Councillors have power, given by voters. Power can be addictive. So, there should be some balance to counterpart the power given to you. That is the nature of democracy.

The Greek 500-300 BC realised this danger. One of their rules was to switch offices each year, all of them, from transport logistics to the customs, from executives to civil servants. And all offices were assigned by election, including rather technical civil servants posts. This classical form of democracy wanted their rulers and public servants of the year to be amateurs and stay amateurs. No skills, experience or expertise required.

Apparently the classical Greek considered the coincidence in one person of power with skills, experience and expertise as dangerous to the democratic balance.  

Councillors are not experts. That is why they are politicians. We are opinion generators, we are control experts. We control executives, the cabinet, the public services. We don’t have to be competent on the issues we control, because we are, or should be, experts in ‘how experts think’, not in ‘what experts think’. [1] 
But our power is limited, should be limited, or better: balanced by other powers. This is another characteristic of democracy. Our power is limited because:

  • majority in the council is needed
  • authority, personal of partisan, is required
  • political opinions are counteracted by facts and opinions of experts
  • opinions are counteracted by the power of executives, cabinet members
  • sloppiness cannot be avoided, our own sloppiness, the human imperfectness
  • time available for council work: 15-20 hrs a week
  • priority setting between all important topics isn’t rational at all

So, actually, as an individual councillor we don’t have effective power. But we do have influence. We even could have authority, though only in the field of opinions.  

Our visit to Derby showed us that inhabitants, the people of the neighbourhood with an interest in the local park, the regeneration of the street they live in, are capable of effecting power, or better effecting influence. Each can have opinions if the matter is boiled down to the essentials, minor and practical or major and principal.

We learned that it is fruitful and do-able to make use of those opinions, choices and priorities. The Derby method of regenerating the area around their own homes can have an impressive result. The key is ‘interest’. And interest there is because it is all about their own neighbourhood. The role of the council then is to balance conflicting neighbourhood interests, and expenditures to citywide services.

 

Secondly, we learned the difference between 1) inform inhabitants, 2) investigate for local ideas – both one-directional – 3) consult – two-directional –  4) priority setting & decision making by the neighbourhood – one directional. We know those differences, but don’t dare to be explicit on it when we consult with inhabitants living around an area to regenerate. We don’t like angry interests group emerging each time we make decisions on regenerating neighbourhoods and parks. We are vague in this procedures which are obliged by law. Thinking about this, and applying this to ongoing consulting procedures in Almere (a new leisure park and an existing sports and leisure park) we realised that their should be an addendum to the list of 4 steps. Their should be a 0) and a 3a). The council should define the borders at the start as “The park will be regenerated with limited costs, which are …”. Than the informing (1), investigating (2) and consulting (3) can be processed. After that it is the council’s turn again. We should decide on the resulting plan and budget, leaving a specific list of issue’s that could be decided on by the neighbourhood. This could lead to “The neighbourhood prefers a tennis lawn and a kindergarten, and not a skating field, if the budget does not allow us all three”.

Well, it is not finished. Democracy is never finished.

We are grateful to have had the opportunity to visit your city, to learn and to enjoy.

Thank you very much.

 

(Diner speech 14 September 2007, Community Councils of Derby and of Almere



[1] Philp E. Tetlock. Expert political judgement. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005. “What experts think” is sporadic a predictor of forecasting accuracy. “How experts think” is a consistent political predictor of future events. The same goes for ideology of politicians which is a far more powerful predictor of resistance to facts that refute their opinion than expertise is. In short: don’t spoil my opinion with your facts.