Why the Square Mile needs Citizens Forums 2.0 – and more

Last night’s Citizens Forum about Destination City attracted some 60 residents from the Square Mile, but unfortunately confirmed my fear that it would be therapy with free drinks rather than genuine engagement. (Ref: yesterday’s post and Arnstein’s ladder).

Councillor Brendan Barns, the Resident Representative on the City Envoy Network, who organised the event, has a remit “to represent the collective views of residents on the Destination City agenda”.

That’s a big task, but Brendan has been given no resources or officer support from the City Corporation. As he says in this article for the EC1 Echo he is doing the job voluntarily, and even contributing his own funds where necessary.

The Citizens Forums are consequently promoted as unofficial, informal get-togethers with a chance to see some interesting places in the City. The next one will be at the City Wall at Vine Street on February 19 2024.

Brendan is casting himself as a channel between residents and the Corporation, with the Forums as the only mechanism, so far. As I wrote yesterday, while welcome, we need more than that.

Last night we started with drinks and a warm welcome to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business from Elizabeth O’Neill, executive director.

Brendan extolled the cultural and heritage attractions of the City, urged people to sign up for the City Resident newsletter, and to look at the visitor website.

We were invited to talk to our neighbours, provide feedback on our favourite places, what might improve the City as a location, and information about where we find out what’s happening.

There was no detail about the current review of Destination City, even though there is an interim report suggesting Destination City 2.0 should place more emphasis on creating a “a liveable, lively and connected City in a uniquely historic, cultural and characterful setting.”

The response to Brendan’s talk last night was predictable. With nothing of substance about Destination City, residents waded in with a series of questions and complaints about the City Corporation and its poor communications and engagement. Brendan became lightning conductor rather than go-between … because there was nothing to go with.

I hesitate to recommend my Guide to Effective Participation, since it was written 30 years ago, but the basic lessons still apply. Before jumping to an engagement method – whether survey, presentation or workshops – first be clear about the purpose, and then about the level of engagement on offer. Free drinks, a chat from the lectern, and some notes do not provide a way to represent the collective views of residents on the Destination City agenda.

Fortunately there’s a chance to do something better at the next Forum. By then Paul Martin will have presented his review of Destination City to Councillors, and without sharing the whole thing, Paul or someone in his behalf could expand on his interim report. That would provide a framework for residents to make some input before final decisions are taken. (See update below).

What other forms of engagement are appropriate will become clearer when we know what Destination City 2.0 may look like. No need to drop the free drinks, though.

Update

Brendan has promptly emailed those of us who attended yesterday – copied to this page.

In that email he provides a link to a survey about Destination City, and the Paul Martin review. He adds:

The initial conclusions from this review will be presented to the Culture, Heritage and Libraries Committee on Friday 9th February. I will ensure these findings are brought to our next meeting on Monday 19th February at City Wall at Vine Street.

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