Notwestminster 2016 – at the still point of the soundscape (EP)

Track 1 – Chorus

It’s not my usual quiet Friday night. It’s approaching 10pm and I’m sitting at the centre of a table of 20 in a curry emporium. Not where I’d usually choose to sit (I’m an as-far-away-from-the-centre-of-attention-as-possible kind of person), but I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to fade into the background, so here I am, at the centre of the maelstrom.

If the man with the big laugh were in this chair, he’d be the life and soul of the conversation by now. But because it’s me, I am sitting here quietly, listening. And because I’m receiving gentle encouragement, I know that’s ok.

Out of my left ear, Ed, Anthony, Dave and Matt are discussing the nuances of the phrases ‘democratic services officers’ versus ‘democratic support officers’ and how people in local government think of themselves. This turns seamlessly into a conversation about Ed’s father being the bassist in Jethro Tull from 1971 to 1975, until he gave it all up to be a painter, burning his stage costumes so there was no going back.

Out of my right ear, Phil, Peter, Joe and Paul kick off with blockchain (what else?) and quickly get onto the frustrations of UK address data ownership and the many ways in which civic-minded developers are trying to do something about this. Both conversations are animated to the extent that if I wasn’t interested in both it might make my head fall off.

At the intersection of our conversations about local governance, open data, personal experience and civic tech, Notwestminster has created a space in which we can make things happen and find ways to improve our local democracy. Over the past year, it has become a point of focus and reflection, gathering energy and momentum as it develops.

This evening is part of our second annual event. Already we have expanded Notwestminster into two days of “rock n roll democracy”, aimed at making our local democracy more simple, accessible and fun (and that’s not a word I use often, or lightly, either). This Friday we’ve already had our Local Democracy Maker Day, following on from our successful collaboration with LocalGov Digital Makers and Democracy Club at LocalGov Camp 2015. We’ve then heard a series of thought-provoking quick-fire presentations from participants at our special Notwestminster PechaKucha Night, and our curry is the final stop on our journey to the big day.

I know that all the voices around the Notwestminster table are important. We very deliberately set out last year to involve lots of different people. As an organising task, I’ve found this much more challenging than running an event just for local government officers (or just for food growers), but we have persevered. As the Oastler Flag says, “We are determined…”

And for the second year running we got an amazing mix of participants. I was delighted to see all kinds of different people coming back to Notwestminster, including campaigner Joe Taylor from 38 Degrees Manchester, Paul Hepburn from Liverpool University who got us all thinking about public values last year, our friends Phil Rumens and Lucy Knight from the LocalGov Digital practitioner network who have done so much to support us, and some of our inspiring young citizens from Kirklees Youth Council.

We were also thrilled to welcome over 50 new people to this year’s main event. Imogen and Annabella are town councillors who came all the way from Lewes and stayed for the full two days. Imogen made a fantastic comment about being open to having “a fully immersive experience”. That’s the spirit…

Peter Emerson arrived via bus and boat from Ireland, en route to Warsaw, to help us learn about consensus voting. Nick Booth made the mistake of giving me permission to nag him about Notwestminstser when we were in a lift in Leeds last September, and he was in the end effectively nagged into running both a great workshop about civic conversations and a talk about open local democracy (so lightning fast that I couldn’t keep up with tweeting it).

I was especially pleased that Sym Roe and Joe Mitchell from Democracy Club spent the two days with us, and that James Cattell joined us on the very-early-morning train on the Saturday. We always wanted Notwestminster to be something practical – to find ways of helping people work together to do something useful. Our first Maker Day in Leeds in September 2015 was bursting with enthusiasm, and it’s so good that many of us are continuing to work together. Sym, Joe, James and others who bring real practical focus to our conversations have made a big contribution to the development of the Notwestminster network over the past year and I hope they know how much I appreciate that.

Track 2 – Echoes

Along with the mix of people, our Notwestminster soundscape needs a good mix of spaces too. We had different kinds of sessions over the two days, to help everyone find a way of contributing that suits them. Most of us find the PechaKucha talk format terrifying, but for a few brave souls it brings real benefits. We should thank Spencer Wilson for not only stepping up as emergency compère, but giving us a couple of songs to start the evening off. It really had to be done – and it was done well.

I really enjoyed all the PechaKucha talks. I wanted to give a special mention to the two that I found funny and moving at the same time. Andrew Cooper, one of my councillors, talked about “The joy of being… a Green Party councillor.” Amusing definitely, but I wasn’t prepared for seeing some of my amazing neighbours and friends in the slides. It gave me a moment of reflection about how lucky I am to live in a place where local democracy and community activism are thriving. One of my reasons for doing this is that I really want other people to have that.

And what can I say about Dave Mckenna’s “The Godfather Part II, Part II” talk? Hysterical. Intelligent. Compelling. The product of a unique mind. Remarkable also for the fact that Dave seemed reluctant to do it, not because of the public speaking (one of my quotes of the day on Friday was Dave saying: “I do like to talk”*), but because it turned out to be the only wildcard option on the programme. But it made the evening. The sound of laughter in that room will be one of my abiding memories of Notwestminster 2016. There’s a lesson about finding a space for every voice in there too.

