Birmingham, United Kingdom

Operation Black Vote

West Midlands Civic Leadership Program

October 9, 2013

Promoting diverse leadership for a more equal and representative democracy

Ever looked at your political leaders and thought how far they are from representing diverse populations? In the UK, just 4% of the national Members of Parliament (MPs) and local councillors originate from an ethnic minority background, despite minorities making up 14% of the wider population. The absence of ethnic minority leaders is common across other areas of public life too, including in local policing, education and the voluntary sector.

But Kacey Akpoteni’s experience suggests that, with a helping hand, people from ethnic minority backgrounds can leap forward to be local and national leaders.

A resident of Birmingham, Akpoteni had always been interested in playing a leading role in her local community. But it wasn’t until she joined the newly launched West Midlands Civic Leadership Program in her neighbourhood, that she received a fast-track education in the road ahead to becoming a local leader.

To become a councillor or local official, she would need to hone practical skills such as budgeting and political administration, as well as build professional networks. As an ethnic minority woman, she would probably need to work twice as hard to overcome the barriers she was likely to face. Luckily for Akpoteni, the six-month  Civic Leadership Program aimed to give her a head start towards ultimately achieving her goals.

School for Civics

Operation Black Vote (OBV) launched the West Midlands Civic Leadership Programme in April 2013. Founded in 1996, OBV has long-standing experience of running projects to support democratic participation among ethnic minorities. Its recent work builds on the past work of running shadowing and mentoring schemes to include practical skills training aimed at giving participants an even better chance of success.

For OBV Deputy Director Francine Fernandes, the Civic Leadership Programme tackles an important set of issues: “The UK population is set to be increasingly diverse, and we have to make sure that our civic leadership reflects that. There have been so many barriers in the past, but OBV’s work shows that when minorities are supported to step forward in public life they can really challenge the gap in representation.”

The Civic Leadership Programme works by introducing 40 potential ethnic minority leaders in Wolverhampton and Birmingham to the reality of public life in four main areas over a six month period:

  • politics (through placements with local councillors);
  • education (school governors);
  • the criminal justice system (Safer Neighbourhood Teams); and
  • the community sector (charity trustees).

Participants shadow officials for up to ten days over the course of six months, supported by additional practical training provided by OBV and by mentoring support to regularly assess their progress.

Fernandes explains: “We set up the program through a tried and tested methodology, selecting 40 outstanding individuals from an open call for applications. Now the program is nearly finished, we’ve been thrilled by the early feedback. One Birmingham councilor who worked with two of our participants described them as “exactly the quality of individuals which civic governance requires [and]… a model for every aspirational civic leadership model that there could be.”

A promising future

So how has Kacey Akpoteni found the Civic Leadership Program since she began in April 2013? She has shadowed a local councilor, sat in on committee hearings and meetings, and received training aimed at accelerating her learning. Akpoteni has already been appointed to sit on a major local funding committee and plans to stand as a council candidate in the next local elections.

Reflecting on her experience so far, Akpoteni says, “So far a lot of ‘myths’ have been busted for me about civic leadership in the UK. I’m certainly going further in civic life after the program. Ethnic minorities aiming to enter politics need to step up to the plate.”

Success Ahead

The first session of the West Midlands Civic Leadership Program finished in October 2013; its impact is to be evaluated after that. Outcomes from previous OBV civic leadership schemes across the UK suggest that it will have impressive results. A 2012 OBV scheme similar to the Civic Leadership Program in London saw 50% of participants taking on a leadership role within their community within six months of completing the program.

OBV had a similar result with its MP Shadowing Scheme, launched in 1999 in partnership with the Department for Communities and Local Government to promote the importance of increasing the low levels of BME representation in parliament and local authorities. The Scheme has produced over a dozen councillors, MP’s assistants and its first MP, Helen Grant.

Equally important, many of these “shadows” have  moved on to local constituency offices and community centres around the country to play an important role as Parliamentary Ambassadors helping to raise awareness amongst BME communities about the value and importance of positive engagement in democratic institutions. Programs like these are giving emerging young leaders like Kacey Akpoteni the tools she needs to promote the fundamental benefits of an equal and representative governing body to all communities.

The success of OBV’s civic leadership programs has attracted numerous political awards including the Local Government Chronicle Award, the Channel 4 Political Award and the Ebony Business Recognition Award.

Making it Work for You:

  • Make sure people understand the ultimate vision driving your project, however ambitious! You will build interest and excitement by talking about the big social change you are trying to bring about.
  • For capacity-building projects that work with individuals, think about how to make the biggest impact on project participants in a limited time. You could combine practical work experience with targeted training to accelerate learning.
  • Bring public sector institutions on-board as partners in integration projects. Not only will this help your participants in the short-term, it could lead to lasting improvement in engagement into the future.
  • Build a ”multiplier effect” into your work so that wider communities, as well as the main participants, can benefit from the lessons learned in the program.

For this Good Idea contact:

Francine Fernandes, Operation Black Vote
18A Bethnal Green Road
London, United Kingdom,