From the perspective of government, what is a citizen for? Voting in elections? Here in Barking and Dagenham, we believe it is much more than that. A thriving democracy demands participation. This is what happens whenever people get together to think, collaborate and make decisions about what they share a material interest in. 

Following our political leadership’s vision for New East New Thinking, in Barking and Dagenham, we want to create more opportunities to harness the wisdom that can only be found in a crowd. The Neighbourhood Community Infrastructure Levy was one opportunity to do this. It is a charge levied on new housebuilding and other built floorspace, to be spent on ensuring that the essential community infrastructure and activities are available in the surrounding area. To make sure the benefits of growth in the coming years were distributed evenly, Cabinet agreed to define the whole borough as a single neighbourhood. This meant one process could oversee all of the budget expenditure, and the benefits of growth would be spread across the borough. 

the panellists took these powers very seriously

With that in place, late last year we set about recruiting a panel of residents by sortition, to create a broadly representative ‘mini-public’. Once our ‘mini-public’ was created, officers convened a day-long training session. The principle goal of this was for residents to learn about the challenges the borough face. This was based in part through technical, evidence-based information:

  • Our Borough Manifesto, a collaborative document setting a vision for the borough across multiple partners; 
  • The Borough Data Explorer – presenting data from the first localised Social Progress Index, pioneered in the borough

But also, importantly, from the lived experience of others in the room. A care home worker. A lorry driver for the Ford factory. A nurse. A mum. A bird enthusiast. A charity treasurer. Each from different parts of the world, with their own story, their own experiences, and their own view of our shared place. This was particularly important, for two reasons. Firstly, we have very high levels of migration and churn locally. Many people do not know their neighbours, and this affects the solidarity found within our communities. While we have come a long way since the BNP held 12 elected seats on the Council, we are still fragmented. It is highly likely that for many in the room this was the first time discussing the future of the borough with someone from an entirely different background.

The Participatory Grant Making Panel at work

Entering the space as citizens – people with the right and responsibility to shape the destiny of their place – rather than neighbours, the panellists took these powers very seriously. The group were tasked with designing a set of criteria to judge applications by, and a process by which decisions would be made. Questions of accountability and responsible use of power took up large parts of the discussion.  Should applications be weighted towards written presentation, or oral? What would this mean for different types of presenter? How would bias on the panel present a risk in each? 

Next, after several years without any small grants (but a range of other funding streams, such as the Local Lottery and Crowdfunding) applications flooded in – far exceeding our expectations. 

Each panel member had to review 20 applications, marking against ten questions. Then the grand finale: The Dragons Den(s)...

A Saturday morning. Tea. Coffee. The promise of pizza – but it’s not what they’re here for. New to each other, there’s a degree of nervousness. But also, very ready laughter. There’s a palpable appetite for solidarity. The group appoint a chair to oversee proceedings. A ten-minute pitch to the panel from each community group, then twenty minutes of conversation, questions. 

we have learned that the public has the wisdom to make decisions, and given the right circumstances and a fair ask of their time, they want to

What happened next showed all of the principles of public engagement to hold true. The philosophy that underpins recruiting random members of the public to make decisions is that people care about others; they are reasonable; they are curious; they have a purpose in the public realm.  They are not a risk to be managed - but a resource to be tapped. 

Kindness: ‘please, sit down – can we get you some water before questions begin?’ ‘we hope you’ve enjoyed today – would you please provide the panel with some feedback on your experience?’ 

Reason: ‘how will you make sure it’s accessible to people who can’t afford to pay that entry fee?’ ‘will you be able to reach the people that most need this that way?’ ‘can you explain to me, how the activities will generate the outcomes you suggest?’

Curiosity: ‘your presentation was great, but I did notice the pictures only show one ethnicity. What will you do to make sure this brings all residents together?’ ‘can you evidence that this actually makes a difference?’

Justice: ‘you may not think this intervention is important, but in my culture – a huge community here –  it is a very common need…’

From this, we have learned that the public has the wisdom to make decisions, and given the right circumstances and a fair ask of their time, they want to. As one participant told us, this experience gave her life meaning. She felt needed. Relevant. As if she belonged. This led us to believe our job as officers working in the participation and engagement team is to create a public realm – an architecture if you like – fit for this collective joy and wisdom to shine.

These reflections sound obvious once on the page. But it’s important to be reminded, as bureaucrats who are taught to take pride in our professional standing as public servants, that our humanity is not essentially different to that of any resident – particularly not when we create the right conditions for them to act as citizens.