English and Welsh who dominated this corner of eastern Pennsylvania. As a result, the Rosetans turned inward and built their own culture of cooperation and community.

    “People are nourished by other people,” said Wolf, noting that the characteristics of tight-knit community are better predictors of healthy hearts than are low levels of serum cholesterol or tobacco use. He explained that an isolated individual may be overwhelmed by the problems of everyday life. Such a person internalized that feeling as stress which, in turn, can adversely affect everything from blood pressure to kidney function. That, however, is much less likely to be the outcome when a person is surrounded by caring friends, neighbors and relatives. The sense of being supported reduces stress and the disease stress engenders.

    More recently studies in both the USA and here by the BMJ have confirmed the correlation between an active social life/set of social connections and longer life expectancy.

    And though it my not have felt that way as  I hoovered up Sudbourne Road’s finest samosa’s, jerk chicken, potato salad, sausages, ice cream and baked goods; there was an undeniable feeling of hope, optimism and yes, “well being” (personal an collective) as the evening drew to a close.

    New neighbours had been met; interesting conversations held; ideas on matters of interest to the local community – schooling and local planning applications in particular – were exchanged; histories shared; new friendships made. We appear – and it’s a shame on me that this was even remotely a surprise – to live among wonderful people with shared aspirations, hopes and fears for our street, their families and themelves.

    And so in the midst of all the semantic scuffles about The Big Society (or more locally known as Lambeth’s “Co-Operative Council”), what it is and what it might/must become it was a delightful thought that something as simple as a set of street parties, held across the UK, bringing neighbours together one day in July, might just be doing more for all of us than David Cameron’s band of merry social architects as yet.

    “People are nourished by other people”.  That’s the Big Lunch. Literally and metaphorically.

    Long may it run.

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    Lambeth Co-operative Consultation: An Update

    Coat of arms of Lambeth London Borough Council
    Image via Wikipedia

    With June slipping past and an enforced blogging hiatus likely in the coming day(s), I thought I should provide an update on my post from early June in relation to the progress of Lambeth Council’s much vaulted ‘Co-Operative Council’ White Paper and associated Citizen Consultation.

    An extremely heavy duty blog post had been planned on this, but thankfully the ever excellent @Jason_Cobb came up trumps yesterday morning with a really good interview with Sophia Looney, the Council Officer running the “co-operative consultation”. You can listen to the conversation via the power of Audioboo as part of another enjoyable and detailed blog post by @Jason_Cobb himself here.

    While the interview reassures in parts (and saved me ranting too much!), I still feel there are many lessons that could be learned and more importantly changes/improvements that could yet be made to the planned co-operative consultation process.

    So I’ve provided a quick update on progress (as I see it) based on the six recommendations I provided in my blog post prior to the publication of the White Paper.

    Be warned – this is long. Very long. Almost as impenetrable as the White Paer in question in fact ;-). So unless you are Jason Cobb or maybe Sophia Looney I’ll be mightily impressed if you make it to the end.



    Recommendation 1: Be prepared – technically and operationally

    The good:

    • The White Paper was immediately available online and was easy to download
    • There is a consultation presence across all the main electronic/online channels: Council website, dedicated eMail address for all co-operative enquiries, Facebook, Twitter and even a well meaning Wiki
    • All entries – including critical comments submitted on both Facebook and the Wiki have been left, uncensored
    • Responses to questions on Facebook have been getting a more prompt response in the last day or so
    • The Council website is made up of three pages and although hard to locate and limited in content, what is there is reasonably clear. A useful FAQ page is also now in place and thankfully provides some guidance on what we mean by a co-operative Council and examples of where the co-operative model currently works in Lambeth.

    The not so good:

