I wrote a recent blog about the use of commissions in helping cities form and develop visions, strategies, policy. Often this has been in response to two key factors:
– addressing the perception that policy is not co-designed with the citizens of the city the officials are representing; and
– the lack of policy and strategy capacity within local authorities who have prioritised investment in front line services at the cost of those teams who look further ahead beyond the current financial horizon of ‘end-of-year’.
I promote this as the City of Sheffield – my home city – promotes its latest activity of the Fairness Commission (http://www.ourfaircity.co.uk/ and follow on twitter via https://twitter.com/FairSheffield) – challenging individuals and organisations to demonstrate their commitment to a fair and equal society.
This sits alongside two further activities – the City’s Green Commission (https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/your-city-council/policy–performance/green-commission.html) and the city’s economic commission.
To take such an approach is noble, open and engaging when undertaken well. The challenge will be to identify the ‘sweet spots’ where the outcomes of the three commissions land on the same priorities and actions – but, even more importantly to reconcile the conflicts between ambitions where they occur. This is where a maturity of elected members comes in to play. These decisions are the crucial ones. Is priority given to local environmental quality, health or economy? Does the city prioritise global environmental impact over local economic growth? These decisions remain difficult but those decision takers should use the commissions they have brought together to ensure they have an expert input to a robust argument informing their recommendations and decisions.
Only when you get in to these difficult spaces and conversations do you add real value. It would be a pity of the commissions are cosmetic and only airbrush over the issues for this generation and give the future generations of Sheffield no chance at all.
My suggestion is, at the end of this commissioning process, a symposium for the city is convened to draw together and debate both the opportunities that have been identified and where conflicts need to be reconciled. It should be Chaired by an independent member to whom the Chairs of the three commissions report their findings. It would prove to be an effective way of re-engaging with the wider stakeholders – not just those who have been involved in the process of the individual commissions. Only then can a clearer vision for the city be set out with confidence.
My hope is the city doesn’t fudge this and try and be all things to all people. It needs to differentiate itself. It can only do that through a process of prioritisation with an outcome that makes it a distinctly different place that people can identify with. Otherwise it will be simply re-providing every other city of half a million people in western Europe. And it is better than that.