#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.

10 years on

Ten years ago, I started Demsoc’s first project. The desk where I worked was in the spare room of my house in Hanover, Brighton.

Demsoc had been around for a while before 2010 – it started as a broad concept in about 2003, then with the help of four friends became an organisation in 2006. Some of you might even remember our 10th anniversary party in 2016. But 1 February 2010 was when I stepped away from a job at Brighton & Hove City Council and started working for Demsoc on proper projects.

Since then, we’ve worked on over 150 projects, and grown from the desk in my spare room to a team of brilliant colleagues across Europe. My kids have outgrown the bikes in the photo, too.

In that ten years, the world of participatory democracy has gone from small experiments and projects driven by enthusiasts to multi-million euro initiatives across the world. In Europe, there are now permanent participative democracy structures built into local and regional governments in Belgium and Poland. Citizens led change on equal marriage and abortion rights in Ireland. Most recently, when a citizen assembly called President Macron to appear before them, he came.

The next ten years promise just as much change as the last ten, as we get to grips with climate change and the social transformation that the networked society has brought about. Demsoc will be changing too – but as we do, we also want to reflect on what we’ve done in the past decade, what we learned, and how it contributed to who we are today.

So, each day during February, we’ll be sharing a story about one of our completed projects, starting tomorrow with our very first one. I hope you will enjoy reading about them.

Conference on the Future of Europe: Looking forward

The last of Demsoc’s series of posts on the Conference on the Future of Europe has happened to have remarkably good timing. This morning European Council President Michel, European Parliament President Sassoli, and European Commission President von der Leyen gave a joint press conference on the Future of Europe including touching on the Conference on the Future of Europe. Whilst we still have to wait for an official Joint Declaration, this gives us a good idea of the current state of play on inter-Institutional negotiations on the Conference.

It seems that currently there is not clear agreement between the Council, Commission and Parliament. The latter seems to have set out the clearest position with the most ambitious (by institutional standards) elements, and arguably the Council and Commission seem to oppose this, although the extent of this is unclear. We will find out how close to the truth this is in due course, and may have to exercise patience whilst we wait for a firmer statement of intent.

In the meantime, we will recap in brief the previous four posts from this series by Demsoc, and will conclude it by laying out in simple terms what we believe the next steps are.

We started by asking ‘what does good look like?’ and through a combination of fundamental principles and best practice case studies, we gave a look at what would the conference should and could include to make it as successful as possible.

We then examined some of those best practice case studies in more detail, and compared and contrasted them with the institutional statements on the Conference on the Future of Europe. 

We took that work and on day three we asked what those cases and proposals had got right, and that they had in common, that could be built on to form the process for the Conference.

Yesterday, we brought all of these together, to lay out Demsoc’s proposal for what the process could look like.

It is now up to the negotiators from the institutions to come up with a plan for what the Conference might look like. At this morning’s press conference, Bruno Waterfield from The Times of London asked how the EU would make sure that this Conference had more success that the Convention on the Future of Europe that was the result of the Laeken Convention in 2001. President Sassoli  replied by placing great importance on involving civil society, although he didn’t address the specifics of this. 

Hopefully this involvement will come at the start of the process rather than when it is already underway, so organisations with experience, expertise or existing connections to communities and individuals can help to inform the process. If the institutions wait to involve civil society or any outside influence until the process has been confirmed, they may not get an enthusiastic response, or much willingness to participate. A steering committee, made up of experts on citizen engagement and participation could work with the institutions from the earliest possible point to create a process that will both serve them and the people of Europe. Going even further than this would be positive if when negotiations over the process are complete, they leave room for citizens to shape the project alongside experts and institutional officials. If the plan going forward can allow some room to innovate and invite citizens to create then the Conference will be better for it. 

At the end of the joint press release from the three institution’s Presidents, it states That only the European Union will be able “to be ambitious on the defining issues of our times… But we know we can only do it together: people, nations, institutions.” Lets hope that ambition, and desire to collaborate with people, starts with the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Conference on the Future of Europe: Shaping the process

The penultimate post, from Demsoc’s series laying out our thoughts on the Conference on the Future of Europe, is about how we think a timeline and structure for the process could work to include citizens from the start, including as many people as possible without rendering the result unusable, and letting citizens shape the agenda throughout the Conference.

Let’s start with an ambitious vision: that Europe builds on the example of the French and Irish processes, running a Conference that had citizen voices at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. It would start and end with two big Conference plenaries, one in mid-2020 and one in mid-2022. These would involve representatives from the institutions, sitting alongside a majority of citizens, drawn at random from across the EU. This could have the same dynamic as the Irish Citizens’ Convention on the Constitution, in which 33 political representatives attended alongside 66 citizens (with one chairperson making up the hundred).

In this model, to allow for proper time to discuss the wide range of issues proposed, the first Conference plenary would set a number of themes, and the last would reflect across different themes and prioritise between different recommendations, recognizing their trade-offs.

In between, thematic citizen assemblies supported by a wider engagement process along the lines of that used in the Grand Débat could select and refine recommendations for the final Conference plenary to consider. Each thematic discussion would generate a set of clear and achievable recommendations to be actioned.

This thematic approach is a good way of allowing the process to go deeper on issues without giving citizen participants an unrealistic workload. It was the approach proposed for the UK Citizen Convention on the constitution, which had a similar though smaller-scale challenge in representing four unevenly-sized nations in a single multinational and multilingual deliberative process.

A supporting engagement process such as used in the Grand Débat could feed into the citizen assembly discussions and add richness to the final result.

Is this a realistic vision for the Conference on the Future of Europe? It’s certainly practically possible, but on the evidence of the current proposals, it is politically too far removed from existing institutional positions. In particular, unlike the proposals on the table, this idea would give citizens equal footing with MEPs and other institutional actors, which seems to be a step too far for Commission, Parliament and Council.