    • The Wiki is pretty poor and as it stands promises to offer little to the council of value – more on that below 
    • While my eMail was answered in just a few days, others have had to wait much longer for a response. There is no auto-receipt confirmation/holding message which would be an easy fix and would pacify many
    • Twitter. As with the wiki and Facebook initiatives, it’s nice to see this being embraced but there is relatively little yet of real value from the LC team on the twitter hashtag with most traffic driven by observers/folks interested in co-operatives (many of whom seem to believe that the idea of a Lambeth co-operative is already in place and doing great things – does anyone read anything these days?). The high point of the Twitter feed was one person being asked to be part of the “commission” which turned out to be a false alarm because remember folks: there are no citizens on the commission!!
    • Facebook. Good to have as an info source but I haven’t seen any additional value apart from a minimal broadcast uplift. As with the website it’s a true shame and creates an unnecessary image of “secrecy” that the Facebook page didn’t have the 17th June “Citizens”/Council Commission meeting on as an “Event” so people on the group can be alerted and follow up. No future events are shown and there is nothing on the site to explain the purpose of the Facebook group in the context of the consultation or the other channels (website, eMail account, wiki etc). The Council could/should also provide more structure for discussions by setting up specific discussion threads on topics they wish to receive commentary/consult with the public on. This could be easily done. See comments on how the wiki might be revamped for inspiration
    • The Council webpage’s are ok but still no clarity on how the consultation will work, how citizens will be engaged or the timetable it will work upon – Sophia Looney’s useful responses in today’s interview should be written up into a digestible format (What? Who? Why? When? How?) and posted to avoid all this confusion. There are still no minutes from the first two Commission meetings in spite of promises to do so. These need to go up ASAP as promised as again, they are unnecessarily adding to a sense of secrecy around the process
    • It is clear (as confirmed in the eMail response I received from the Lambeth co-operative team) that there is no schedule or timetable for any of the planned consultation events – either those in the local community or the “public commission meeting” (I do hope there will be more than one!). I think this absence of any timetable is incredibly alarming given that this has been on the cards since February and the White Paper suggests that by September/October the “final commission report” (not sure what that will include) will be published. It’s summer, almost the end of June and I’m really now concerned that timetable makes such a wide ranging and important consultation possible. If the best we can do is to confirm that a public meeting of the commission will be held in “late July” then I do worry.
    • The White Paper. The White Paper itself caused me all sorts of concern. I’ve tried to limit the points below but I could have added several more…. 
      • White Paper Concern 1: The White Paper itself is a curious document. A mixture of general “principles” Lambeth believe will underpin a shift to a co-operative council which in turn they believe will realise a host of positive outcomes for Lambeth and its citizens. Which in itself is an interesting assumption given the admission Lambeth would be the first co-operative council..hence the lack of precedent to base either the principles or expected outcomes upon. The principles range from the general and sometimes banal e.g. “The Council as a strong community leader” to the very precise and often not at all related to any idea of a co-operative council. Principle 7 for example is a very clear and non-co-operative statement of intent on shared customer services: “Simple, joined up and easy access to services –location and transaction…providing visible value for money”.  So while there is a strong theme on co-operation as a ‘desired’ model of improvement, it appears that Lambeth are actually after a much broader discussion on how service delivery can be improved across the borough – otherwise why include sections on “shared services” as a means to improve local government by 2014?. If that is the case then why this disproportionate focus on “co-opting”. The only real clear questions being asked on the website, Facebook, Twitter and the Wiki relate to “which services could be co-opted” or “co-operative stories”.  Why such a narrow focus? The principles are not all related to a ‘co-operative’ model of Government so why has the “consultation” been so far? In the same way that the sexy “co-operative” headline could potentially narrow the discussion and blind us to other ways to improve Public Services by 2014, so too is the current invitation to citizens/partners.  So – let’s clarify what the ultimate aim of this consultation is (an exploration of all/any means to improve services or a pure and exclusive pursuit of mutualisation?), change the language of engagement, open up the debate and while by all means continue to recognise co-operation as one possible model of improvement, let’s not cut our noses off to spite our face….there are many ways to skin a cat. If we knew the true nature of the challenges Lambeth faced we might even determine that co-operation isn’t actually the best solution at all. That might be embarrassing for Guardian loving officials of course but…
