Whose role is it anyway?

I’ve had a busy few days on the Democracy Front recently – mainly pointing out that pretending we live in a democracy helps no one.  Indeed, my ‘provocation’ to the Open Government Network’s summit in Edinburgh aimed to take that slightly further, suggesting that the collaboration between central government and organisations which work to promote democratic engagement may have the opposite effect: I wanted to challenge the Network along with organisations like Locality, Involve and the Democratic Society to check whether their work leads to real change, or gives a false sense of progress which lets everyone off the hook.

These thoughts continued into Breaking the Mould – Frome Town Council’s unique conference for and with other local councils, which nearly 100 councillors and clerks attended.  Where was interest or support from the organisations funded to enable local level democracy to function?  The Local Government Association or National Association of Local Councils – which apparently ‘represents my interests’ as a councillor?  The conference was hugely appreciated by nearly all those who came – all provided at a cost of time, money and stress to Frome.  Were I into conspiracy theories, I’d start to wonder if here, too, there is a sense in which pottering on the edges suits those who wish to retain the status quo. (Key elements of the day are recorded here.)

And finally, I shared a webspace with Patrick Chalmers on GlobalNet21.  I’ve enjoyed regular conversations with Patrick over the last year, as he gathers momentum for his ‘All Hands On’ documentary series on real examples of democracy working.  But here, once again, it’s an individual struggling to put together funding to share the great ideas which are out there…… Thank goodness for The Alternative UK, tirelessly sharing initiatives and helping the pixels to add up to a picture.  But wait a moment…. they are another couple of unpaid dedicated activists struggling into the night!

I guess it was ever thus, but I’m feeling especially frustrated at the moment that so many great ideas are out there and so many individuals, projects and organisations with the answers are ignored by the backslapping dinosaurs orchestrating extinction.



About the author

Peter Macfadyen

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


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  • If you want a really good example of real democracy in action you need look no further than recent developments in the Labour Party. Since the introduction of OMOV in the process for electing the leader we have seen the emergence of a strong, grassroots movement which may well deliver exactly the kind of government this country desperately needs. Come and listen to Alex Nunns at Trinity Hall on Saturday night – 7pm

    • Thanks Dave, I’ll definately try and come.
      I’d be absolutely delighted if a ‘strong grassroots movement does deliver exactly the kind of government this country desperately needs’….. what I hope is that it can do it while allowing strong grassroots communities to reclaim local politics and deal with issues at a local level – with real power at this level in ways that the Localism Act has so painfully failed to provide.

  • Upside down thinking

    Once again a thought provoking blog more than tinged with regret for what could, or should be. On the matter of dinosaurs I cannot recommend highly enough the book Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux (and various collaborators) which classifies organisation types by colour. Unsurprisingly it points to the “amber” organisations of state/church/military/authorities as those most resistant to change so what is perhaps surprising is that we should look to such organisations for leadership.

    Mostly Amber organisations are rigorously controlled and controlling. The hierarchical structure that defines them is based on the principle that those at the top write the script and those below them are required to follow it. This is not a fertile environment for creative thinking. Any spark of inspiration lit in the midst of such an organisation has firstly to travel to the top in order then to be disseminated …and often watered…down.

    I had the great privilege to work with an organisation in India that reversed this triangle. The “leaders” worked at the grass roots and were empowered and trusted to make decisions. The “organisation” (SCAD) existed with the sole purpose of providing support to those local groups and to provide a network of communication between them so their experiences could be shared. SCAD now supports over 500,000 people in 450 communities, partly funded through Government. This would be classified as a “Teal” organisation. Another would be Buurtzorg in Holland that has transformed home care provision in that Country. There are many other examples. They are in my view the future.

    To break through the institutional defensiveness; indifference and fear-based systemic-control of our political institutions and authorities we could continue try and bring about change through argument and reason (or democracy) but it might just be better to explore some upside down thinking…

    This was after all behind the Big Society idea.. and Localism.. before the bureaucrats got their hands on it!


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