The Innovation in Democracy Programme and its lessons for deliberative democracy

The Innovation in Democracy Programme (IiDP) was created in 2019 to support local authorities in using deliberative democracy – through citizens’ assemblies and associated methods – to shape decision-making and policy creation. Here, five of the key figures involved in creating and operating the IiDP outline the methods, challenges and outcomes of a programme that had to adapt and adjust to both an early general election and the COVID-19 crisis.

What is the Innovation in Democracy Programme?

The Innovation in Democracy Programme (IiDP) – established by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government (MHCLG) – was an innovative experiment which challenged us to support local authorities to tackle a complex, local issue in a different way; we tested using a deliberative democracy process within a local government environment to change the way communities are involved in sharing and shaping decision-making. We think it’s fair to say it worked, but with lots of learning for all involved.

The programme’s aims were to:

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

Involve, Democratic Society, mySociety and the RSA worked from March 2019 to March 2020 with three local authorities – Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council; Greater Cambridge Partnership; and Test Valley Borough Council – to involve residents in decision-making. We did this through piloting citizens’ assemblies. We were asked to support the local authorities in the following ways:

  • design, facilitate and report on their citizens' assembly;
  • develop a digital strategy to extend the reach, transparency, and accountability of the process; and
  • collect and share the local authority’s learning within and beyond their authority.

This video gives a unique insight into the citizens’ assembly process from the perspective of three participants from each of the areas.

Working in partnership with local authorities

A citizens’ assembly could never (and should never!) be led by one person in the ‘driving seat’ – there are too many moving parts to get right. It needs a dedicated and expert team who are fully on board at all stages. As independent organisations charged with supporting local authorities through these stages, it was vital that we adopted a ‘one team’ approach which guided every decision, action and reflection.

What is the ‘one team’ approach? We talk about it a lot internally and with our partners. Essentially, it is about working together without those arbitrary ‘client’ or ‘commissioner’ titles – breaking the mould, doing things in new ways, working across organisational boundaries and developing solutions to challenges together.

This approach meant that problems and successes were shared. Open and honest communication was vital throughout the process. By working in this way, we were able to support the local authorities to build internal capacity and knowledge around deliberative democracy, effective community engagement and improving transparency of decision-making systems. We talk about the importance of transparency and the process making an impact (a change for communities) in our ‘How to Run a Citizens’ Assembly’ handbook (from page 30).

We are grateful to the local government officers who worked so openly with us. Isobel Wade, Head of Transport Strategy at Greater Cambridge Partnership, shared some reflections about the process in this blog. Her views were endorsed and shared more widely by other local government officers, James Moody of Test Valley Borough Council and Sarah Owens of Dudley Council in a recent MJ article.

Sharing the Programme’s impact and learning

As we designed, delivered and reflected on the three citizens’ assemblies held during the IiDP, it was important to keep in mind the range of different stakeholder audiences looking on. Some were curious about the efficacy of citizens’ assemblies, others were deeply engaged with the specific topic of deliberation and others wanted to understand the citizens’ assembly methodology better.

In the run-up to and during the assemblies we focused our communications primarily on local stakeholders – those within the council and the local community who had questions and challenges around the merits of deliberative democracy.

Along the way, working with communications officers at the three local authorities, we established a few general principles of good communication which we tried to observe where possible:

  • in early communications, lead with principles (‘we think all voices need to be heard’) and the issue at hand (‘we need to act decisively on X issue’) before talking about the process (‘a citizens’ assembly is...’);
  • when talking about the process, stress that citizens’ assemblies are a tried and tested method: they can and do help councillors and communities solve local problems;
  • tell a narrative that is engaging and, where possible, personal. The experience of participants, the journey of the assembly and the real-world impact of the recommendations are all ready-made narratives;
  • if people try to pick holes in the process, explain that while citizens’ assemblies are no panacea, they are more inclusive, deliberative and balanced than alternative methods of engagement that councils use; and
  • when it comes to running the assembly, be as clear and transparent about the assembly as possible. The key is not to justify each individual decision at the end of the process, but to consistently explain the process throughout and show how it works.

Once the assemblies had taken place and the recommendations had been passed over to the council, our attention turned towards a different audience: those interested in running their own citizens’ assembly. We therefore focused less on the merits of citizens’ assemblies and more on their mechanics. We summarised our learning from the programme in our final handbook ‘How to Run a Citizens’ Assembly’.