      • White Paper Concern 2. For many of Lambeth’s citizens the language of “co-operatives” is meaningless and more needed/needs to be done up front to enable as many citizens as possible to engage in this consultation with a sure understanding of what exactly the desired end point is for Lambeth Council.  The useful summary description and examples in the FAQ section of the Council website should be added to an updated version of the White Paper, the Wiki site and the Facebook group to aid comprehension. A quick call to the IDeA or FutureGov or The New Economics could assist in this I am certain. It’s not too late for this – with a better social media approach a ‘body of evidence’ / case studies could be posted online/published as a supplement to the White Paper and made available to all citizens to guide and inspire.
      • White Paper Concern 3: Why is all this necessary and what is the nature of the challenge we are facing? All we are told is that the scale of the challenges ahead and our ideas which seek to address them, mean that our current approach to service delivery will not be fit-for purpose”. But what exactly is the scale of the challenge? How bad are things for Lambeth? What is at risk? Without some sense for the gap that needs to be closed it is surely impossible for interested citizens to engage deliberatively and in a productive manner in this exercise.  Ideally the council might have recognised that the first step in many of the most positive developments/examples of Public Sector/citizen co-production/mutualisation/co-operation are based on the availability of Council data which can be used by citizens to provide useful insights, tools and services.  So what about publishing the Council financials including a breakdown of revenues/receipts, spend by department/service and an assessment of what this might look like in the next 4-5 years so the scale of the challenge is clear and we can start to make some informed recommendations on the basis of the data rather than waste our (and LC’s) time in making uninformed if well meaning recommendations. This contextual information should be made available on the council webpage’s, on the Facebook Group and the Wiki to aid contributors in their deliberations/contributions
      • White Paper Concern 4: is this the right time to launch such a commitment to overhaul the way Lambeth deliver its services? Is there any genuine understanding as yet how the new “ConDem” coalition intend to engage with Local Government – what will the nature of that partnership be and how does that fit into this co-operative (aka Lambeth 2014 vision)? What impact on Lambeth Council budgets will initiatives already in flight such as the Free Schools and Academies Program have on the boroughs balance books and strategy? Is the council engaging with initiatives like The Big Society or groups like the IDeA to ensure that they benefit from thinking on co-production/citizen empowerment/co-operation at a national scale or are we at risk of setting off on our own course to prove we are “cutting edge”?
      • White Paper Concern 5: What does this mean for the extensive range of Government/Citizen/Social Enterprise partnerships that already exist in Lambeth? Where do they fit into this model? What services are currently supported and provided by them and do these offer the ideal starting point for any discussion on a full co-opting of service? As I will continue to stress, without any understanding of the current landscape of Local Government service provision then how can I even begin to make a valuable contribution to this debate. An understanding of current partnerships in this area might provide inspiration and guidance as a minimum. In her interview, Sophia Looney provides some useful insight on this – why it isn’t provided in both the White Paper and on the various online consultation channels I don’t know but it’s not too late to rectify
      • White Paper Concern 6: Are all Council Services “up for grabs”? If not, which ones? If so then are all up for grabs as far as potential “co-opting” goes? And for those members of the public, who may not have memorised the lot, why not provide a complete list of services with a short notation on whether they are open to consideration for co-opting.  While I understand the fad for listing sexy “principles”, in effect many of these are so banal and general that they border on meaningless. The other problem with using “principles” (aside from the fact it potentially constrains a creative discussion) is that it is not a good framework to engage the public in a discussion about Council improvement. Citizens’ experience Local Government not in terms of principles, but services and that is perhaps how the public consultation – both online and offline – should be re-structured (at least in addition to the principles listed). As above – this can still be easily added to various channels/points of contact to aid contributors.  An idea might be to produce a one stop “Additional Information/Briefing Pack” containing all the suggested contextual information outlined in the last few points.
      • White Paper Concern 7: As mentioned above, the paper itself is very dense and even this 10 year veteran of Public Sector policy documentation with a sad interest in the subject matter struggled to wade through it. This represents a real risk to the success of the consultation. I suggest that Lambeth Council produce an executive summary that can be made available both on and offline to those who either won’t have the time or the inclination to wade through the entire 50+ pages of the White Paper. Appropriate versions for young people and the physically impaired should be produced post haste and made available at Local Government and Community Hubs such as Youth Centres, Municipal Buildings, Customer Contact Centres, Volunteer and Social Enterprise organisation offices. I haven’t seen any hard copies of the report anywhere as yet. As mentioned earlier – if our agenda is truly to consult on how to improve local services by 2014 then wider the debate and how it is presented in these documents. As it stands I fear it appears we are on a mission to explore ‘co-operation’ to the exclusion of all else.


