#demsoc10 Making a splash with deliberation

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.

#demsoc10 Zero Heroes

Looking back over ten years of projects, Anthony discusses an early project out and about in rural Sussex.

Although it’s fair to say Captain Sussex never made it to the level of fame achieved by Captain America, he was quite often found in rural Lewes district during 2013.

One of our bigger early projects was working with Lewes District Council to help them use citizen engagement to increase their recycling rate. The Zero Heroes campaign – fronted by the cartoon Captain Sussex – encouraged people living in the towns and villages of the district to recycle more, and earn money for a participatory budgeting fund for their community.

The idea was that encouraging people to do things for a community benefit would get the word-of-mouth conversations going, which would be more effective than a simple poster campaign. Then at the end, a participatory budgeting process in each community would work out how to spend it.

Ali Stoddart at the East Chiltington Bicycle Joust.

The main part of the project took place over the summer, so we had lots of village fairs and other events to attend and promote our work. As you can see from the picture above, our former colleague Ali Stoddart even got into repairman mode and helped out a contestant in the bicycle jousting at East Chiltington.

We learned a lot. The first was how the community that people feel they are part of is not always the obvious community. We had villages where residents at opposite ends didn’t feel like they were in the same community. We had villages in the same ward (electoral area) that had long-standing rivalries going back centuries and didn’t want to share a single participatory budgeting pot. We also had a problem in collecting data – the only data available were on ward boundaries (quite big in rural areas) or from trucks (which took the most efficient route and often picked up garbage in multiple different communities).

However, the idea of motivating people with a community contribution certainly created attention. We had 140 ideas suggested across the district, with 900 residents participating online and 650 votes cast at twelve public meetings. It was a relatively small scale programme, but certainly had more participation than you would generally get for a recycling campaign.

It also is a reference that we keep on coming back to – not just for the bicycle jousting. As participatory processes become more common, these sorts of connected processes will become the default. In this case, it was a simple competition tied to a participatory budgeting exercise, but on issues such as housing retrofitting, and behavioural issues around climate change, we are currently developing a much wider range of connected ideas, that contribute to building democratic infrastructure for the long term. Who needs Captain America when you have Captain Sussex?

#demsoc10 – Space in Common

Often our work involves helping an organisation to better involve their constituents or clients in decisions. Space in Common was different. We were funded by a group of academic and non-academic researchers working together on an action research project called ‘Jam and Justice’; the aim of Space in Common was to help groups outside government to build relationships and explore how they could work together better to improve large-scale planning decisions in Greater Manchester.

We did this through a series of four evening workshops happening in the build-up to a major consultation on the ‘spatial plan’ for Greater Manchester. We recruited participants by researching and reaching out to relevant local networks and contacts, including those built up by the Jam and Justice project. Throughout the project, we worked hand-in-hand with a team from Jam and Justice.

  • Our first workshop gave people space to share their experiences with each other. We intentionally brought together a range of different groups to help participants learn from other experiences. We also encouraged our group to start thinking about what needs to change in order to build a better conversation about large-scale planning decisions.
  • At the first workshop, we had heard that the jargon surrounding large-scale planning decisions is a major barrier. At the second workshop, we invited a planner from the council to talk everyone through how it works, where the voice of communities fits in, and what challenges local authorities face.
  • At the third, we brought the coordinator of Just Space, a London-based community network working together on large-scale planning matters, to share their experiences.
  • Finally, at the fourth we encouraged participants to think about ways they could work together in future to influence large-scale planning decisions.

Our final report outlining what was learnt can be accessed online here. We hoped through this programme to encourage groups to continue to work together – while we didn’t manage to catalyse a formal coalition or network, we did put new groups in touch with each other and set up a shared mailing list for participants to stay in touch.

Participants told us they valued learning more about this topic, forming new contacts, getting a chance to hear from people they otherwise wouldn’t have come across, and that it focused them ahead of the planned consultation. If you want to learn more about the Jam and Justice project (of which this was one part), you can access their website and report.

