in Politics, Wandsworth

How to involve people in local democracy: include booze

The secret to a good council meeting?

I love this story from a New Hampshire council meeting. (The article disappears behind a paywall eventually, so here’s a PDF version.) Essentially protesters against the town rules against street drinking decided to protest by turning a council meeting into a drinking game – having a drink whenever certain phrases were uttered.

About six members of the libertarian Free Keene movement drank in unison from brown glass bottles, soda cans, paper coffee cups and metal flasks every time City Council members or officials said certain words or made certain actions.

Aside from the huge debate underneath the article, the suggestion by the police that they can’t tell if something is alcohol (a sniff, maybe even a swig, perhaps) or the fact that the argument is that blanket bans are often ineffective, what got me was that the council meeting was attended by 50 people!

Even if you discount the people playing the drinking game (6) and the people mounting a counter-protest (3) that still leaves 41 people attending to watch their town’s democracy in action. Given they have a population of around 23,000 if Wandsworth had a proportionate turnout we’d need a public gallery of something like 500.

While alcohol might make our meetings almost bearable, I don’t think it’s the answer, but I’d love to know what they are doing to get so many people along to see how their town is run. What would make you go to a council meeting?

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  1. I don’t know when they are, and if I did then I don’t know why I’d want to go.

    So for me the first thing would be for council/councillors to answer these two questions.

    If Brightside, for example, devoted some space to ‘inviting’ people to meetings, and gave an agenda of what was to be discussed, then there’s a chance that I would go if something on that agenda was of interest to me, which would in turn be of benefit to both me and the council.

    • A good point and probably something we aren’t good at. We don’t really publicise forthcoming meetings, although they are on the council website. Of course, the council website is down for the bank holiday weekend, frustrating my idea of publishing a link. The ever excellent OpenlyLocal.com isn’t down though; that even allows you to subscribe to the meeting calendar should you wish, although it doesn’t have details of the agendas.

      But when it comes to those meetings and events that might be of interest to residents, I’m not sure that there is a central list. So, for example, when we have our ward report-backs every house should get an invite, but I think I’m right in saying that, with the exception of a press release, there isn’t really any other publicity or advertising. (As an aside, I’m not a fan of the report-backs, I don’t think the format is the best for the purpose of the meeting.) It is, essentially a single promotional effort and misses out on opportunities to cross-promote: there’s no “like this? you might also like…” advertising.

      The one big question I haven’t addressed, however, is whether it’s actually a bad thing people don’t bother showing up? Harder to assess is whether people feel informed enough about what the council is doing, and whether they believe they’ve had enough opportunity to comment or contribute to the decision making process.

  2. Indeed – completely agree with Anonymous.

    It’s incredibly difficult to know the dates of meetings (note that I did not say impossible – just require a lot of time and stamina).

    Maybe a global page called Agenda, were all forthcoming meeting are publicized would solve this – note that last time I suggest such little improvement I was answered by a senior public officer it was too complicated! gosh! (I can provide consulting on such things at a discount price if WBC finds it too complicated!)

    And to answer your question you might wonder: is it a good thing that only 30% (in average) bother to vote to local elections?