    In short there is a lot of work here which ideally would have been done/in place at the launch of the consultation period so that the Council were prepared (technically and operationally). This consultation has clearly been in the pipeline since February and the period for consultation over the summer is short so every day counts. However it is not too late to put many of these points right and I hope Lambeth take the time to do so.


    Recommendation 2: “Ensure a there is a representative sample of citizens consulted”

    Rather than re-hash what Sophia Looney told the good @Jason_Cobb re plans to ensure a representative sample of citizens/interested parties I suggest you listen to the Audioboo interview itself.

    I was reasonably reassured by what she said but I’d recommend two key action items:

    • Draw up another simple table which shows a breakdown of which groups are going to be consulted, why and what role they will be asked to play. This should be easily done based on what Sophia told Jason today and this in turn can be posted to the Council Website so that all interested parties understand the groupings who are being engaged (Commission, the mystery “500” who have been actively invited to participate etc). This will again help dispel this ongoing sense (hopefully misplaced) of secrecy that surrounds the process.
    • Related to the point below I don’t think there should be any data protection issues in publishing individual names and their capacity/expertise in this consultation.

    If we are to have any confidence in the outcomes of this process then Lambeth’s citizens deserve to know who will be potentially influencing the future of the Public Services we depend on. Many of these are unelected officials and it is only right and proper that we should have complete visibility of who these potentially very powerful individuals/groups are. I cannot see a case to withhold that list.

    I disagree slightly with Jason Cobb in his scepticism re the proposed 300 person “deliberation” focus groups. As per my previous post on this – empirical evidence suggests that when done properly, deliberative polling at this scale can actually work extremely well, resulting in both a representative and considered set of policy outcomes.

    But more on that later.


    Recommendation 3: Is a Wiki the best approach to online consultation?

    I hate to say “I told you so” but….It’s a mess

    • There is no ‘Beginners Guide’ for those who haven’t used this sort of tool before. That’s poor if we are to ensure all voices are heard and people are to be encouraged and enabled to participate


    • There is no ‘How this wiki will be maintained/monitored/used’ for those who do engage so there really is no sense of direction for how to contribute in the most efficient way. What is the desired output of this wiki for the Lambeth co-op team? Is it actually set up to support that (or any) specific outcome? Certainly at the moment there is no clear sense for that desired outcome and therefore how the wiki should be used/structured. That’s a shame and should be rectified


    • I’d assumed that the wiki might be first and foremost focussed on asking citizens to collaborate and provide potential answers to the key questions the White Paper poses. Instead we are only offered the chance to edit/amend the incredibly bland/general and ultimately less relevant (to citizens at least) element of the White Paper – the set of “principles”.  Get the questions on there as a minimum if we are to continue with this limited tool.


    • Even therein – in some of the principles, the text in the wiki is actually different from the text in the White Paper! Honestly! Get it fixed…


    • Having the focus of the wiki on the principles raises an interesting question re the White Paper and the timing of this wiki consultation in its current scope – to “edit” the principles and submit ideas on services that could be co-opted. For if the wiki project fundamentally changes the proposed “principles” then are the questions associated with those principles – as posed in the White Paper – still valid and if not then how can the Commission be undertaking its consideration of these questions with any confidence before the consultation on principles is complete? The questions in the white paper actually – in the main – had some relevance. Surely the prize here is to answer those questions in tandem with the commission considering the same so the two groups might inform one another? This is another missed opportunity for the “wiki”. Even better would have been to have had a page set up for each question with the commission’s opening attempt to respond/outline ideas/suggestions which the public could then add to/comment on


    • A page has been set up entitled “What services should become a co-op”? As outlined in my previous post and in my concerns on the White Paper above this is truly inadequate as a question. On what basis are we to respond to this question? What services are “in scope” for consideration? What is the scale of the challenge? What will the co-op model be? What is the objective of co-opting a service: improved delivery; cost savings etc – that will influence which services should be considered. If Lambeth want this question answered properly – not just online, but offline as well then they need to do the hard yards and put in place the contextual briefing documentation that characterises a true deliberate democratic consultation


    • If we accept how the Wiki has been set up – however limited – it’s very difficult to make sense of already and that’s from someone who is reasonably tech savvy and interested in the content. The Wikispaces software is limited and not sure well set up for this purpose. The editable principle pages are fine re editing but the other two open pages (outwith the” ideas for co-opting” page)  seem to be dumping grounds for commentary related to some aspects of the co-operative council or commission but in no particular order or with any clear delineation between submissions/authors. 

    The page titled “Local Leadership” contains (what I assume to be) commentary/questions on about 10 different subject areas related in part to the White Paper. Some great points of course but by the time I got to the bottom of the page I really hadn’t a clue what on earth was going on – who had added it, why it had all been lumped under “Local Leadership” (or what the local leadership page was set up to capture), where one post ended and another began and in some instances what on earth it had to do with a cooperative council or consultation thereof.

