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May 2019, local democracy week, and some R&R for democracy

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Democracy Club doesn’t fire starting guns, but if we did…

In this week’s blog, we start to prepare for next May’s local elections, we ready ourselves for Local Democracy Week and we ponder a cunning plan to fund democratic innovation.

🗳☀️ Getting ready for, um, summer ☀️🗳

With the autumn rain coming down like we’ve imported monsoon season (in Bristol, at least), it’s unlikely you’re thinking about next May. Lucky then, that your dedicated electoral services teams across the country are doing just that. This week we’ve seen the first council get in touch about polling location data for May 2019 and how they can make it more accurate. Wunderbar!

Regular readers might remember that users of WhereDoIVote.co.uk loved the map and directions, but would like a little more accuracy in where the pushpin is displayed. For that to happen, we need more than just a postcode for a polling station; ideally we need a grid reference. This is particularly important when a building has multiple entrances: voters want to know which one to use. We’ll be emailing councils soon with instructions on how to provide this, subject to their software supplier.

This week, we also caught up with The Electoral Commission to discuss how we’d work together in the months up to next May and to see if we could help add some ideas for their future digital transformation.

Finally for now, in case you missed it last week, we’re still on the hunt for contact details for the local branches of political parties. They don’t always fit neatly into our spreadsheet — some branches are organised according to the parliamentary constituency rather than the local authority area — but whatever you can find is useful. Thanks to all who have added information so far. Plenty more to do… Watford! Arun! Tewkesbury! Where are you?! Let’s be ‘aving you. Add more data here.

📅 The week you’ve all been waiting for 📅

It’s finally here. It’s European Local Democracy Week! Contain yourselves. The week is some sort of official Europe-wide thing that has the worst website you’ve ever seen. Happily, however, local authorities are vastly better at comms and across the country are opening their doors or proactively going out to invade your week.

A bit of popular-search-engining reveals:

  • the London Borough of Brent has a pretty good-looking schedule, with a Great Youth Debate, a BBC Question Time-style event, councillors in schools and scrutiny committees popping up in cafes. Nobody expects the scrutiny committees.

  • Further north, Kirklees is celebrating local suffragettes, hosting a ‘democracy drop-in’, awarding funding to the community projects and much more.

  • St Albans DC is hosting a youth take over, meet the mayor competition and an drop-in event for older people. Go St Albans!

See what your local authority is up to! Go say hello!

Democracy Club is humbly celebrating this seminal week by doing something we’ve been meaning to do for ages: investigating the possibility of producing open data on all UK political representatives. Given that decent data on MPs already exists, the next obvious group to look at is local councillors. Happily, we’re not alone in thinking about this. mySociety, Open Data Manchester and Open Council Data are also keen, so we’ll be gathering in London next Weds to hammer out some ideas, technical requirements and compare notes on user needs. With the latter in mind, if you’ve been itching for access to data on local councillors or other politicians, let us know what you need, how you’d use it and if you’ll help share the cost!

More blogging to come on this.

📰 In other news… 📰

Following a meeting with Nesta this week, we were reminded that the UK Parliament is about to spend anywhere between £3bn and £7bn on itself. The Restoration and Renewal project will prevent the Palace of Westminster from falling into the Thames, burning down, collapsing to dust, etc. A couple of years ago there was a bit of public debate about whether we should just move it to Milton Keynes, but that never got very far.

However! There’s perhaps still an opportunity to use this ‘restoration and renewal’ concept to think about the renewal of democracy more broadly. What if a tiny 0.5% could be tagged onto the budget to create a democratic innovation fund to experiment over the course of the building work? When the MPs aren’t in the crumbling old pile any more, perhaps there’ll be more appetite for digital engagement? Who knows, let’s try it! It’ll probably cost less than the new carpets. Interested in chatting what it would take to convince the powers that be to do this? Get in touch.

In other other news, Democracy Club is supporting Alex Blandford in a PhD on civic tech. Alex’s current title is “Does civic technology work and who does it work for? Historical and ethnographic perspectives”. He’s written an entertaining blog of his first week, complete with chocolate mints. Expect Alex to takeover a Fridayblog to explain more, soon.

📅 What’s next? 📅

On Monday, Joe will be in Cardiff for the News Impact Summit, which will focus on local news and community engagement. On Tuesday, the core team will get together to plot our next sprint and think about representatives data. Chris and Sym will continue to talk through this on Wednesday (see above). We’ve then a ministerial meeting on Thursday (our first proper sit-down with Chloe Smith, Minister of the Constitution, who has responsibility for the Cabinet Office’s goal of sustaining a flourishing democracy… can we help?), before a funding interview on Friday. Blimey.

Forward!