The Role of the Committee
Speakers’ Corner Committees (SCCs), with the support of Speakers’ Corner Trust, will have overall responsibility for the design, development and management of local Speakers’ Corner projects.
It is likely that Committees will wish initially to undertake initiatives on a city-, town- or district-wide basis. But, as they become established, they may seek to develop and coordinate a network of localised Speakers’ Corners within the distinctive groups and neighbourhoods which make up the community.
In summary, the principal tasks of the Speakers’ Corner Committee and its members will include
- establishing and maintaining a membership representative of the local community and the key organisations within it
- developing the Speakers’ Corner format most appropriate to its own community
- promoting the Speakers’ Corner Trust’s objectives within its community
- working with others, including statutory authorities, to determine whether, and if so where, a Speakers’ Corner should be established
- designing, organising and sustaining a balanced programme of events in every part of its area
- securing sponsorship and funding for its activities
- providing a vehicle for third parties for independent public consultation
- over time, where possible, creating or encouraging the creation of a local network
- where appropriate, creating and maintaining a local website
- monitoring and reporting to SCT on its activity and impact.
Speakers’ Corner Committees should embody three core qualities. First, so far as possible, they should be representative of their local communities. Second, they should reflect the range of skills and experience they will need in order to be effective. Third, while working in partnership with a range of local organisations, they must be and be seen to be independent of them.
As suggested above, SCC memberships should be carefully balanced so that they meet a range of complementary priorities.
It is important that they are not perceived as exclusive committees of the ‘great and good’. But as well as being representative, they will require among their members the mix of the skills needed to make a success of their work. Above all, they need individuals who are committed, energetic, resourceful and resolute.
It is likely therefore that SCCs will include representatives both of the public, private and voluntary sectors and of specific local communities, whether defined in terms of neighbourhood, ethnicity, faith, age or other.
SCCs should normally be constituted in two stages.
In establishing local projects, SCT will consult broadly in the local community in order to identify individuals who might form the nucleus of a ‘founding committee’.
The founding committee will be responsible for the initiative’s initial development and programme. Part of that work will include the design and adoption of a prospectus for its own membership.
SCCs will recruit their members either by invitation of specific individuals or by seeking nominations from groups or bodies which they believe should be represented on them. Normally, a SCC should be fully constituted within six months of the establishment of the founding committee.
SCT’s Model Constitution recommends that, depending on the size of its community, an SCC should have twelve to twenty-five members and may wish to constitute sub groups or committees to carry out specific tasks. These might include, for example, the drawing up and management of a programme of events, the pursuit of sponsorship and funding or the monitoring and further development of the project.
Initially, SCT will invite a skilled and committed individual to chair the founding committee. The fully constituted SCC will elect its own chair.
The ‘public ownership’ of each Speakers’ Corner initiative will be crucial to its credibility and, therefore, to its success in attracting support and participation.
The Committee must be and be seen to be independent of any outside influence. Though, for example, the active support of the local authority is highly desirable, the Council should not be seen to be leading the initiative. Similarly, while the sponsorship of local businesses and the involvement of political parties and faith groups are to be welcomed, they should be balanced and must not be seen to be dominant.
In brief, if it is to build and sustain public confidence, the Committee must be seen to be entirely independent of any interest and impartial on every issue. It must be the facilitator of debate, discussion and, occasionally, third party consultation (see below) but not the promoter of any particular point of view other than those set out in its constitution.
Supporting the Committee
The development of each Speakers’ Corner project and the organisation of the events it promotes should not prove unduly onerous but they will require time and professionalism. To some extent these needs may be met by volunteers. But, particularly in larger cities, it may also be necessary to secure more dedicated resources.
Some members of SCCs may have the commitment, skills, contacts and time to carry out important functions on behalf of the Committee. Some may wish to take on particular roles over either the short or longer term, for example in liaising with local schools or businesses or organising public speaking workshops.
However, it is recognised that most Committee members will be busy people who, though eager to make a contribution to the project, do not have the time to undertake tasks between meetings. Some adminstrative support will be required though by no means on a full-time basis.
In the project’s early stages, it is hoped that the SCC will be supported by its local authority though this help may not always be available and, even when it is, few Councils will wish to make an indefinite commitment of resources.
Ideally over time SCCs will be able to secure the services of at least one volunteer to provide administrative and organisational support. But it is important that that volunteer has more than just time to commit. He/she should have the skills, resourcefulness, imagination and energy needed not only to carry out essential tasks, but also to add value to the enterprise and to be an ambassador for it.
It may not always be possible to find such a volunteer. In these circumstances, in developing relationships with major employers in both the public and private sectors, SCCs might explore the possibility of seconding an appropriately skilled member of staff probably on a part-time basis.
Alternatively, SCCs might seek agreement from a sponsor or group of sponsors to dedicate employee time to the project as a whole or to individual events as a feature of their corporate social responsibility programmes. If neither of these options is viable, the SCC may consider seeking to raise sufficient funds to procure the staff time it requires.
Sponsorship & Funding
The costs associated with developing and maintaining a Speakers’ Corner (unless staff are employed) should be modest. It is assumed, for example, that the local authority, other public bodies, faith groups and businesses will be prepared to make premises available for meetings and events without charge and that local speakers will give freely of their time and talents.
However, it is likely that SCCs will from time to time incur costs, for example in establishing and maintaining a website and perhaps occasionally meeting the expenses of out-of-town speakers. SCCs may therefore need to develop modest fundraising and sponsorship programmes through which to secure pro bono support and maintain their funds.