    The page titled “Co-operative Council Commission or citizen’s commission” was much the same with no clear delineation of who was asking/responding to what or on whose behalf. This is where a wiki falls down – if you have too many disparate voices without a shared understanding of the desired outcome and no context/content to work with the wiki is no longer a wiki and just a set of comments, questions and occasionally ideas left floating in space


    • The wiki has no editorial leadership. Apart from a well meaning administrator clearly working behind the scenes at a technical level there seems to be no one from the Council team engaged on the wiki at all. This is entirely evident on the Discussion page – not a single question posted on the Discussion section has been answered by LC. That’s just rubbish and will dissuade visitors for engaging. I decided it wasn’t worth posting anything on there as it seems to have been left to run its own course by the consultation team. But maybe that’s the point – sexy story using a wiki……

    A good wiki works when there a clearly understood expected outcome, the structure of the wiki is set up to support that and there is someone with overall editorial control who understands what the desired output needs/should be (I mean – I’m assuming someone decided to set up a wiki because they hoped that the public would collaborate ad create something of value?) and therefore can provide structure, guidance, prompts etc to keep content and contributors moving in that direction. That “guiding hand” isn’t here and beyond getting some comments on the generic principles I’m not sure what on earth the current objective is. I think it’s a misuse/misunderstanding of how to use a wiki.

    I suggested in my pre consultation post that a wiki was not appropriate or valuable for this consultation effort. I am now certain that is the case. Surely the value here is to create an online resource where:

    1) Citizens and interested parties can review, comment on and ask for clarification on the entire White Paper – with the paper divided up into clear sections and each comment/question posted publicly so that others can follow (just in the same way as the ConDem coalition posted it’s “Programme for Government” document. Ideally people could vote for an idea or a comment or question to be included or responded to in the way Virtual Parliament or Yoosk enable

    2) Citizens and interested parties can provide ideas/submissions on how the council can improve its services and their delivery by 2014. As with the review of the White Paper, all submissions would be public, documents could be posted as attachments and those visiting the site could vote/add commentary on the submissions and connect with fellow participants to discuss/collaborate on ideas. Much in the same way Your Country Your Call worked or the new US Education Innovation portal is set up. This would also help ensure that all potentially valuable ideas are captured for critical analysis and posterity. The current Wikispaces is just too limited to support all of this – certainly based on the limited structure/support currently in place

    3) The council can post supporting documentation (guidance on what they mean by a “co-operative council”, lists of all services currently delivered and associated outcomes that would have to be maintained in any future co-op model and data sets that allow visitors to understand the current allocation of spend/resources across services to establish opportunities for consultation which are suitable/valuable in this context).

    That feels to me like something more considered than a Wikispace with the best will in the world. That might have required more up front effort but then we had our front page headlines in February so surely not too long to get something in place. As the links I provide above demonstrate, it’s not as if this hasn’t been done before. And given the importance Lambeth Council seem to be putting on this I would have thought a much more important use of resources. Again – it’s not too late if the team leading this want to truly support the best possible online consultation.


    Recommendation 4: How to ensure a deliberate discussion?

    This is my biggest concern for the Lambeth Co-op consultation.

    As I wrote in my last post on this topic, successful public consultations typically rely on the participants having a shared and clear understanding of the context of the debate and are fully briefed on the various proposals being presented for their commentary – so they can make a more reasoned/informed contribution. How will those consulted be informed in this instance?

    I asked if Lambeth have considered adopting the “deliberative democracy” model for this consultation. It might lead to a more considered, less populist outcome. This may be an additional overhead on the process but empirical evidence suggests that it could result in increased savings, improved service provision and higher voter satisfaction with their local councils.

    Following my original post, none other than Matthew Taylor  (Chief Executive of the RSA since November 2006 prior to which he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister) posted an eerily similar piece to his RSA Blog on the challenges of Government run “public consultations”.  And he’s a man who knows having been responsible for “The Big Conversation”. Remember that? He confirms this particular approach as possibly the only genuinely valuable strategy to engage and gain endorsement from the public on tough policy decisions.

    And so another plea to Lambeth Council – how are you going to ensure this is a truly deliberative consultation? Just in case you don’t have the time, I’ve provided 5 invaluable (IMHO) links to resources that not only provide evidence of the power of this approach but provide advice and tools to actually undertake such an exercise here. Other than this I can’t do much more than suggest you just get on the blower to James Fishkin himself:


    Recommendation 5: Consistency across channels

    My fifth piece of advice in the original post was to ensure consistency across consultative channels.

