Artificial Intelligence (AI) public engagement work in Scotland

A series of three images. The first is of an older man, using a tablet held by a robot. The second is of a drone, carrying a parcel. The third is of a healthcare robot with a human-like appearance.

What is the project?

Democratic Society have been working in partnership with The Data Lab and Scottish Government on public engagement for development of Scotland’s Artificial Intelligence (AI)  Strategy. Our aims are to increase knowledge and awareness of the strategy and AI, and to capture the views and ideas of different people across Scotland about the future of AI in Scotland. 

Why is Scotland talking about AI? 

AI is already part of everyday life. You use AI every time you search Google or you ask Alexa a question about the weather. Netflix uses it to predict what you’d like to watch based on yours, and others, viewing history. It can be also used to create ever more disruptive technologies. It’s being used to make cars that don’t need drivers, or to pilot drones to deliver your online purchases, and soon your doctor could be using it to help assess symptoms more quickly and accurately, ensuring they get prompt access to the correct specialist treatment.

Scotland is talking about AI now because it will increasingly have an impact on our lives. The Scottish Government is committed to the aims of the National Performance Framework and a co-ordinated AI strategy is one component of ensuring that we create a more successful country that can realise its potential and thrive. 

To inform development of the AI strategy for Scotland, at the Democratic Society we: 

  • Developed a series of online public quizzes on topics including AI Basics, Autonomous Vehicles, Facial Recognition, Equality & Bias, AI and the Future of Work, and AI and Healthcare. They are designed to help people learn more about AI and feed in their thoughts to the strategy development process. No prior knowledge is required. Have a go here: 
  • Published six videos to help answer some key questions about AI and its role in Scotland. View them here:  
    • Kate Forbes, Cabinet Secretary of Finance on why AI in Scotland is important and what the AI Strategy is and some of the myths and challenges that AI brings with it. 
    • Talat Yaqoob, Director, Equate Scotland on inclusive AI and tech development and becoming a leader in ethical AI.
    • Dr David Lowe, Consultant Emergency Medicine, Co-Director EmQuire & Joint Clinical Lead Innovation West of Scotland on AI in community healthcare and AI in hospital care.
  • Designed and facilitated a series of online public engagement workshops with over 50 people from across Scotland. They provided an opportunity for families and individuals to learn about AI and to share their thoughts, ideas and questions on some fundamental topics that will have an impact on our lives, including AI and the Future of Work, and AI, Ethics and Bias.

We are now in the process of pulling together the rich public input gathered through these activities to present some findings that will inform the working groups who are drafting the AI strategy. You can see who is involved in the working groups at 

Help us to promote it!

Everyone can all help promote the AI strategy in Scotland by sharing, tweeting or re-tweeting our resources and quizzes and how you got on @DemsocScotland @ScotAIStrategy #ScotAIStrategy

The Scotland's AI Strategy logo. A continuous line, shaped like an A and I, turning from yellow to orange.

How to run a citizens’ assembly: Handbook from the Innovation in Democracy Programme

This report is aimed primarily at local authority officers or councillors who want to run a citizens’ assembly in their local area. It was developed as part of our work on the Innovation in Democracy Programme.

But we also hope that it can be of use to others who are interested in deliberative democracy: process designers, facilitators, advocates, researchers or anyone else.

While some of the guidance is specific to local citizens’ assemblies, lots of the suggestions apply to regional, national and even transnational deliberations.

The insights we share in this report are drawn from three different sources:

  • Our reflections on the three IiDP citizens’ assemblies and other assemblies that have recently taken place at a local level
  • The ideas that have emerged from the various peer-learning events that we ran as part of IiDP
  • The best guidance written by practitioners from around the world.

The ideas that have emerged from the various peer-learning events that we ran as part of IiDP

The best guidance written by practitioners from around the world.

Many people feel disempowered and disengaged from politics. This programme is an opportunity to get people involved in the decisions that affect their daily life.

Miriam Levin, Head of Community Action and Giving, DCMS.

Lots of the advice in the Handbook is illustrated in the IiDP Case Studies report, which is a trove of real-world examples and personal stories co-authored by council staff that led the three IiDP assemblies.

