Ireland Democracy, devolution and governance , Personal and organisational development

Swift Read: Innovation in Politics Awards 2019

Summary

This year, the Innovation in Politics Awards for the best political projects from all over Europe were presented in Berlin. 80 finalists and eight winners in eight categories were selected, and Ireland was well-represented in terms of submissions and selected finalists. This Swift Read presents LGiU’s coverage of the award ceremony and insights into the initiatives of the Irish finalists.

Briefing in full

LGiU Ireland has been covering the IIP Awards for a couple of years now. Ireland punches way above its weight in terms of submissions and selected finalists, and this was my first opportunity to attend the awards ceremony. It was in Berlin, in a very big tent (Tipi), and successfully celebrated plenty of political innovation.

These awards are different in that while the IIP is the secretariat, the judges are made up of 1,067 citizens from across the Council of Europe. These citizen judges have different perspectives to experts and tend to have more of a focus on outcomes rather than processes. This focus on tangible delivery became evident when I met some of the finalists prior to the awards presentation. I was pleased to spend some time with the teams from Monaghan County Council, Meath County Council and Longford County Council and my interviews with Irish councillors form a central part of the report that follows.

As you’d hope, there were some interesting insights into the nature of innovation in politics. A recurring theme from the Irish entrants was that the motivation for innovation usually came from a niche problem, but as a solution developed it became clear that it had much wider applicability. It was also clear that political leadership is essential for a successful project, and the imaginative use of both hard and soft power by councillors is required. Finally, I was struck by how seemingly unrelated innovations joined up.

Longford Nua

In response to significant economic challenges over the last decade, Longford County Council has prioritised regeneration and economic renewal. One of the results is Longford Nua (New Longford), a mapping app. The idea is simple yet powerful. The first area identified for use was the town of Longford itself, with the project led by the Longford Municipal District. The residents were encouraged to tell stories about parts of the town, which were organised into past, present and possible. The app also allowed residents to vote on proposals.

Some of the results were: the unearthing of new historical information about Longford; suggestions for redevelopment opportunities; the inclusion of views from younger residents and the immigrant community; and most importantly improved connections between the local government and the community.

Cllr Seamus Butler explained that Longford Nua sits at the heart of a regeneration strategy that enhances local democracy. The app enables a place-based consideration of issues that bring together housing, transport, economic development, tourism and heritage. As such, the app is a powerful argument for the devolving of responsibility and resources to the local level.

Athboy walkability and inclusive town developments

While walkability audits themselves are not new, the emphasis placed on this audit by Meath County Council was innovative. This walkability audit has incorporated the thinking developed by the dementia-friendly movement to provide a useful learning tool which produced tangible results, quickly.

Meath County Council itself has been challenged to rethink its assumptions about the use of public space. Experts have been bought in to redesign public facilities such as toilets, and some polling stations have been closed because of their inaccessibility to all members of the community.

Cllr David Gilroy identified the significance of councillors as connectors. Through his responsibilities he was able to join up the walkability project with tourism initiatives, local schools and the climate change agenda. Cllr Gilroy also emphasised the potential of local authorities as facilitators for local solutions and debates, such as the council meetings provided for delegates from local schools.

Your Vote Your Voice

Monaghan County Council has responded to changes in local demographics to develop an easy to read guide to the voting process. It became clear to Councillors and officers that the voting process had become infected with jargon, opaque procedures and the risky assumption that everybody understood why they were voting. The adoption of the UN Convention on Human Rights of People with a Disability and the 2019 local elections provided the catalyst for change.

The response is an easy-to-read guide which includes information on government structures, types of elections, voting procedures, the constitutional importance of voting, accessibility of polling stations and rules inside the polling station. The Monaghan guide has now been taken up by most local governments in Ireland.

One of the unexpected outcomes of Your Vote Your Voice was that uptake exceeded the numbers in the target community. It became clear that the guide was seen as useful for the existing community as well as new entrants. Something as apparently self-evident as ‘why should I vote?’ actually needed a more independent and clear explanation than the political process tends to provide. Young voters in particular are only starting their involvement in the democratic process and they bring behaviours that can fall foul of election law, most noticeably that you can’t take a selfie of yourself voting.

Moyross Training at The Bays

Cllr Frankie Daly of Limerick City and County Council was nominated for this initiative that aimed to tackle high unemployment and low skills in the Moyross area. The programme was aimed at the over 18 unemployed, and involved establishing a training facility. The training was specifically targeted to address shortages in the manufacturing and construction sectors locally.

Participants were provided with basic skills necessary, but the training also improved the confidence of participants to help them secure work. Strong connections to local employers were a vital part of the overall philosophy.

Age-Friendly Ireland

Cllr and Cathaoirleach of Meath County Council Wayne Harding was nominated for this internationally recognised work. Ireland was the first country to commit to the World Health Organisation’s Age Friendly programme on a national scale. Meath County Council leads this programme on behalf of all Irish local governments as part of a shared service agreement.

Age Friendly Ireland is a truly innovative strategy and set of actions that continued to be supported by Meath County Council even when the original funding ran out. LGIU Ireland has written about the truly inspiring work going on in all 31 local governments in previous briefings. Age Friendly Ireland works as a partnership bringing together NGOs, Public and private sector looking at two main challenges:

  • preparing Ireland for an ageing population; and
  • addressing elderly people’s issues now.

Councillor Harding explained the leadership role played by local elected members, pointing to their ability to see the gaps in the current system; the lonely people, the people unable to travel for shopping or socialising. That means they are well placed to offer solutions and bring together key institutions such as health, education and sport to deliver those solutions.

Other Irish nominations

In total there were nine Irish finalists.

Michael Ring TD, Minister for Rural and Community Development was nominated for ‘A New Public Library Strategy: Inspiring Connecting and Empowering Communities’.

Josepha Madigan TD, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was nominated for the ‘Creative Ireland Programme’.

Thomas Pringle TD was nominated for ‘Divestment from Fossil Fuels’.

Clare Daly MEP was nominated for ‘Reproductive Justice’.

Unfortunately, there were no Irish winners but to have so many finalists was a significant achievement.

Discussion

All the councillors I spoke to were clear about the role they played in making initiatives successful. Firstly, a well-functioning local government is a team, and a positive relationship between officers and elected members is essential. The Councillor contribution is to set the framework for innovation, support innovative ideas, allocate the resources needed, bring their insight, local knowledge and networks into the discussion, and then communicate the impact to the local community and beyond.

The deep connections into the local community led by the elected members was also a mechanism for identifying problems in the first place, be that unemployment, migration, demographics. In some cases, these challenges led to solutions such as: voting guidance; walkability maps; age-friendly plans; regeneration mapping; or skills training. In all cases these solutions had applicability beyond their initial target group. The voting guidance has been distributed beyond the migrant community. The skills training has evolved into an employability programme, the regeneration mapping has linked back into heritage strategies, walkability maps have been used to improve council facilities and change polling stations, and age-friendly initiatives such as men’s sheds have now become a social phenomenon encompassing schools, women’s groups and the disabled, among others.

When things work well, a positive feedback is created where innovative ideas find wider applicability as the local authority is able to identify and draw together individuals, communities, employers, and voluntary groups that can benefit from or contribute to getting the most value out of an idea. Councillors I spoke to expressed frustration that even more could be done, if the powers to make change across a wider set of challenges were available at the local level.