As someone who considers themselves an innovative community engagement practitioner I’m always on the lookout for new ways to engage the community in the decision making process as well as educate them to help them participate. A tool or technique that is maybe old but can be modernised or technique that is new and yet to be utilised. Of course the ultimate goal, to develop something so good myself that it makes me famous…

The concept of ‘Adopt a Councillor’ is one of those tools that I believe is ripe for bigger things. It isn’t old and yet it isn’t new. In fact I first came across the idea only a few years ago where it was being trialled in New Zealand. Hamilton City Council introduced the concept back in November 2011 when Councillor Angela O’Leary, who initiated the idea, was adopted by Hamilton’s Whitiora School. Now it maybe that the concept itself isn’t new but this use was. However since 2011 I haven’t seen any further reports on how it went. I have seen no feedback on how it was planned, how many councillors actually signed up or what happened after the initial trial which is a shame as it sounded like a great scheme to engage members of the community in the role of local government.

The ‘Adopt a Councillor’ project was born from the need to increase community interest in the role of Council and local government, especially amongst children, and resulted from continuous things like an empty public gallery during Council meetings and a lack of engagement by citizens in regular consultations held by council within the community. The idea of this scheme is, by gaining interest at a young age in local government people will become more interested and knowledgeable about the role and process of Council and the councillors they elect and in turn become more willing to support coproduction opportunities with them in the community.

Ultimately the objective of ‘Adopt a Councillor’ is to provide an educational relationship between either local schools, colleges or University students and their local government to increase community engagement, participation and coproduction in the decision making of Council.

Below I list a few ideas of how this could work and the activities you could include. Initially a good relationship between a local school, college or University and the local Council is needed.

How it could work

  • A local school class, college class or a number of University students would be invited to ‘Adopt a Councillor’ for a year (this could possibly be linked to their educational curriculum). This could be done with a number of Councillors from your local council.
  • Their Councillor (or adoptee) would visit the school, college or University for up to half day per term and spend time learning about the school and participating in any activities as required. The ‘adoptee’ would have some time to speak to the class about their role in the community and within the Council. Sharing knowledge of all the what’s, where’s, when’s, why’s and how’s of local government in an ‘easy to understand’ format.
  • The class or students involved would be invited to visit Council and take part in arranged activities for half a day (details of a possible day are below).
  • Part of the activities could be an opportunity for a number of the students to partake in a mock council meeting (this could provide an opportunity for class discussion beforehand with a selected student then chosen to represent the class as their Councillor at the mock council. The discussion would be on a chosen local item/subject and would reflect a City Councillor ‘consulting’ with their community which is an important part of local politics and a councillor’s role. The selected student would then have the challenge of debating the ‘mandate’ of their class alongside their own personal views against other students (councillors) in the mock council). An example of the items that could be debated include whether or not the Council should build a new skate park in the area or whether all school children should volunteer in their local community for 2 hours a week.
  • The adopted Councillor should be available for and invited to any functions or events at ‘their’ school/college/university – this would keep the relationship alive and could provide other opportunities for both the Councillor and students.
  • Council Web Cams could be installed as this would create a wonderful opportunity for friends and family of the students as well as other classmates to watch via the internet by live streaming as well as using the recorded mock council debates on-demand at a time that suits them to align with class work.
  • A certificate of ‘adoption’ would be given to the school/college/university to show the link they have with the local Council and Councillor.

How a student visit to Council could work

Possible activities:

  • A guided tour of Council departments with ‘show and tell’ hands on type opportunities – not death by PowerPoint.
  • Students could spend some time with their adopted Councillor in the Council Chamber who acts in a mentor role before the mock council meeting. Students could use this time to interview the Councillor on things they have been given to find out from their teacher. Reporting back in essay form as part of their project
  • Students could observe an actual council meeting (this could be a short one issue meeting designed to meet the requirements in the educational curriculum of project)
  • Participate in a mock student council meeting that could be led by the Mayor on a pre-defined local topic students would have prepared for in class and selected a student councillor to represent them on.
  • There could be an opportunity for family members of the students, teachers and class mates to attend the mock student council meeting using the public gallery as well as view via the internet if web cams are installed.
  • A few Students could also play the role of journalists and develop a news headline/article on conclusion of the meeting either in class or with the Council’s communication team for use in the school newsletter or council publication.
  • Finish with a lunch for students, visitors and Councillors who are participating for opportunities to talk and share experiences.

How to start a possible trial

  • An initial trial with a low number of Councillors is probably the best way to start with maybe multiple classes from one school taking part. This enables Council staff to ‘work’ on the proposal without the logistics of organising multiple Councillors and schools, colleges and the University visits.
  • Research would need to be done to see if this fits in with the local school curriculum or develop a way that it can fit in with student’s time, maybe as an out of school opportunity. Often students have projects to complete on citizenship or equivalent so this could be a great starting point
  • Local press should be invited to cover and promote the idea as well as being covered by the council’s marketing team in council publications, their website and via social media channels. Most schools also have newsletters, web and social media too. (An activity for this is mentioned above).
  • Propose a date that will tie in with the start of the school year allowing time for planning and interest building in the year before. Avoid election times.
  • Think about the children you involve especially those in school years between junior/primary and high/secondary schools, especially if you want to run follow up programmes as these children may move on to different schools at certain ages. Could this run as an after school club or as part of a youth group opportunity? (Scouts/Guides etc)

What do you think?

So what do you think? Is this something that you’re Council or school could run? Let me know if its idea you trail/run with, I’d love to know if it works?

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