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29 Nov 2010

Ingredients of Transition: Engaging the Council

Councillors from Somerset County Council taking part in a Transition Training

Context

Building a constructive relationship to your local authority can be a very constructive thing for both organisations.  Once your initiative has dealt with BECOMING A FORMAL ORGANISATION (2.7), it could set about BUILDING STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS (2.12) with a range of organisations, including the Council.  Such an approach can happen either as a single initiative, or could come from a NETWORK OF TRANSITION INITIATIVES (4.2).

(We are collecting and discussing these Transition ingredients on Transition Network’s website to keep all comments in one place. Please leave feedback and comments, suggestions for alternative pictures, anecdotes, stories and projects for this ingredient here).

The Challenge

To be able to really have an impact, you will need to develop a good working relationship with your local authority.  Often community organisations are seen by their Local Authorities as disorganised, reactionary, unrepresentative and troublesome.  Community consultation processes can be tokenistic and exclusive, leaving community groups feeling sidelined and unheard.  Many community groups end up feeling excluded from local politics, and they retreat into knocking their local authority, rather than engaging and, for example, putting people forward for office.

Core Text

Let’s suppose that your Transition initiative decides it is time to go and talk to the Council, in order  to try and engage them in your work.  What is the best way to make sure it goes well, and what are the things to avoid that would mean it goes disastrously badly?  A recent report by the Community Development Foundation [1]offers four tips to help community groups wanting to approach their local authorities:

1.       Your group must be persistent, positive and ready to work with others

2.       You need patience and networking skills to find the right person within the Council who is interested and supportive of your work

3.       You must have something to bring to the table, for example, how can your group help the Council to meet its targets?

4.       Often the Council is already dealing with other Third Sector groups, and it might be that you will have more of an impact if you go as part of a coalition

Alexis Rowell was a Councillor in Camden for four years and one of the founders of Transition Belsize, and in his book “Communities, Councils and a Low Carbon Future”[2], he sets out his advice for Transition initiatives wanting to approach their local council.  Firstly, he suggests, Councillors are only human, and spend much of their time being berated about different problems and crises, and therefore they love people who bring solutions rather than problems.  Think, when you are preparing to meet with them, what your initiative can do that helps them to solve a problem that they are facing.

Secondly, try and make them feel like a part of the process.  Invite them to events, you might consider inviting your councillors to film screenings as a guest of honour, and invite them to comment after the film, to offer their thoughts.  You could invite them as ‘Keynote Listeners’ to your events (as Transition Network did with Ed Miliband in 2009 when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change).  When you organise events, organise them in their field of vision, even if they can’t make it, they should be getting a sense of the buzz you are generating, at second hand at least.  You might also invite them to Open Space events you are holding, indeed you could give them first refusal on dates when planning the event to ensure that they manage to attend.

Thirdly, think clearly about why you are going to see them.  What are you asking for?  Don’t go too early: as Alexis warns, make sure you get all your organisational ‘birthing pains’ out of the way first.  It works better if the ‘buzz’ around your work reaches them first, or if you have a practical project under your belt first, to show that you aren’t just another ‘talking shop’.  Make sure you have a clear ask, don’t just turn up empty-handed.

If you get to be asked to make a presentation to the Council, there are a few definite dos and don’ts:

  • Do dress the part.  Wear a tie, or wear something smart, have a haircut if needed.
  • Don’t take your family friends, dog or cat along with you.
  • Don’t spend the first ten minutes showing them peak oil graphs and pictures of stranded polar bears.
  • Don’t slag them off, presenting them with a list of ‘the Council doesn’t do this, and it doesn’t do that…” and so on….
  • Do tailor your presentation to your audience.  If you are addressing the Financial directors, tell them how Transition can save them money.  If you are talking to the disaster planning officers, tell them how Transition can help build resilience, and so on.
  • Do practice in advance, make sure your co-presenters know who is doing what
  • Do try to get one or two sympathetic councillors on board first in advance of your presentation
  • Do offer your services as experts in consulation processes, such as Stroud (see below)
  • Do try to not come across as unfocused, pie-in-the-sky woolly liberal activists…

Michael Dunwell of Transition Forest of Dean, who has done a lot of work with his local council on trying to embed Transition thinking at Council level, told me that for him, working with his Council really impressed on him the importance of having done the Transition Training.  He identified two reasons why this is the case.  Firstly because “the training itself strengthens and supports commitment and feeds the desire to see a healthy community”, without which it would be hard for people with little previous experience of local government to be able to withstand much exposure to it.  Secondly because it brings you into contact with people who have experience of working with government, and this encourages you to seek their help. He concluded, “I have found that the impenetrable jargon of local government makes you doubt your own ability to think or speak, so be sure that you can express to yourself what it is you believe in, only utter what you know you can understand and don’t try and out-jargon the others.  It really is important that the Transition message speaks a different language”.

