Last week I chaired one of Frome Town Council’s two committees – the first ‘Town Matters’ meeting. It was either the worst meeting we’ve ever had – demanding resignations and inducing apoplectic fury, or the best – drawing in around 60 people with hugely engaged lively discussion. 24 hours later when the dust had settled a bit we could unpick the pros and cons.
Essentially the meeting brought to a head the constant struggles between Process and Product and between Participatory and Representative Democracies. The meeting was set up in the round with public and councillors mixed and little of the formal structure associated with council meetings to hold on to. More normally, councillors sit behind a table and the public are an audience with limited rights to speak.
Some people sit more comfortably at one end of the Process and Product spectrum than others – some preferring to ‘just do it’ others to ‘talk everything through’. And some issues absolutely require discussion – others require a simple decision. With more than one issue on an agenda, it proves hard to move between open discussion and tighter decision making as the best fit changes. Put another way, once the public are unleashed, it proves hard to get them back in their box!
In the end councillors made the decisions we needed to make and no one died. Most of the public probably felt enlivened to have been there. But the process certainly pushed the boundaries beyond where many felt comfortable and there is a strong case that the ability of councillors to hear views, then to make informed decisions was lost in the informality. The need for greater preparation and different skills to run a highly participatory meeting than a conventional chaired one was also clear. My personal view is that we don’t play enough – it’s hugely creative – but all games need some rules if they are to be either enjoyed or productive.
What’s important to me is to keep pushing the edges as we increasingly recognise that the gap between the public and politicians at all levels of governance needs to be minimised, with every opportunity taken for the community to reclaim politics. Especially pleasing is that Independents for Frome’s ‘Ways of Working’ survived the pressure and the strongly felt criticism could be aired and heard before learning and moving on – without this becoming personal, which is much more difficult to recover from.