    It’s early days on this but not promising thus far given, for example, that not all of the White Paper is on the wiki, some of the wiki text differs from the original paper text and there are no clear structures set up on either the Wiki or Facebook to ensure a consistent set of outputs.

    The lack of sight on questions/suggestions posted via eMail means there is a possibility that duplicate questions/suggestions are being made.

    Ideally all this would have been managed in a single portal so that some measure of consistency and transparency could have been supported.


    Recommendation 6: Be clear on how the consultation will work and keep your promises:

    This was my final piece of advice and I think I’ve said enough already. There is work to be done but it is not too late to put those things right. It is obvious to anyone browsing the wiki page or Facebook Group or reading Jason Cobb’s blog/twitter updates that there is frustration with the process.


    All of us want only the very best for this consultation. Our future life experiences in Lambeth are intrinsically tied to it. And so I simply repeat the closing lines of my initial post on this topic…

    I really don’t mean to be obstructive or negative – all these points are made in the spirit of someone who welcomes this attempt at public consultation. But I am also wary. For what we are being consulted on is in fact a strategy that will require individuals and groups across Lambeth’s civic society to take on responsibility for the delivery of public services. And that is a construct that requires an engaged population who trust in their elected officials to support them in their endeavours. How this consultation runs might well influence how engaged we are in the ‘co-operative Lambeth’ and certainly the trust we can place in our elected officials as part of a mutualised local government.

    In a way then, this consultation is the first test of the Lambeth ’co-operative model’ and so the stakes are high. I (continue to) wish them well.

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    Deliberative Democracy, a beautiful echo and another appeal to Lambeth Labour

    Image by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr

    On 4th June I managed to string together a very brief post on the then much anticipated launch of Lambeth Labour’s white paper and citizens consultation on it’s much heralded “Co-operative Council” strategy.

    My post was a very humble and basic set of hopes/recommendations for the good people at Lambeth Labour to guide them in their proposed “public consultation”. Sadly, though lets be honest, not unsurprisingly, no one at Lambeth Town Hall reads my blog.  As I’ll soon be posting, the much vaulted White Paper and ensuing consultation process has been quite a disappointment thus far.

    However – while I am saddened by the rather haphazard approach being adopted here in SW2, I was heartened (really heartened) that Matthew Taylor  (Chief Executive of the RSA since November 2006 prior to which he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister) posted an eerily similar piece to his RSA Blog on the challenges of Government run “public consultations”.  And he’s a man who knows having been responsible for “The Big Conversation”. Remember that?

    Just four days after I made my entreaty to Lambeth Labour to place an exercise in deliberative democracy at the very heart of it’s “co-operative government” consultation, Matthew Taylor suggested this particular approach as possibly the only genuinely valuable strategy to engage and gain endorsement from the public on tough policy decisions.

    It’s on the rare occasion like this that I feel genuinely a little better about myself. I know this is a inappropriate and misplaced vanity, but it reminds me that sometimes I do have something useful to say when I can stay my limited intellect long enough to craft an argument.

    It’s just a shame he didn’t post a little sooner. I sense the words of the Chief Exec of the RSA carry more weight in the corridors of power in SW2 than those of a well meaning if ill qualified part time blogger and one time consultant from up Acre Lane.

    So – deliberative democracy. Lambeth Labour – it’s not too late; but are you listening?

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    Co-operatives, Consultations and Lambeth

    Location of the London Borough of Lambeth in G...
    Image via Wikipedia

    Back in February, The Guardian ran a front page story on Lambeth Council’s proposals to create a “co-operative council”.  Following much speculation and some additional explanation from @LambethLabour, tomorrow will see the publication of the Council’s detailed proposals for this new LG co-operative AND the establishment of a “Citizens Commission” made up of local people to consult on said proposals.

    For anyone interested in participative democracy or indeed the “Big Society” this is all rather mouth watering.

    There has been more than enough coverage on the merits of the “co-operative approach” proposed by Lambeth Labour and the “no frills” approach to Local Government to be trialled by the Conservatives in Barnet (including by me on this blog: here) so I’ll leave that for now and instead offer some humble suggestions on the “Citizens Commission” consultation which will – one trusts – guide Lambeth Council on it’s journey toward mutualisation.

