Reflections on New Think Tank – 4. Alex Kenmure

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to the New Think Tank project. This post: Alex Kenmure. Thanks to Alex for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only recently started voting. For 12 years I’ve been a part of that nebulous and condemned portion of the electorate who have (in the eyes of many) forsaken any right to have an opinion on how the country is run. It’s an unusually emotive issue – in some ways I’ve wondered whether people have had more of an opinion on my non-vote than they would have if had voted for the British National Party (note: I didn’t vote for the BNP btw). So, tired of the judgement, I made my way to the voting booth a few weeks ago to have a vote on who should be our local councillor. It turned out to be an oddly pleasant but also dispiriting act. I was taken aback about how low-tech it all was – volunteer with a clipboard, pencil, paper, makeshift booth all enclosed within a quaint village hall. I felt like I could have been voting in the 1950’s and quite enjoyed the quintessential British-ness of it all.

And then it hit me. My vote, my say in how my local area is run, had been boiled down to a simple “X”. Was that it? What on earth could people read into that? It doesn’t say why I voted, if I have any reservations, my own thoughts on what could be changed in the area – in a simple act of participation I had actually disempowered myself and traded my own views for a validation of someone else’s policies. It would seem that at the end of the day, I am trading my research and opinions for a “best fit” generic model. My conclusion – voting, our single greatest tool in shaping the destiny of our communities, is enjoyable but rubbish. No wonder so many people don’t vote!

Where am I going with this?

Well, the challenge above is the main reason I like the idea of the new think tank project. I really like the concept that instead of a system that discards all the interesting stuff everyday individuals have to offer, a mechanism could be set up to capture the thoughts, solutions and challenges residing within all of us –  the “lightning in a bottle”. As part of the branding workshop, it was interesting to hear the language we used to describe people: users, stakeholders, customers, frontline workers, policy wonks etc. I think we found it difficult just to use the word “people”, which to me is a little ironic given that the real “customer base” for this project is people plain and simple. There is a very cool opportunity here to create something that isn’t just about undermining a policy industry, but provides a genuinely refreshing alternative for people who have something to say to be able to contribute to a challenge and see how what they bring to the table makes a difference.

I’m not sure how it is going to work out – one day I think it’ll be a massive success, the next I think it’ll be a terrible flop (!), but as I watch it develop the one thing I would like to see is that it retains a sense of fun. Can it capture my unhealthy giddiness at voting, while at the same time being a million times more effective? Impactful, but a little bit cold doesn’t really cut it for me, nor would it for a lot of my friends I shouldn’t think. It doesn’t have to have the quaintness of a village hall, but it would be nice if something can be developed in such a way to make the act of participating feel as important and enjoyable as the result.

Who knows… maybe one day someone might post about the first time they engaged with the new think tank model as an important moment in their life.

Alex Kenmure from Camden Council has worked in policy and performance roles within local government for the past 6 years and is interested in developing new relationships, perceptions of value and outcomes-based delivery models between voluntary sector organisations and local authorities.

3 Comments on “Reflections on New Think Tank – 4. Alex Kenmure”

  1. Thanks Alex, as ever I really appreciate you posting this. One of the things that struck me most in the workshop was the discussion on democracy and how we need new forms of engagement and participation – if this project and others in a similar vein were in any way some kind of contribution to resolving the widely-felt democratic deficit then this would be incredible. As you suggest, exercising your citizenship should be made to feel exciting, like a contemporary experience. It might sound crass, but there’s so much we can learn from the private and voluntary sector about engaging and motivating people – for example, both Sport Relief and Nike are extremely skilled and experienced in hooking people into collective experiences, so why not use these same skills to engage people in policymaking?

    • Alex Kenmure says:

      Many thanks. Yeah it’s fun to think about the drivers behind this project being a fundamental evolution of the democratic process! Maybe one step at a time…(!)

      That said, I feel like you’ve hit the nail on the head with how other brands/projects/initiatives/etc when successful are able to tap into something that is culturally relevant and in turn become something culturally relevant. My single biggest fear for this project is that people will think it is boring. Not only because it would be a terrible shame if people thought that, but also because it is a criticism that is so often undermined as just a reflection of an audience’s inadequacies – “they don’t get it”. But in most cases when you blame the customer for not liking the product, you tend to not sell anything and go bankrupt. It really annoys me when people who don’t engage are treated as having made their choice and don’t deserve to be involved. I also worry that this has got into our collective heads – are some people starting to believe that they don’t deserve to have a say, that it is something that just happens to other people? Deep down I wonder if this is the real divide that between strategy and frontline.

      Anyway, this is getting a bit ranty for a post that’s basic line was keep it fun!

      • Without sounding (or being) conspiratorial about it, I do think that there’s a part of the ‘political class’ (though certainly not all of it) that is quite happy to have policy all to themselves, and will throw up all sorts of apparently ‘insurmountable’ barriers to efforts to engage more people – many of which we’ve discussed on this blog over the past few months, and none of which strike me as necessarily being as insurmountable as these people often claim. But let’s find out.

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