Our Maker Day was aimed at creating a more practical space for some of our digital makers to work together with council officers, community activists, councillors and others. I’m hoping it went quite well – frankly, I fretted so much over this new addition to our Notwestminster programme that I really can’t tell any more. For my part, I enjoyed spending the time with people who I don’t often get chance to work with, and I got some useful ideas for things I might try. And of course I’d like another one soon…

For our main event, we stuck with our format of having a mix of Lightning talks and workshops. What was different this time is that we asked for workshop pitches based on our Design Challenges for Local Democracy, which we crowdsourced from our network. This is one of the things that has helped to give the whole event a more practical feel – many people commented on it.

Track 3 – Interlude

A small but by no means insignificant change was the introduction of our Nap Room, an unconference tradition that was started by Nick Booth. This involves leaving a room free for anyone who needs to relax, reflect, recharge or just collapse completely. We know that it was put to good use. In a spare moment, James did a spot of redesigning local government webcasts there. Mevan did some planning for her talk about fact checking. And (very excitingly for me) Joe Mitchell also took some time out from our Maker Day to write his weekly blog in our Nap Room.

What Joe doesn’t know is that every Friday I come home from work, keel over on the sofa and look in utter despair at the list of things that I didn’t get time to do this week. One week I turned to twitter for consolation and saw the Democracy Club weekly blog post. By reading it, I was immediately reminded that good people are getting useful things done every single week, whatever the obstacles, and that I’d just better buck up my ideas and keep going. So I make a point of reading Joe’s blog every Friday – and to see it coming live from Huddersfield was a real treat.

Another change from last year is that we swapped our set list around a bit, to allow for a bit more time for each workshop. We also introduced the after-show drinks to give us more chance to do some last-minute plotting before we went home. As before, Notwestminster has created ideas that you can work on over the coming weeks and months. If you’re not already signed up, make sure you’re part of the Notwestminster email network or follow us @LDBytes to find out how to get involved.

Track 4 – Not easy listening

What I heard amidst the busy chatter of voices at Notwestminster’s Saturday morning break time is that we have begun to develop a distinctive sound. Because our work together continues all year round, together we’ve weaved our ideas into a kind of score, a rhythm of intent that runs through everything we do. It’s an undertone of energy and possibility that creates the positive conversations we need to get things done.

What I heard from so many individual conversations is that you all really value the opportunity to listen to each other. Digital makers and user researchers alike said how useful it was to hear from councillors, local government officers and active citizens. This focus on users and on how things sound, look and feel to people in their everyday lives has become a strong aspect of Notwestminster. Two of our PechaKucha speakers, John and Matt, talked about how public servants, and public services, need to be more human and empathetic. Matt’s workshop was on the same theme, and it was a key part of our Maker Day conversations too.

Notwestminster is also about hearing things that are challenging – not challenging in the way that Baroque music is impenetrable to most of us, but open, direct challenge about the way we do things and why. Please have a look at our Notwestminster livestream archive to hear from the Lightning speakers at our main event, including Chloe Brown from Kirklees Youth Council. The things Chloe said about young people and democracy at our previous Maker Day in Leeds were so powerful that I wanted to make sure everyone heard what our youth councillors have to say. If your kids ask you who a politician is on the telly and you say “it’s just grown up stuff” then you are part of the problem, she said. Challenging, and true.

On Friday night we heard from Patrick, who confronted a room full largely of digital advocates with the view that digital isn’t the best tool for improving local democracy. In some of our workshops, we also talked about the limitations of existing systems that are part of local government – the data sharing session quickly provoked a discussion about why different councils have their own web sites, and whether data should be centralised or localised. Characteristically, Sym stopped us becoming bogged down in a discussion about things that seem insurmountable, by focusing on one small incremental change and making a commitment to do it. It’s not the first time I’ve said this, but we can all learn much from that approach.

My appeal to all of you is let’s definitely keep finding opportunities to listen to each other, and let’s not be afraid of the difficult conversations, but please let’s also each pick one small thing that we can start doing right now and just bloody get on with it.

Track 5 – Silence

A few minutes before the opening chords were struck at the Notwestminster 2016 main event, two of us sat quietly in the Billy Bragg corner, gathering our scattered thoughts in sudden and complete calm. I can’t tell you how much I value the expansive, full-throttle Notwestminster soundscape – the amazing sound of enthusiasm and possibility as our lives overlap in a little corner of Huddersfield – but I value that still point in my turning world even more. When you feel safe and valued and trusted, anything is possible. Even when you’re so knackered that you missed your bus on the biggest day of your year.

Incidentally, that conversation about address data that you were reading about 10 minutes ago involved a lot of talk about levers. You know what Archimedes said on this subject… “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.” Well, I have been given a place to stand, so brace thissen’. Maybe the revolution is just a T-shirt away?

Secret final track…

*my other quote of the day on Friday was “a gentleman never goes in a lady’s bag”.



The word “soundscape” was coined by composer R. Murray Schafer to identify sounds that “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory, but always a sound that is pertinent to a place”

The soundscape is the component of the acoustic environment that can be perceived by humans.


More about Notwestminster
The best of Notwestminster 2016



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One Response to Notwestminster 2016 – at the still point of the soundscape (EP)

  1. Great post! Love how it captures the informal learning and networking. It’s fascinating to see what’s followed from the event too. Nice one! Dyfrig

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