The Slugger Awards 2008: Local authority of the year

A few weeks ago, I promised to start announcing the categories for the Slugger Awards 2008. Well, it’s the first day of August, so here goes. It may come as a great relief to many of our posters here (and no doubt, to many of our readers) that politics in Northern Ireland is beginning to stray into the parochial every now and then. Instead of competing to dominate the global headlines (NI stories on the international news wires have dropped by some 80% since last year’s settlement), politicians here are more concerned than ever before with the need to improve the quality of people’s lives at a local level. One area we’d like to see some improvements are in the quality of local government.Over in England, the new ‘Communities In Control’ white paper, published earlier in July, is a response by Hazel Blears to the observation that many councils don’t think that it is part of their role to promote local democracy:

“A new duty will be placed on local authorities to promote democracy. Local leaders will be expected to do more to help residents understand how the democratic process works and how they can get involved. Residents can expect to see information campaigns and town halls being opened up to councillors to hold surgeries. New ‘civic champions’ – council staff or former councillors who will go out into the community and work with residents and community groups to increase understanding about how they can raise awareness about civic roles they can take up – whether that’s volunteering, standing as a governor, a councillor or becoming a magistrate.”

Hazel is in an odd position there. Many councils – both permanent staff and elected councillors – somehow imagine that local democracy will promote itself, and that a failure to boost it in any way will not erode their legitimacy. In Northern Ireland, we are seeing a huge change taking place between now and 2011. Our current 26 councils are going to be slimmed down to 11. The new larger local councils will hopefully be looking at what each of the smaller ones do best – and we want to highlight the councils that are doing the most to involve the widest number of local residents in framing local policy.

Many councils do a great deal to ensure that people know who their councillors are, how to monitor, participate in, and respond to council policymaking. But many more don’t. Similarly, in Northern Ireland, we have a combination of democratic evangelism in some councils, and jobsworth hand-sitting in others.

We want to know which local authorities have done the most to ensure that a civil conversation on local issues can take place. Which one does the most to ensure that young people are encouraged to take part in local democracy? Are there any good schools initiatives? Are councillors helped and resourced to go out to meet the people? Do councils make the role of local councillor an attractive one? Which ones have involved the general public in policy consultations? Have there been any innovative approaches tried? And in the spirit of The Slugger Awards, we are not interested in cynicism or idealism here. If a council has tried something and it didn’t work out perfectly, we still want to hear about it – in a good way. You learn nothing from trying nothing, and these awards are about rewarding positive initiatives.

NB: In the original announcement of the awards, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the following lines:

“In our own informal way, we’ve acted more as a critical friend than fawning acolyte or jaded oppositionalist.”

… and …

“We’d like to highlight the good things that are happening right now in Northern Ireland, and the awards will aim to reward effort and interactivity with a pat on the back from the blogosphere.”

Please try to be positive, people? I know that this site has its fair share of barflies who have a cynical / idealistic opinion on everything. We normally moderate with a light touch here to ensure maximal participation and a pluralism of views, but for the award nominations threads, we’re going to just delete them on sight. This is about catching people being good, for a change.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty