Dysfuntional Democracy 2.

I’ve been to a couple of meetings recently which perfectly illustrate two areas I cite in the book as going wrong.

The first was billed as a ‘consultation’ on sports provision in the town, put on by the District Council who own land on which sports happen, contract out sports provision, and have a top level strategy. Half a dozen cabinet members at the high table start off by telling us there is no money and there won’t be; they are already well on the way to a new long term contract for the sports centre; and we can talk about anything else we like. A few representatives of under facilitated sports pluck up courage and put over their views. We are promised a report – and some weeks later there is no sign of anything.

The second was put on by local District councillors rather than cabinet members. An opportunity to hear what is being done about particularly bad flytipping which has been a real problem in one road for 20 years. Again, the enforcement officer, district politicians and police are on the high table to give us facts figures and power point. Poorly chaired comments follow (from an animated and angry audience). Much of the audience and all the politicians remain convinced that better cameras and more resources are the answer – despite the last cameras being stolen, clearing up alone expecting to cost £45,000 and reductions making a larger budget most unlikely.

My point here is not to discuss other possible solutions – it is that the way meetings are run sets out from the first moment where both power and expertise is seen to be. In the first case one can argue this is honest – the District do have the power and have no intention of consulting (which as a separate point further adds to growing cynicism with political process).

In the second it completely misses a trick. The meeting focussed my thoughts on the definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – usually attributed to Einstein. For 20 years trying to catch flytippers has not worked – a broader public engagement might well bring up new left field ideas which might work.  The quote is helpful in recognising that we cannot expect the public to contribute and engage if we treat them as idiots from the moment they walk into a meeting.  We need radically different appraoches to engagement.

Or do we? If the aim of the policians is to be seen to be doing something, without too much stress, then perhaps both meetings achieved what they set out to for those who organised them?


About the author

Peter Macfadyen

Social activist, ex Mayor and Leader of Frome Town Council, author, public speaker, undertaker, grandfather.


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  • I genuinely enjoy studying on this website, it holds good content. Never fight an inanimate object. by P. J. O’Rourke.

  • Hi Peter, I agree with you on the first meeting in that the Mendip leisure strategy was being explained and the Cabinet were justifying it without details or options, so it was an announcement rather than a consultation. I was on the top table but strangely was not told that I would be and had no information about the format of the meeting either. Actually though the decision has not yet been made but the Cabinet are progressing their preferred option. I am back on the cross party steering group now and am asking awkward questions until I get decent answers as to why we have to do it this way. Hopefully you got the note of the meeting and my suggested additions as lots was left out! I haven’t heard from cllr S since either.

    The second meeting, flytipping, was all my doing as I organised it, invited the speakers and did all the publicity myself, with cooperation from the other district cllr (in a different party) whose ward the flytipping is actually in. I did it to bring attention to the issue at Mendip Cabinet level, and allow local residents to tell councillors and council officers the seriousness of the problem and to ask questions and challenge current thinking and get something better done to overcome the problem. I think that worked to some extent. No one had organised a meeting like this before. I don’t think anyone was treated like an idiot. I think Peter chaired the meeting well considering the anger in the room! I admit the format of the meeting could have been better thought out. I hadn’t done this before and can aim to be more engaging next time. I hope people found it useful. I’m still pressing for a more comprehensive strategy from the District and that is proving harder than I expected considering who was there! And it was pretty stressful but I’m glad I did it. But my point is. … please don’t shoot down initiatives that others take just because they’re not perfect. I’m new to this too. I’ll try not to be too offended. Thanks. Adam

    • Adam,
      Thanks for your comments. I have no major problem with meetings, conversations, facebooking etc where it is positive or benign (though they can waste time and miss opportunities). I do have a problem where ill thought through initiatives add to the problems they are trying to address. My post tried to use real examples of where this happened. In the first, total non consultation pushes people into further cynicism and despair at the political system we have as well as missing any opportunity to hear local wisdom.
      In the second a room full of angry people being offered more of the same hopeless lack of action they have had for 20 years. There are plenty of methodologies of running meetings which aim to engage with people in more constructive ways than the ‘expert lectures from the front, comments from the floor’ model. I am happy to put you onto people with this expertise in Frome and beyond. The system is broken – unless we find people prepared to step away from it and offer real alternatives, it is a downward spiral.

  • Peter, Thanks. I had not seen your reply until now! I’m happy to hear about alternative ways of running meetings so please can you email me on that. We may need a follow up on bothmeetings you referred to soon. ..Best wishes, Adam

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