#demsoc10 Le Agorà di Messina

Demsoc works across Europe, and very often also outside capitals and government buildings. One of the most striking projects in recent years was Le Agorà di Messina, which ran over the course of a year in Sicily and was entirely designed and executed by the citizens taking part, supported by Demsoc. Francesca Attolino and Ivan Tornesi of Demsoc worked intensively alongside that group, and brought the world to Messina to expand the possibilities. 

Le Agorà di Messina aimed to encourage citizen participation in decision-making across Messina, with its final goal to set a protocol for participation. The project was named ‘agora’, meaning gathering place in ancient Greek, used by citizens for public meetings and decision making. 

The three main aims of the project were to: 

  1. Support and enhance existing ground-up networks and actions in a systematic way.
  2. Increase opportunities for citizens to be involved in dialogue, deliberation and decision-making.
  3. Create something that is long-term, conversational, and not driven by a single event or decision point, so that the networks and structures we create are around for longer than the period of the process.

Le Agorà di Messina concept originated from an event that The Democratic Society organised in Messina in October 2017 for the Incubator for Participatory Democracy, run by the Council of Europe. On that occasion, Messina citizens stated very clearly what their vision of participation and democratic practices in the city would be. Their priorities were to avoid one-shot participation exercises, to go beyond elected mandates and to empower citizens, find places for citizens to meet and discuss citizen ideas and develop participative skills. Above all, the citizens asked for instruments to develop citizens’ autonomy ( which is a reference to art. 118 of Italian Constitution), and for institutions should look at emotions, not only rationality. 

In our view, this project succeeded in doing that, demonstrating the ability of a group of citizens to proactively advocate and work for democracy, transparency and accountability. This also happened under particularly difficult circumstances of political changes in the local council, and economic challenges in the region. 

Undeterred by setbacks, the Steering Group of citizens decided to focus on very specific issues of urban regeneration of public spaces in their city. They developed a proposal “Gesti Lenti e Pieni d’Amore” aimed at re-establishing the citrus processing craft, in a form would have women from disadvantaged groups trained and supported towards financial independence. The support of Agorà di Messina and the skills provided to look for external funding, made this a clear case where could citizens take action in their city in a participative way, independent of the city council. This meant to provide the city with ”a beautiful memory, and a sustainable future”. 

By the time the final Festival Messina Partecipa was organised, 76 committed citizens were holding Le Agorà di Messina, across a very diverse spectrum of people. Throughout one intense summer day in a Sicilian Palazzo, they developed the ‘Messina Charter for Participation’, setting out the conditions under which the citizens of Messina wish to organise their participative decision making from then on.

Today, the group of citizens we worked with remains active and connected, and Messina a distinctly meaningful place on the Demsoc map. 

#demsoc10 Collaborative Government in Scotland

The #demsoc10 post we planned for today has been slightly delayed by engineering works and Storm Ciara, so tonight Anthony looks back at our first project in Scotland.

Demsoc started life in Brighton, and our first office and team was based there. Much of our early work was with local government, and we’ll share some reflections on our Zero Heroes project later in the week, but quite early on we started talking to the Scottish Government. This was in the midst of the referendum campaign on Scottish independence, but the open government team there knew that, whatever the result, there was a need to work in different and more collaborative ways.

This attitude is reflected in “the Scottish Approach to Government“, putting participation (along with asset-based thinking and improvement) at the heart of Scotland’s service delivery model.

As part of this strand of thinking, we worked with the Scottish Government in summer 2014 to run a workshop on Collaborative Government, looking at trends in government and how the Scottish government and its partners could respond to them. The discussions covered the benefits of collaboration and participation; examples of effective collaboration; how joint work between government and civil society can encourage people to participate effectively in the decision which affect them; and areas where Government could experiment with collaborative working.
The full report of the event is still online.

As with so many of our older projects, the interest lies not in the conclusions we came to, but in how new those conclusions seemed at the time and how mainstream they seem now. You achieve more than you think in ten years, and less than you think in one year, as someone said. While collaborative governance is not a reality in Scotland quite yet, some of the work that we have since been involved in, on participatory budgeting, on the current Citizen Assembly, and on the internal framework for participative government show that we are a lot closer than we were (and if the saying is true, we still have four years).

