In today’s post in our series looking back at our first ten years of project work, Anthony revisits a research piece that asked questions still relevant today.

After ten years of work, there are a lot of projects to remember. Some you keep at the front of your mind. Others you come across in some old email and think, “I don’t remember doing a project on that”. The third type disappear into memory for a while, and then suddenly become relevant again.

Our Sciencewise research report In the Goldfish Bowl is one of the third type. Written by Demsoc pioneers Susie Latta and Charlotte Mulcare (supported or hindered by me, depending on opinion), this Sciencewise research report looked at how to open up the conversation on science deliberation.

Sciencewise, if you don’t know it, is a UK programme that supports deliberative public engagement around the most difficult issues in science. It was one of the early engagement programmes of this type, and for many years has been supported by our friends and partners at Involve. Our report, though brief and addressing the different digital landscape of 2013, tried to work out how the conversation around those deliberative processes could be expanded and enriched.

So why is this report back at the front of my mind after seven years? What Claudia Chwalisz from OECD calls the “deliberative wave” is upon us. Everywhere from local to international citizen assemblies and deliberative events are taking place. But how will they make a difference to public perceptions of democracy if people never hear about them? The information that is prepared, and the discussions had at every citizen assembly, should be used to strengthen and grow public discussion.

If you want to see a good example of how to do this well, I recommend the work of the Scottish Government around one of our other projects, the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland. Live video clips, interviews with participants and a lively voice on Instagram as well as good outreach work with the media has meant that the initiative has a high profile.

That’s good for the Scottish process, and reflects the resources and skills that a government can bring to bear. But how can a council match that? And how can they make it happen about citizen assembly number twenty rather than citizen assembly number one?

These are questions that we’re going to need to answer if the deliberative wave is going to turn into a tide. In particular, we’ll need to work out how to engage people in conversations over the long term, even if they aren’t one of the participants in a particular process. With the list of deliberative initiatives growing by the day, we won’t be short of test locations.


Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.