    Jason Cobb over at ONIONBAGBLOG asked the perinent question of Cllr Steve Reed when the date for proposals to be published and the associated consultation was announced: “How will citizens for this commission be selected?” The response from Cllr Reed:


     This is potentially exciting stuff – proper democratic engagement on proposals to change the very nature of Local Government service provision in our area. But it also has the potential to go the way of so many previous public consultations between Government and citizen. Errrm, nowhere.

    So some humble suggestions for the team @Lambethabour to make this consultation count:

    • Be prepared – technically and operationally

    If I am invited to consult on tomorrow’s proposals either Online, via wiki or in some other format, please be ready to process my comments. The internet in particular is littered with instances of failure to anticipate and handle the taffic that comes with an invitation to participate….and once bitten; twice shy. Make the channels for comentary available and accessible from Day 1 and be ready to respond to early technical or operational glitches to ensure immediate authority/integrity of the process.

    • Ensure a there is a representative sample of citizens consulted

    It will not be enough to simply open a passive set of feedback channels to the general public in Lambeth on these areas. The matters at stake are too important. At least in part, the Council must ensure that a representative sample have been consulted and their views recorded. This is particularly important in the case of those members of our society (the elderly and the socially disadvantaged) who are least likely to either be online or informed of such a consultation but yet are often more likely to depend on local government services under debate

    • Is a Wiki the best approach to online consultation?

    Wiki’s are useful but when badly set up they require excessive moderation to ensure focus and they can become unwieldy. It can also be resource intensive to draw out natural conclusions from contributions made – particularly important here. It is a true shame that does not have a mobile app plug-in that could be used to better facilitate an online conversation but maybe next time….for now, as a half-way house, why not simply use the model adopted today by the Government Coalition and its (eventually) comment enabled “Programme for Government” document: The interface is simple and comments are focussed on a particular area of Government, it also helps a little to mitigate against the “free-styling” that an open wiki can sometimes result in. However – and most importantly – neither exisiting wiki/online polling tools as yet support the ability to engage a ‘deliberate democratic discussion’…

    • How to ensure a deliberate discussion?

    Successful public consultations typically rely on the participants having a shared and clear understanding of the context of the debate and are fully briefed on the various proposals being presented for their commentary – so they can make a more reasoned/informed contribution. How will those consulted be informed? Have you considered adopting the “deliberative democracy” model for this consultation? It might lead to a more considered, less populist outcome. This may be an additional overhead on the process but empirical evidence suggests that it could result in increased savings, improved service provision and higher voter satisfaction with their local councils.

    • Consistency across channels

    Linked to the point above – without a broadly consistent set of questions across channels it will be very difficult to usefully collate and compare commentary/contribution. This is an important consideration to avoid complicating what is already likely to be a lengthy process of data analysis.

    • Be clear on how the consultation will work and keep your promises:

    How long will it last? what channels are available to comment? who will moderate contributions and should they be moderated at all? how will comments be considered/actioned? what happens to ideas that are not actioned in this round of a consultation? The list of questions goes on. Crowd-sourcingis not an easy business – have you thought through how to identify and manage special interest groups? How will you ensure transparency even when commentary may be critical? And once you have asked for opinions – are you actually going to do something with them? A quick search on the recent ‘Your Ireland; Your Call’ crowd-sourcing initiative provides an insight into the challenges of running a consultation like this (albeit YIYC was on a national scale). The old Number Ten Downing Street petition site became something of a poster child for the failure of online feedback to generate online action (although interesting to note that the new coalition guarantee a formal debate on any isse attracting 100k signatures…interested to see how that works out)


    I really don’t mean to be obstructive or negative – all these points are made in the spirit of someone who welcomes this attempt at public consultation. But I am also wary. For what we are being consulted on is in fact a strategy that will require individuals and groups across Lambeth’s civic society to take on responsibility for the delivery of public services. And that is a construct that requires an engaged population who trust in their elected officials to support them in their endeavors. How this consultation runs might well influence how engaged we are in the ‘co-operative Lambeth’ and certainly the trust we can place in our elected officials as part of a mutualised local government.

    In a way then, this consultation is the first test of the Lambeth ‘co-operative model’ and so the stakes are high. I wish them well.

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    Life through a lens – a strange social media strategy in Brixton

    Sony DV Handycam
    Image via Wikipedia

    I was in my local coffee shop the other day and inadvertently found myself in the middle of an image rights issue.

