Honest bravery of holding up a mirror has been added to by you

Several years ago when working in London I ran one of the first Citizens’ Juries in the country.

Wednesday, 15th May 2019, 1:51 pm
Updated Friday, 31st May 2019, 9:24 am
Sheffield speaks for itself - Pic: Laura Evans at Nifty Fox Creative.

A Citizens’ Jury is simply a collection of people from a place or community who use their knowledge and experience, and also their hopes for the future, to decide what should be done on a key issue.

In the one that I ran in London we convened eighteen people deliberately drawn from all walks of life. They sat as a jury for five days and their job was to come to a view as to if and how a major site should be developed. They did decide and a redevelopment did take place which in my view still looks great today.

Flushed by the success of that jury I gave a press quote that “ordinary people can be extraordinary”. With the passage of time that quote now seems, to me at least, to be a bit trite and patronising. It’s a bit like the notion that we need to speak to the “real people”. Surely we are all “real” even if we sometimes get distracted by or focused on different things.

It was with this in mind that I went to the annual State of Sheffield event earlier in May. I was around when the State of Sheffield initiative was first conceived and I still maintain that it is a genuinely brave thing for a city to do. In recent years, and via the City Partnership Board now chaired by Lord Blunkett, we have published a statistical update about our city.There was no spin or filter. The statistics showed what is good and not so good, what had gone well and less well and what had improved in line with promises made and what had not. The data has deliberately been independently overseen away from those organisations who tend to be accountable for progress. Put simply, there is no hiding place.

This year, though, we added to it and took it right back to its core by asking people what their real experiences were of living in Sheffield. The qualifying criteria to be part of this were very simple – you had to have an interest in and an experience of Sheffield.No ordinary or extraordinary people, no real or unreal people.Just people. Young, not so young, different cultures, different incomes, councillors, police, business people, volunteers, nurses, faith leaders and people of no faith. You get the picture. No experiences were edited and no excuses were given. It was just Sheffield being honest with itself under the banner of “Sheffield and You”.

You can imagine, given the job that I do, that I go to such events with a degree of trepidation, although to be fair to Sheffielders they always respect the person even when they are giving you a tough time.The mood though was brilliant – noisy, high energy and very engaged. And there were lots of positives that came out. Pride in the city is certainly on the up. People like the diversity of Sheffield and do believe that we have strong communities. Maybe that’s the modern version of the “city of villages” often used to describe our city.Feedback suggests that there are clearly lots of good things to do in the city and a good choice of ways of getting around, although not all agreed. Most people felt safe in Sheffield.

There were though some negatives and, given our goal to be a more inclusive city, even just one person’s negative is one too many.Not everyone does feel safe. Getting around the city may be achievable through a choice of ways but for some it is too expensive. We all know that the city centre is work in progress and for some that it is a positive but for others it needs to be delivered more quickly.

One issue upon which the voices were loudest was air quality. Not surprising really given both its importance but also its profile in recent months. This is certainly something upon which we are aligned. Let’s see how the debate goes when we seek to decide how we are going to tackle it.

So what does this all add up to. For me, the specific issues that get identified are important and should become priorities. In truth they probably are our priorities but clearly in some cases more is wanted or a quicker pace is being asked for.What, though, is most significant is that the honest bravery of holding a mirror up to ourselves based on the statistics has now been added to by the real experiences of the people who live and work here.At the end of the day it’s what it feels like that matters. Being honest with ourselves may seem pretty normal for a Sheffielder but not many places do it.This is and will be a better place for it.