How will COVID change how councils work?

Our Anthony Zacharzewski (and the wider team here) have been putting to some thought to this big question over recent weeks. In the Local Government Chronicle article published today, Anthony shares how we think COVID presents us all an opportunity for reshaped engagement.

Social distancing has seen participation processes at local and national level shift online. This burst of innovation means that even after public meetings can resume again, online and digital participation will likely grow as a complement to offline events. This will broaden citizen engagement – but we have to be careful it doesn’t exclude. Economic relaunch will also need bold decisions, and involving citizens in them will be essential, to ensure their consent and liberate their energy. This can be the start of reshaping citizen/council relations so we can change economies, buildings and lifestyles to tackle climate change.


Scotland’s Artificial Intelligence Strategy – Get involved!

Chat bots, driverless cars, Alexa- what do they all have in common? They all use artificial intelligence (AI). Working with The Data Lab, we have developed a range of ways for people to have their say: take part in our quizzes on AI, respond to our public consultation, or access our resources for educators.

We want to find out what YOU think.

You can get involved as an individual or access all of the resources you need on Scotland’s AI Strategy website.

From Room to Zoom

What happens when national government makes an announcement on the eve of your public engagement workshops, advising that the nation stays indoors? With events lined up for West Midlands Combined Authority in two cities the next day, quick thinking (and cancelling hotels and travel) was needed.

To get the workshop online, I considered how transferrable the content was. I had to find out if the group was willing and teched-up enough to try something different; alongside my own lack of technical skills, (pretty easily overcome with a few practices over the weekend).

Resources were posted in advance, so people had everything they needed to take part. As well design templates and ranking cards, standard things like flipchart, post-its and sharpies were posted.

Planning how to capture outputs was important, with camera phones on hand and the record function activated in Zoom. Lining up a note keeper meant I could concentrate on the workshop flow and eye contact.

So how did it go?

A full house of participants and no technical issues (thanks Zoom!). Housekeeping was different; mainly agreeing how we’d let each other know when we needed breaks and how we’d share back with each other.

Pandora holding up three post-its, with images of a cup of tea, a toilet, and of someone stretching.
Visual cue cards for taking breaks…Stretching, Food and Toilet!

The secret to this workshop was doing lots of prep with the group beforehand; finding out about additional needs and building a strong relationship with one diamond member first before taking the wider group online. My kitchen table was full of post-its for each exercise, but also quick ideas to build trust…top tip for adapting to being at home…most embarrassing thing that might happen in the background on my camera etc.

What worked was how people adapted. Once over the embarrassment of seeing themselves on screen, they seemed comfortable to exist in a 2-D box and dived happily into the resources we had posted.  This meant we could go through each stage, drawing out insight, pooling ideas, and keep laughing along the way.

Seven people on a video call, with five participants showing post-its saying: working happily; happy; relieved; happy; different
One word feedback on how participants felt afterwards

What worked less well was not knowing in advance the space people had around them. One person had zero desk space for the exercises and got around this by sharing ideas verbally. 

It’s a different challenge compared with being in a physical, neutral space. Everyone is in the same situation, dealing with feelings of mild intrusion and self-consciousness. But online is here for a while, so let’s get on board and make it an amazing experience.

Messina Democracy Lab

You can find all videos from the Messina Democracy Lab here.

As part of the Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE) project, we held a ‘Democracy Lab’ in Messina, Italy, in September 2019. It was the first such event and served as a dry run for future gatherings as well as for how other organisations can engage with citizens as part of their work. 

These Democracy Labs are a component of PaCE’s engagement plan, which aims to make sure that democratic input and engagement occurs through all parts of the project. They will be held across Europe in order to simultaneously complement and disseminate PaCE’s findings. Its official objective is to probe the universal and the particular causes of the three types of populism (illiberal, nativist and anti-democratic) and how these phenomena manifest themselves in Europe today. This is achieved by seeking to learn the way European citizens get and process information, and how that shapes their voting decisions. One participant described the experience as “interesting and useful […] especially concerning the political and social context we are experiencing today”.

Fifteen local participants joined the Messina Democracy Lab in the city’s Tommaso Cannizzaro public library, which was organised and mediated by local partners, Associazione Ionio Messina and Startup Messina. “These meetings should be planned more often to not only increase the number of participants: everyone should participate in these workshops to be more confident with politics,” said one man. One young woman summarised her impression: “I will bring three words into my mind after this experience: awareness, participation and education.”

Each Democracy Lab will gauge citizens’ attitude towards democracy, how they understand it and what their priorities are with regards to the democratic process. These issues are debated in World Café style groups, with three sessions, each of which guided by standardised questions: Which information do you think is valuable to know before making a voting decision? How do you evaluate which information you can trust? What do you think needs to be done to ensure informed voting? “In my opinion, the result [of this workshop] is impressive because we discussed many topics, analysing every single aspect,” said one senior citizen. “It was useful for everyone to broaden the idea that was originally in the various questions,” he added.

The Democracy Labs are self-contained, one-off events in which participants have the full experience of the program. Nevertheless, the labs connect different elements of research within PaCE, and serve as a testing ground for ways to carry out research activities in the field.
“It was a very significant and a very motivating experience because I got the chance to talk with people I didn’t know before, of which I have absolutely no idea about their political opinions. With them, I have argued about relevant topics, such as conscious approach to voting. I want to say these meetings should be planned more often, involving more people. […] it would be nice to be able to discuss our ideas with many others”, explained one woman. Her observation goes in line with the democracy lab’s own objectives, which include to appraise how political decisions are formed within the community and to ensure that the research program constantly has a finger on the pulse of the real lives on European citizenry.


Moreover, the Democratic Society team’s experience of working with two local partners as a means through which to tap into local resources as well as the lessons learned in this experience can also be shared with other organisations that carry out citizen engagement projects. Significantly, the Messina Lab was the first of several others being planned across Europe in the months to come. If you would like to learn more about the Messina Lab, click here.

PaCE is a Horizon 2020 project funded by the European Commission. For this project, nine different partners across Europe are aiming to understand aspects of populist movements, to build upon the lessons from positive examples of connecting with citizens, and through this play a part in constructing a firmer democratic and institutional foundation for the citizens of Europe.

Find out more about the project on Twitter or at www.popandce.eu. Follow #DemocracyLab to join the discussion.

Bernardo Jurema

#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.