#demsoc10 How to spend a hundred billion euros

All this month, we are looking back at Demsoc projects from our last ten years. Today, Anthony looks at our 2018 report on how to involve citizens in decision making on research spending.

Most of the work that we do at Demsoc is practical, in that we are asked to work and test things with real people, in real situations. That doesn’t prevent us (me) from being massive politics geeks, of course. I’m always happy to talk for an hour about representative and participative democratic theory, or Spanish election results, but that’s just for pleasure. Work is making democracy work, in the real world.

Sometimes, though, we are asked to do a piece of pure research, informed by our practice and what we know of our field. In 2017, we undertook some work for the European Commission’s research directorate, on how citizens could be involved in setting the mission goals for Horizon Europe – the EU’s research fund, at that time known by the less buzzy title “Framework Programme 9”.

The full report can be found on the European Commission’s website, and the core diagram is the featured image for this post. Our suggestion, in summary, was to have an online idea generation phase, where citizens could make suggestions. These ideas would then go through a prioritization process in mixed public-expert groups, before a citizen assembly, run in a distributed way across the different countries of the EU, would produce a final ranking of the different topics in each mission area.

The project was, for all our bias towards practical action, a great opportunity to think through some ideas that we’ve since taken further in some of our thinking on the Future of Europe Conference, and have shared with those working on the proposed UK Citizen Convention.

What has been most interesting, though, is how the ideas in that report, which seemed utopian in 2018, now seem like an ambitious but plausible future. The European Parliament is proposing citizen agoras on the future of Europe – it doesn’t seem unrealistic to use a similar process in policy making on other big European issues. Something is definitely moving at European level – however, for it to work properly it will also need to work at local level. Tomorrow, Marian will tell the story of how our local project in Messina tried to connect up civil society.

#demsoc10 Beating the language barrier in Brussels

Yesterday, as part of the #demsoc10 series celebrating ten years of Demsoc projects, we discussed a huge project that didn’t end up changing the world. Today, Anthony talks about a small project that might be a hint of things to come.

In 2018, 99 European citizens from 27 countries, speaking 23 languages, gathered for a weekend in Brussels. They were part of a European Citizen Panel, brought together at short notice to deliberate on the questions that would frame the forthcoming European Citizen Consultations.

The group had been brought together by Kantar, who run the Eurobarometer surveys, working with the European Commission, and Missions Publiques from France led the creation of the event and deliberation process. The full details of the event, and the subsequent European Citizen Consultations can be found in a full report (with our friends at the European Policy Centre). The Panel is covered in a chapter by us near the start.

The most impressive thing about the whole event was how our hosts at the European Economic and Social Committee, and their interpretation team, made the discussions between such a diverse group a real pleasure. The interpretation team divided up the participants into groups in such a way that everyone could listen to a language they understood and speak in their native language. The microphones and fixed seating of European venues look like barriers to good communication on television, but watch a Hungarian debating a Dane, each in their own language, and you realize how many barriers they actually remove.

The whole event, although only of small scale and for one weekend, convinced me that multilingual deliberation, while not simple, was certainly very possible with the right facilities and team (including the interpreters from EESC, who gave their weekend to the process for free). The response of participants was also extremely positive, with many saying that they had particularly valued the chance to exchange views with those from other cultures.

What is most interesting about the whole process, though, is that it might have been a harbinger of much wider change. The proposed Conference on the Future of Europe has a significant role for citizens, and the Parliament has proposed a series of citizen agoras as a core part of the process. It’s a long way from a fully participative European system, but it’s also a long way from the blank looks and scepticism that deliberative democracy met only a few years ago.

None of this was directly the consequence of that small Panel in May 2018 – but that event is starting to look less like a strange standalone experiment, and more like a daffodil in February – unusual, but the sign of springtime to come.

#demsoc10 The beauty, the terror, and NHS Citizen

During February, to celebrate 10 years since our first project, we’re looking back at some of the highlights. Today, our Treasurer Catherine Howe looks back at the glory and the pain that was NHS Citizen.