Transition Stroud have cultivated a close working relationship with Stroud District Council.  Speaking at the IDEA Conference in June 2009, Simon Allen and Cllr. Fi Macmillan told the story of how that relationship emerged[3].  Transition Stroud became involved with the Council’s Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) which held a series of ‘Inquiries’.  When the Inquiry about food came around, the group realised that there were “no specialists on food supply in the district and we know as much as anyone”.  The group focused on producing the report for the food inquiry, along the lines of ‘Can Stroud Feed Itself?’  They spent a huge amount of time on it, with a great deal of research pulled into the process, and the final report was accepted as evidence to the Think Tank on food policy.  The Council later said that they saw this as a turning point in the relationship between Transition Stroud, the LSP and the Council.  Asked to suggest some tips for other Transition initiatives based on their experience, they offered the following:

  • Don’t worry if your transition group looks ‘home-knitted’ – we’ve got energy, commitment and great ideas
  • Focus on what you want to achieve and not what sets you apart
  • Look out for the people in your Transition groups who are up for collaboration
  • Start working on something – anything- to build that relationship – take some risks and learn to trust each other
  • Careful communication, review and reflection build that trust
  • It won’t be an easy fit first off. You have to work at the relationship
  • It won’t happen overnight. Be patient
  • Remember internal concerns have to be managed
  • Don’t get hung up on the outcomes because outcomes might change, just work on shared agenda.

One of the most amazing resolutions ever passed by a local authority in relation to that passed in Monteveglio in Italy in late 2009.  Among other things, it committed the authority to:

“Strategic partnership with the Association Monteveglio Città di Transizione [Transition Town Monteveglio] with whom this administration shares a view of the future (the depletion of energy resources and the significance of a limit to economic development), methods (bottom-up community participation), objectives (to make our community more resilient, i.e. better prepared to face a low energy future) and the optimistic approach (although the times are hard, changes to come will include great opportunities to improve the whole community’s quality of life)”.

I asked Cristiano Bottone of Transition Town Monteveglio (TTM) for the story of how the resolution came about.  He said that it began with his giving talks about peak oil and Transition, which were well attended by local councillors.  This led to the forming of TTM, who organised talks by a series of speakers and other events, as well as hosting a Transition Training by Naresh Giangrande and Sophy Banks.  Around this time, local elections were pending, and some within TTM decided to put themselves forward for election, while others felt they would be more effective continuing with the Transition initiative.  Those running for office used Transition approaches, such as World Cafe, to generate ideas which were then woven into their electoral platforms.  In the end, they were all elected, resulting in a situation where TTM and the council now work side-by-side in a very positive partnership, in spite of recent cuts in public spending.  Cristiano offered three tips for successful engagement of local authorities:

1.       When communicating with institutions always talk to the people, never to their roles: generate empathy, and speak to the parent, the citizen, the carer, rather than the title on the door of the office

2.       Create the conditions for change #1: create a ‘new way’: when done well, Transition can create a new social and political space which is quickly noted by politicians, and which gives both they, and the local people, new room for expression

3.      Conditions for change #2: move beyond competition:  Transition offers an approach which strives to take the competitiveness out of local politics, cooperative activity, working together to achieve change with everyone contributing, is much more likely to succeed.

The Solution

When your initiative feels as though it is ready, and it feels that it has sufficient momentum under its belt, make an approach to whoever seems the most sympathetic person within the Council.  Explore ways of collaborating, how they can help, and how your Transition initiative can feed into Council policymaking.  Explore options for funding, or any other kind of support.  You might explore the possibility of passing a peak oil resolution, or offer your services in helping draft policy on areas where your group has expertise.

Connections to Other Ingredients

Be mindful of not swamping your councillors with POST PETROLEUM STRESS DISORDER (1.1), feeling the obligation to expose them to endless peak oil graphs.  When you get to meet councillors, or give them a presentation, be aware of HOW OTHERS SEE US/HOW WE COMMUNICATE (1.6).  Invite councillors to your AWARENESS RAISING events (2.9).  The Council might be able to help you with getting VOLUNTEERS (3.2), with OFFICE SPACE (3.1), with ENSURING LAND ACCESS (3.13) and with support for PRACTICAL MANIFESTATIONS (3.9).  They can also give a great deal of support with your ENERGY DESCENT ACTION PLAN (5.1) process and could potentially be a partner for COMMUNITY RENEWABLE ENERGY COMPANIES (ESCOs) (5.4).  Finally, it would be good to find ways to help them meet their objectives, perhaps offering them support with drafting PEAK OIL RESOLUTIONS (6.2), or carrying out ENERGY RESILIENCE ASSESSMENTs (4.5).


References

[1] Gautier, A. (2009) Green Up! Five ways to work with your Council on the environment and sustainability.  Community Development Foundation, London.

[2] Rowell, A. (2010) Communities, Councils and a Low Carbon Future: what we can do if Government won’t. Transition Books.

[3] Told in more detail at http://transitionculture.org/2009/06/24/what-can-happen-when-a-transition-initiative-and-its-local-government-work-together-the-stroud-story/

Please leave any comments here.

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2 Comments

debbie
29 Nov 1:13pm

We are arranging an evening soiree in a local bookshop in March to debate Alexis Rowell’s book and inviting our local councillors and Camden Council sustainability officers along. We are inviting a local journalist to MC the event…it should be good fun and a vy stimulating evening.

Cara Naden
29 Nov 4:53pm

I was co-opted onto Langport Town Council 6 months after starting Transition Langport (which started in Sept 2007) when I was aged 28. The fellow councillors have been very supportive – Tranistion Langport has featured in every annual Chairs report and community newsletter since. We are awarded grants for promotional material, towards plastic bag free project and litter pickers for our community litter picks.
As the local elections are next year I recommend you all have a go as a grass-root councillor. I enjoy it and am lucky to have supportive community minded councillors. I hope to continue for years to come until Langport has truely transitioned!