Lessons from the first Citizens' Assembly in Newham

“I feel connected for the first time in a long while”: what we learnt from the first Citizens’ Assembly in Newham

At Demsoc, in partnership with Involve and Sortition Foundation, we helped to design and facilitate the first stage of what will now become a permanent citizens’ assembly in the London Borough of Newham. As the council works to turn this into a local permanent assembly, we share what we learnt from our work with assembly members that can inform the next steps of the process or the set-up of local assemblies elsewhere.

This is a summary of our research piece published here

  • Learning, voice, and empowerment. Participants said they learnt about the topic, about the council and about what others in the community think. They valued the opportunity to voice their opinions and be heard and expressed a sense of empowerment. Some mentioned having grown in confidence and described how the process helped them feel valued and respected.
  • Social connection. Assembly members talked about the value of connecting with the rest of the community, gaining a sense of belonging, listening to each other, and growing the community collectively for the residents' wellbeing.

I feel connected for the first time in a long while. (...) I learnt a lot of what Newham has been doing that I had no idea of, and look forward to get involved in community events.

workshop quote

  • Inclusiveness. Assembly members also valued getting to know people they wouldn't normally meet and working constructively as a group. Participants asked for more assemblies as well as ensuring that more residents can be part of them, including those with different languages or residents living with disabilities.
  • Connection to council. Participants valued being able to connect and familiarise themselves with the members of the council, to hear direct feedback from them on the recommendations made and learn about actions and plans already in place. However, this theme was also prominent in answers related to expectations on the future of citizen assemblies in Newham. Participants valued having a say but also emphasised the need for the recommendations made (or similar feasible actions) to be implemented.

We have made a connection with people who work within the borough, we know people’s names now. If we have an idea, we now have more of an idea about how to get there.

  • A space for a different type of engagement. The assembly members valued having a space for engaging in a different way with others and with the council where opinions could be shared and discussed, and solutions be found collectively, with time to consider them adequately. Some valued the "slow thinking" and the ability to hear or share different opinions in a respectful way. Participants were positive about the warmth and comfort of the space and appreciated the approach of the facilitators.
  • Having an impact. Being able to contribute to improving people’s lives in the borough was important to participants. Some talked about “the power of a small group of people” or “making a difference" as the most important thing they gained for taking part in the assembly. Some referred to the “sense of democracy in action”. This theme was prominent when discussing what participants expected from the process. It was clear that assembly members placed the success of the assembly on its ability to result into change that is visible and communicated by the council.

What does this mean for the way forward?

There was a sense of immediate impact among Newham’s assembly members in relation to learning, the possibility to play a role in improving the borough, being valued and respected, feeling connected to the wider community and being closer to the council. In addition to these immediate outcomes though, participants were clear that the success of the process would depend on whether the recommendations would be taken on board and tangible change would be seen and communicated. We know that in deliberative democracy, the commitment of authorities and the follow up on recommendations are important to sustain credibility, trust and ongoing engagement (OECD, 2020) and these insights from Newham’s assembly members are illustrative of this.

What is happening next?

Demsoc has been commissioned to support the second coming together of Newham’s permanent Citizens’ Assembly. Newham Council are working on how to follow-up effectively on the first assembly and are intending to involve its members in helping shape the Council’s future engagement more widely. Volunteers from the assembly recently presented their recommendations during a meeting of the full council. We ran a practical session with them beforehand to help support the process.

Participants are largely very keen for assemblies to continue. They have suggested new topics “chosen by the community” and, ultimately, they have asked for tangible change. The lessons captured in this article suggest that ongoing close communication between the council and the citizens’ assembly will be key so that there is clarity on the roles and expectations and to sustain the motivation of participants to have a tangible impact on the wellbeing of the wider community.

Read more on the first assembly held over summer 2021 about 'greening the borough' of Newham

Get in touch

Pandora Ellis pje10@demsoc.eu

Mel Stevens mcs10@demsoc.eu

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