This video follows the journey of three participants through the citizens’ assembly process in Cambridge, Test Valley and Dudley:


Download the Handbook

Download the Case Studies

Download the IiDP Programme Evaluation Report

More information about the Innovation in Democracy Programme:

The Innovation in Democracy Programme, commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, supported three local authorities to involve residents in decision-making through an innovative model of deliberative democracy – citizens’ assemblies.

The programme’s aims were:

  • To increase the capability of local people to have a greater say over decisions that affect their communities and their everyday lives
  • To encourage new relationships and build trust between citizens and local authorities
  • To strengthen local civil society by encouraging participation in local institutions.

Three authorities were selected to take part in the programme:

  • Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council
  • Test Valley Borough Council
  • the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP).

Dudley and Test Valley chose to focus their assemblies on the future of town centres. For Dudley council, it was Dudley and Brierley Hill town centres and in Test Valley, the area south of Romsey town centre. GCP asked assembly members to consider traffic congestion, public transport and air quality.

As a team of delivery partners –  Involve, the RSA, Democratic Society and mySociety – we supported the local authorities to design and deliver their assemblies through a package of tailored support for each authority.

The programme was independently evaluated by Renaisi. The full programme evaluation can be found here.

Peer Learning

Innovations in Local Democracy Conference

We ran a two-day conference on innovations in local democracy as part of the Innovation in Democracy Programme, in partnership with Public Square which is supported by Luminate

The conference shared lessons from Public Square and the Innovation in Democracy Programme. Both of these programmes focus on supporting local councils to use participatory and deliberative democracy, including citizens’ assemblies, to involve residents in decisions that affect their lives. 

Through speakers, unconference sessions and facilitated discussions we shared what worked well, what the challenges have been, and discussed next steps in this field. We also highlighted other exciting projects from around the UK and international experts about their cutting edge exemplars from across the world.

All of the conference materials are available here. This includes slides, videos and notes from the many lively discussions. 

Peer Learning Network

The programme also initiated and supported a Peer Learning Network of participating local authorities and a wide range of others from around the UK who are interested in exploring deliberative democracy in their areas. Find out more about the network and how to get involved here.

Further resources

More resources developed as part of the Innovation in Democracy Programme can be found at the bottom of this page.

What is Co-Production in 2020? Join our Public Square webinar as we explore ‘democracy in action’

Join Public Square and our panel of experts for our first event on Co-Production taking place on 8th July, 1500-1630 UK time.

We’ll hear as they share how they’ve tackled issues of inclusion, empowerment and equality. We’ll explore why they believe Co-Production and greater participation may hold the answers to strengthening UK democracy whilst delivering better outcomes for all.

With growing appetite among the public to be heard and involved in decision-making, the benefits of Co-Production aren’t just felt by organisations:

In “a working model of Co-Production… people reported a sense of belonging and learning allowing them to manage their mental health and improve their quality of life. Friendships and peer support networks were created organically between students.

One student said of attending the college, ‘It’s given me hope. It’s given me options.’”

– Jessica Russell, Co-production Champion, SAVS (Southend Volunteer Service), on Southend’s experience with co-production to improve access to learning for mental health.


Across the UK, councils, civil society groups, tech experts and the public are working to improve local government. Exciting innovation and change is happening, but it’s often too fragmented to see.

This event will bring together leading figures in the field of Co-Production to share their experiences and discuss what they’ve found works well.

In the context of a global pandemic, public services are under untold pressure. Involving the public in design and decision-making processes could be one way of rebuilding trust whilst also generating practical and economical ideas for local government. At the event we’ll explore some key questions, such as:

  • How can an understanding of co-production help inform efforts to involve citizens in government?
  • Where is innovation happening? What is being learned that could help people new to participatory democracy?
  • What’s standing in the way of citizens and local government engaging more closely with each other?
  • How can the decision-making process as part of co-production be made as inclusive as possible? Which tools and technology – old or new – work well for councils, local authorities, citizens and civil society organisations?
  • What are the best ways to join up efforts, ensure lessons are shared, and work with councils to develop an open, common toolkit for civic participation?
  • Where are the gaps? What more needs to be done to connect networks and share resources across the Co-Production and participatory democracy space?

Find out more about our exciting line-up of speakers and register for the event here.

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 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.