We’re looking back over the past 10 years of Demsoc projects during February. Yesterday, we looked at our very first project. Today, Kevin Ditcham from our local democracy team looks at one of our most recent ones – the Innovation in Democracy Programme!

The Innovation in Democracy Programme was exactly what it set out to be; an innovation for local democracy. It was funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government which enabled three areas in England to be among the first in the country to use this method of deliberative democracy – to test whether or not using citizens’ assemblies in a local authority context worked in practice. Demsoc was part of a network of delivery organisations which included Involve, The RSA and mySociety. We worked with our partners collectively to design, facilitate and support the delivery of citizens’ assemblies in three local authority areas in England:

The Dudley Council and Test Valley Borough Council citizens’ assemblies discussed the future of local town centres and the Greater Cambridge Partnership chose to focus on traffic congestion, public transport and air quality.

The end of 2019, as we were deep in design and delivery of the Dudley and Test Valley citizens’ assemblies, was a bit of a blur for me (and the organisation). Delivering two citizens’ assemblies in less than two months is no mean feat, but we did it, and we’ve learnt loads by doing so, too…

  • The most important thing is: citizens’ assemblies aren’t easy. Use them to overcome tricky or contested high-value local issues which have reached a deadlock. Or use them to find answers to things you haven’t already got the answers to yourself.
  • Preparation is key – pre-engagement work with communities, politicians and other stakeholders is absolutely vital (and not only those communities affected by the topic, remember around 10,000 households will recieve invitations to take part – good pre-engagement will boost your return rate!).
  • Teamwork matters – the smooth, slick, running of a citizens’ assembly is normally a fascade behind which the staff team are running about solving issues, making sure participants are safe and well, dealing with the press, navigating the good (and the bad) social media coverage etc. A good team, grounded by trust and support for each other, makes all the difference. Make sure you assemble your team well based on their skills and outgoing nature.

At a time when citizen assemblies are more and more fashionable, this programme showed how to do them well in local areas, focused on local issues. It also demonstrated how much work they are to set up and run – not the sort of thing you can do on every issue. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at one of our older projects, that tried to take a strategic approach to engagement in one of the biggest institutions in Europe.

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