The ambition of NHS Citizen was either incredibly audacious or unbelievably naïve – how do you create a meaningful democratic connection between the board of NHS England – the governing body for England’s health service – and the system that they are responsible for? Our answer was a model which worked in three parts:

  • Discover: finding and connecting the conversations that were already happening in order to:
  • Gather: Bringing people together to listen to the system and using a citizen jury to collaboratively set an agenda for:
  • The NHS Citizen Assembly: We held 3 deliberative events that brought together senior figures from the NHS with the patients to talk about the agenda set bottom up not top down

Probably the best overview and reflection of the work we did was written up by Rikki Dean, John Boswell and Graham Smith in a paper summarized in this blog post. Even this doesn’t really reflect the complexity of the NHS system and culture which we at various times described as beautiful and terrible.

Looking back, there was so much learning in this work which still feeds and inspires the work we do today.

We took a whole system approach – designing process and approaches for the different parts of the system we were trying to influence. This is now a much more common framing and a major pillar of our emergent theory of change.

We thought deeply about power in the system and looked hard at how to make sure that this was never unchecked or without evidence. Our focus on the agenda setting process in Gather is something we still advocate and have weaved into work RBKC which we will talk about later in this series.

We worked closely with brilliant partners; Involve, Public-i and The Tavistock Institute and developed our thinking and approach to the challenge and strengths of deep multidisciplinary working. We worked with a fantastic project sponsor who created the space for us to be truly ambitious.

We spent the first year in a collaborative design process which was designed and ‘held’ by the four project partners but brought in voices and challenge from across the NHS Citizen community. The passion and wisdom of the hundreds of patients and staff we worked with was astonishing – and always reinforced our belief in the appetite and importance of creating a more collaborative and deliberative system.

We learned so much about how to make events more accessible and how to welcome a huge of variety of people into spaces in a way which meant they could fully participate – this has become another pillar of our practice.

The Assemblies were notable in that they created – for the first time – a direct connection between board members and the patients that they serve without the filter of the organisation’s strategic plan or policy research. We were all struck by the vulnerability that this created and power this opens up when a real connection is formed.

There were some amazing moments in NHS Citizen and we did support some patients groups to deliver major changes but ultimately we failed in our system change ambition. While there are still echoes of the work we did, the NHS is a large and complex institution which has deeply wired institutional power that is not ready for the messiness and creativity of more open and deliberative governance – and we were not well placed to change that. However we have no regrets about our ambition – we have to start our work aiming to change the whole system because even when we fail we lay the ground work for future change.

On the topic of changing huge systems with deeply wired institutional power, tomorrow Anthony will be talking about an experiment in multilingual deliberation that went much better than we had any right to expect.

Innovation in Democracy Programme #demsoc10

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.

Making the financial case #demsoc10

All through February, we are revisiting some of the 150-plus projects we have undertaken since 2010. Today, Anthony Zacharzewski looks back at our very first one.

Lurking still in a remote corner of our website is the output of our very first project – Democracy Pays, a short white paper commissioned by Public-i on the financial benefit of opening up local government to greater participation, published in spring 2010.

It seems an obvious question – does participatory democracy result in cost efficiencies that offset the cost of doing it? – but it surprised me how little research there was on the question. Certainly, my two weeks in the British Library didn’t bring up many examples with clear evidence. It’s also notable that even today, we see people citing the paper, which is, with no false modesty, a brief review at best, and has had no publicity since it came out.

Perhaps in 2020 we wouldn’t ask such an hard-nosed question. A decade ago, we were in an era when British local government still had money, but saw austerity on the horizon. It was an era, too, where every participation initiative had to be fought for against a sceptical management.

The importance of the question hasn’t gone away though, even in an era where participation is seen as an essential. The proliferation of citizen assemblies and other processes is reminding us that a lot of the costs in democratic engagement come in the setup and audience gathering phases – which all go to waste if you then disengage from the audience afterwards. As we’ll discuss over the course of this month, if participation is going to be cost-effective in the future, it is going to have to understand how to build for the long-term, not just for the immediate project.