    A gentleman who is filming life/operations in a range of local businesses in Brixton wanted to know if he could have my written permission to use footage he had taken in the coffee shop for a posting about the business on

    Having gained the necessary assurance that he captured my best side, I acquiesced.

    Yet while he was worrying about me agreeing to Yell using his footage, I was more worried about why Yell had him there at all.

    I’m assuming that Yell have employed people like this all over the country to film video snippets of businesses listed so that people can view the footage while browsing. While its great to add some richness to Yell’s typically static directory listings that cannot be an inexpensive exercise. It must also take some time to manage the logistics associated with such a national effort.

    It seemed to me a much more cost effective and efficient – as well as engaging way to do this would be for Yell to invite Business owners listed with them to film some footage (guidance could be provided I’m sure on do’s and don’ts) of their business using anything from their own camcorders to a very simple – yet effective – phone app like Qik. These could then be submitted to Yell to edit and post.

    Sure, they might lose a little in quality but they will probably make up for it in authenticity and insight…if I’m a business owner going to post some video about my business on Yell I’m going to make it personal, engaging and stylish. I’m vested in that. And as a user of Yell that’s also what I’d rather see – something informative sure but something from the heart. In few instances would I chose something cool and polished over something engaging/personal with a few rough edges.

    And the cost saving are significant for Yell.

    Maybe I’m missing something but it just seems like a better way…did Yell try this and it didn’t work? Are there unforeseen legal or technical issues? I’d love to know…it just didn’t seem to stack up.

    Still, the coffee was good and he did get me on my best side.

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    Pull up paradise, put up a parking lot (almost)

    A2217 road
    Image via Wikipedia

    Lovely to get a note from Sally-Anne Lloyd today confirming that our local neighbourhood petition to prevent Big Yellow Storage from building one of their facilities on the Fulham Timber site at Acre Lane has been successful. This petition was started by a small group of neighbours who got together to try to prevent such a ridiculous idea going ahead after the erection of a similar facility across the road:

    “The petition was presented to the BYS Executives at a meeting with Lambeth Council Leader, Steve Reed and Paul McGlone, one of the councillors in Ferndale Ward, who have both been behind us all the way. This meeting took place some time ago and Steve and Paul presented our views to them. BYS said they would re-look at their plans in the face of such a high degree of local opposition. You will be pleased to hear that BYS have now decided NOT to go ahead with the build, which goes to show that there is some truth in the idea of ‘people power’! I just wanted you to be aware that you have really made a difference to your neighbourhood and that, by simply signing the petition and adding your comments, you have had a voice in the way your locality will develop”.

    A small victory for all of us who do not wish to see the ongoing industrialisation of the Acre Lane neighbourhood. Well done Sally-Anne and thank you for your leadership and drive. And thank you Cllrs Reed and McGlone for your support.

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    Participative Democracy reaches Lambeth

    Excellent to see this on my doorstep from Lambeth Borough Council.  As demonstrated in Ivo Gormely’s excellent documentary last year: ‘Us. Now’, these consultations on spending finite sums of money on a range of specific local initiatives or resources are an easy and effective way to engage local communities, harness the wisdom of the crowd and ensure transparency/accountability of public funding allocations. 

    Of course, as with all such public votes there are some who may try and corrupt the process but I am sure the proper checks and balances are in place and that we’ll see more of this rather than less, particularly if the many exciting (and it pains me to say that) proposals emerging from Conservative HQ for more ‘open democracy’ come to fruition.

    And for me, that is a very good thing.

    Your borough, your budget, your choice! 

    14 September 2009

    This week we launched a new scheme as we want more people involved in deciding how the council’s money is spent. So, we’re inviting local people to choose which projects will get a share of £250,000.

    The idea is that you can vote for one of the projects listed on our website. The projects include an upgrade to the BMX bike track in Brockwell Park, new computer facilities at the Darby and Joan pensioners’ club, a new children’s wet play area in Norwood Park or new street signs in Vauxhall and Kennington. These are all decisions that would have been taken by councillors in the past – but now we’re opening up the doors to the public.

    I hope people will log on and have their say. For information on how to vote visit the council’s website by going to or return the voting form that arrived with this week’s edition of Lambeth Life. You can vote anytime until 18 October 2009.

    Leave a Comment » | Community and living, Council and democracy | Tagged: community, consultation, democracy | Permalink
    Posted by Councillor Steve Reed

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