Sharing the learning from IiDP was made easier by the fact that we treated the whole programme as a learning process. At every meeting we tracked our key learning points and through the peer learning sessions and conference we were able to deepen our understanding of different aspects of citizens’ assemblies. Sharpies and post-its were always close at hand and the learning we captured on hundreds of flipchart pages ended up being the most valuable source material for the handbook.

Perhaps the most common message in the IiDP case studies, drafted by officers at the three local authorities, was the importance of having enough time and using that time effectively. We hope that structuring the handbook chronologically will give a realistic sense about how long it takes to run an assembly, while also helping other practitioners and commissioners use their time effectively.

The role of digital

The key question we asked ourselves when planning the digital aspects of the assemblies was how digital approaches could best compliment, and not undermine, the democratic aspects of the assemblies. We explored the prospects for tools to bring evidence in, to help with the management of the assembly, and to make the workings and results of the assembly transparent to the community.

We focused on the importance of democratic transparency. Citizens’ assemblies often better reflect the citizens of an area than local councillors, due to the recruitment process which matches the participants against agreed demographic of the local area as a representative sample of the public (a ‘mini-public’), but they are also unelected and those not selected can have little impact on the result.

For the decisions they make to be seen as legitimate by other citizens, the assemblies need to be as transparent as possible. This includes the evidence seen and the processes, as well as the actual conclusions reached. We worked with councils to develop digital strategies to best integrate information about the assemblies into their existing websites, and produced guidance on the information a website about a citizens assembly should have.

Digital tools make providing materials and information to a wide number of people incredibly easy, and the possibility of relatively cheap live streaming makes monitoring the live experience of evidence given, and questions asked of experts far more accessible. While there is the prospect of much more involved integration of digital aspects into assemblies, we hope that clear guides about what can be achieved simply will be useful to those planning assemblies in the future.

Peer Learning & Conference – capacity building/support for local authorities

Capturing and sharing the learning for local authorities working on IiDP was a key element of this work. The RSA, supported by the other delivery partners, established and led a peer learning network between the three participating local authorities to share learning and help maximise the legacy of the three citizens’ assemblies delivered through this work.

The core network was made up of participants from the three participating authorities. Other councils were also invited to be part of the network during the programme or through attending the Innovating Local Democracy Conference in January 2020 (more on this later!).

At these events, local authorities proposed discussion topics, sense-checked their ideas and collectively worked together to solve any problems they were facing.

The workshops covered the following areas:

  • introductions, preliminary learning and planning for the rest of the programme;
  • bringing councillors on board (featuring councillors from each of the participating authorities)’
  • disseminating the learning from the programme (featuring representatives from other councils from across the UK);
  • evaluating the programme (co-hosted with Renaisi, the programme evaluator).

Alongside these sessions, we ran facilitation training workshops at each of the three local authorities and coordinated an ‘action learning set’ between communications officers at each of the councils.

The Conference

We also ran a two-day conference on innovations in local democracy. This was run in partnership between IiDP with Public Square which is a separate programme run by Democratic Society and funded by Luminate.

With expert speakers, ‘unconference sessions, where the participants set the topics, and facilitated discussions, we considered what worked well in each programme, what the challenges had been, and discussed next steps in this important, ever-changing, democracy sector. We also highlighted other exciting projects from around the UK and heard from international experts about their cutting edge examples from around the world.

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

Working with changing environments - remaining flexible and solutions-focused

As happens with longer-term programmes, external factors can often throw up new challenges and obstacles.

The 2019 general election loomed over the authorities’ assemblies – meaning some councillors were unable to take as active a part as they had wanted due legislation related to the pre-election period which didn’t allow this. For others, the council meetings to which recommendations were due to be shared were delayed until 2020.

COVID-19 has also meant that the implementation of some recommendations or work programmes associated with them have had their context fundamentally changed. For the Greater Cambridge Partnership, whose assembly focused on public transport and congestion, COVID-19 changed many of the original assumptions about how people worked, how people were travelling round the city, and the national and local economy. However it has also thrown up new opportunities to test some of the recommendations and Greater Cambridge Partnership is using suggestions from the assembly to inform projects, particularly those on cycling and walking, during the recovery from COVID-19.

Delivering longer-term projects such as citizens’ assemblies requires a level of constant responsiveness, adaptability and clear view on opportunities and challenges in any situation which arises. IiDP has provided many valuable lessons in how to do this in a fast-changing political environment.

About the authors

This post originally appeared on the Constitution Unit blog.
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