An SCC, in consultation and/or partnership with the local authority, the police and others may wish to see a public space designated as a Speakers’ Corner to provide a platform for free expression and a symbol of citizen’s rights.
The significance of creating such civic spaces can be considerable. In some places they could become a powerful focus not only for local democracy but also for civic identity and pride as well as enhancing the liveliness and attraction of town and city centres for citizens, consumers and businesses alike.
Such spaces should be prominent, carefully designed and accessible to all, though care must also be taken to minimise public inconvenience or risk. Though it is not always either necessary, desirable or affordable, they could be marked by works of public art.
Speakers’ Corner events should reflect a set of core principles, namely that they should
- be promoted and organised to ensure that they are accessible and attractive to all
- afford equal rights to all those expressing an opinion, within the law
- be conducted at all times calmly and without personal rancour or abuse
- seek common ground and compromise rather than confrontation
- celebrate diversity rather than conformity.
The object of Speakers’ Corner events is to promote ideas and understanding, to identify common ground and to generate an appreciation of diversity and tolerance. They are not about winning or losing arguments but exchanging information, ideas and opinions.
Events should therefore rarely take the form of formal ‘debates’ and should never be adversarial or confrontational. Individuals, often with strong or opposing views, may be invited to stimulate or lead discussion, but they should not dominate it and votes on the outcome of debates should normally be avoided.
SCCs should aim initially to organise 6-12 events a year, some taking place at the Speakers’ Corner, if one is designated, others at indoor venues. They should also aim to stimulate other organisations as well as indivduals to use the Speakers’ Corner.
At an early stage, the new SCC should seek to contact as many local organisations as it can identify to introduce the project and encourage them to make use of the new platform either at the designated Speakers’ Corner or by working with it to organise a more formal event.
While the early meetings are likely to be held in central locations, SCCs should ensure that over time they take place in a range of locations which are attractive and accessible to all members of the community. Suitable venues might include town and village halls, community centres, schools, or places of worship or work.
SCCs, or their programme committees, will be responsible for identifying topics and securing speakers to facilitate discussion. Subjects should be carefully matched to the interests of likely participants, particularly in localised events.
As suggested above, networking is often the key to success, both in reducing administrative burdens and increasing the quality, profile and appeal of events. In planning their programmes, SCCs should consider enlisting the support of established organisations in designing, organising and promoting events among their constituencies and contacts.
Most public consultations are designed and administered by the organisation with the most direct interest in their outcomes (and often late in the policy-forming process when they have already drawn up a limited number of options), for which reasons, fairly or otherwise, they often fail to command public confidence.
SCCs offer the opportunity for independent, qualitative consultation. They should therefore welcome requests from both public and private bodies to oversee programmes of public consultation on issues of local significance or as part of a national exercise. In circumstances in which SCCs accept such invitations, they should expect the third party to provide a reasonable budget through which at least to meet their expenses. However, SCCs must have complete control over the final form and conduct of the consultation.
Speakers’ Corner events, including consultations, should rarely result in votes. Meetings should provide the third party with an opportunity to outline the issues it is addressing along with its objectives and options and allow others to contribute ideas and insights, put alternative points of view and/or to question and discuss its proposals.
The purpose of the consultation is to gauge opinion, identify issues, respond to concerns and develop or modify plans or policies rather than to seek a mandate. Third parties should therefore only normally be permitted to make reference to any consensus reached at meetings with the express consent of the meeting itself.
Training and Confidence Building
Many people lack not ideas and opinions but the skills and confidence to express them in public. SCCs should, where possible, explore the possibility of providing workshops, perhaps in partnership with a local theatre or broadcaster, to provide accessible training in the relevant techniques.
In large cities and towns, SCCs may over the longer term seek to establish a network of localised Speakers’ Corners throughout their districts. These could be focused on local neighbourhoods, communities and centres of employment or based in existing organisations such as students’ unions, Rotary Clubs and Women’s Institutes.
While the SCC should play a coordinating and supporting role, these local Speakers’ Corners should ideally establish their own small-scale steering committees and programmes.
It is important that SCCs maintain a high profile in promoting both the Speakers’ Corner principles and their own activities and events. The creation and maintenance of a dedicated website through which to provide information and discussion about its activities, as well as links to SCT’s own website and to those of other local Speakers’ Corners, would be a distinct advantage. The local website, which could be an attractive option for sponsorship, could
- provide information on local SCC events
- provide guidance on the running of Speakers’ Corners
- suggest topics for debate and solicit them from others, including the public
- provide an archive of summaries of the principal issues raised or consensus reached in local debates
- provide links to SCT’s website and to those of other local SCCs
- host online discussions and debates
- provide a register of speakers prepared to lead or facilitate debate.
SCT has designed a template for local websites and can, through its web hosts, provide a discounted web and email package.
Accreditation and Monitoring
SCT will, over time, seek to develop a wide network of Speakers’ Corner initiatives and develop the core resources through which to support them.
In order to qualify for SCT accreditation, which will entitle them to adopt the SCT logo and access materials and other services, SCCs will be asked to enter into a basic licensing agreement with SCT.
Accreditation will also require them to monitor and, on an annual basis, report to SCT information about
- the events which have taken place in its area
- the neighbourhoods and communities in which events have been organised
- the range of subjects covered
- how programmes may have been adjusted to improve participation where attendance was low, particularly among target groups
- where possible, the contribution of Speakers’ Corner events – for example to decision-making or as a feature of local or national consultation programmes.