Running such a process at European scale would also present some practical problems, it is true. If the citizen participants were 50% of the hemicycle, 376 participants, the process would be to our knowledge the largest single-room deliberation process ever undertaken. The information phase, also essential for good deliberation, would be difficult to manage at such scale. But we believe it would be possible.

Starting from where we are, though, what’s a realistic second-best, more in line with the different institutional positions already expressed?

We start from the assumption that the involvement of citizens directly in the Conference plenary sessions will not be acceptable to the institutions – it would be our preference, but we’re realists.

With that constraint, the task is to ensure that the citizen voice shapes discussions, is broad and representative, and can create a clear link between the issues raised by European citizens and the final outcome, while not being responsible for that final outcome.

We assume the key deciding body for the Conference is a Conference plenary that is made up only of institutional and organisational actors, or with only a few citizens. However, we suggest that the discussions in that body are focused around citizen issues and concerns, alongside the issues raised by the institutions. Here’s how:

From the start date, currently agreed to be 9th May 2020, to the day of the first Convention plenary in Autumn, there would be a digital and distributed-offline idea generation phase, similar to the proposed UK Conversation in the UK Citizens’ Convention. This could use citizen dialogue approaches (proposed by the Commission) and would allow the conversation to start from the ground up, with side events that could be organised by individuals, local networks, and civil society. This offline process would be accompanied by a wide ranging online process, proposed by Commission and Parliament – possibly in the form of a dedicated digital tool more flexible than EU Survey. Existing options include Iceland’s Your Priorities, Barcelona’s Decidim, and Madrid’s CONSUL, among many others. This platform would allow all interested citizens to contribute, and from this the themes of the discussion could be drawn. 

The first Convention plenary could then cover some specific questions, around for example the Spitzenkandidat process and transnational lists, as the Commission has asked. Also as part of that first plenary, the results of the conversation can be refined into a set of recommendations and a list of themes to be taken forward. 2018’s European Citizen Panel provides a small-scale example of what could be done to select topics.

After the first conference plenary, for a year, online discussions would continue, but grouped around the themes selected. These themes would also structure the citizen Agoras that the Parliament has proposed. Rather than just one or two 300-person meetings per theme, we believe more and smaller meetings could still be representative, without creating unwieldy processes – or large travel budgets. They would also be able to dive deeper into issues over several weekends: one or two weekends are unlikely to be enough for issues at this scale.

At local level, transnational and national citizens dialogues could continue. They should be seen as a complement to the Agoras, however, rather than as a replacement. If they were the only approach (as the Commission suggest) they would be hard to join up into a clear process that produces recommendations. At the same time the preferred 300-person approach in the Parliamentary resolution is too large and lacks a clear path from participants to decisions. In our vision, each of six or seven different themes has six to eight Agora meetings, taking place every four to six weeks, and with the start dates of each process staggered across the year to ensure that they can be covered by a reasonably-sized design and delivery team.

The detailed and thoughtful recommendations from these Agoras would shape and feed into a final Agora, being held in late 2021 or early 2022. Here, the results from the thematic Agoras, and the second wave of the dialogues and open conversations would be processed and fed into a meeting of citizens, perhaps with institutional representatives, formal civil society bodies and MEPs. This body could then prioritise and comment on the different recommendations from each of the thematic Agoras and add additional issues (though it would be restricted to deprioritising, not deleting, recommendations that had come from thematic agoras).

These recommendations and priorities would structure the discussions in the final Conference plenary, in which some citizens could be involved as advocates for the recommendations they had put forward during the process.

We see this as being the best route for involving citizens, if the politics rules out a final citizen voice.It allows for the voice of citizens to be heard at every point in the process, even if they are not the final deciders, and their contributions clearly shape each aspect of the process. The process has enough variety and reach, and a multi-layered approach that will be the best way to engage as many citizens as possible, and hear as many different experiences and opinions. It also has the clearest path to creating recommendations that can be taken forward and used in a meaningful way.

Conference on the Future of Europe: Points in common

This is the third in Demsoc’s series of blogs, laying out our thoughts on the Conference on the Future of Europe. So far, in the first post we have examined ‘what good looks like’ for the Conference, alongside some best practice case studies. In the second, we compared some of these case studies, along with the positions on the Conference from the European Commission, Parliament and the Franco-German non-paper. In this post, we will be following up by finding the points in common, where the three approaches could be complementary, in anticipation of the Joint Declaration.

The first and perhaps most basic similarity between the Parliament’s resolution, Commission’s communication and the non-paper is the commitment to providing all EU citizens with the opportunity to be involved in the process. There are few details around what this means but we can hope that it will draw on inspiration from other multi-faceted processes that increased accessibility. The non-paper specifically mentioned the importance of a ‘bottom-up process’, but is not clear about at what point this starts. It would be fantastic to see citizens involved in shaping the Conference from the beginning, as is seemingly suggested by the Parliament, in what they have called the ‘listening phase’, which could potentially be modelled on the ‘UK Conversation’ phase of the proposed UK Citizens’ Consultations.

Truly opening the process to as many citizens as possible, will be, as we have learnt from prior experience, far easier if local networks are consulted and activated early on. Using local partners with knowledge of the landscape and feeling. They will know best how to ensure people know about the process, and its relevance to them but they can also guide through how to get involved, set up local events and source and encourage participants. All institutional positions agreed on the need to involve national governments of member states, and the Commission, in their communication, instructed that the involvement of local, national and regional partners was key to success, and in other processes we have seen the added benefit of working with civil society partners.

In having events and conversations at local, national and regional level, the Conference will have to include a wide range of different forms of engagement. Offline this could include taking the form of consultations, debates and discussions as in the case of the Grand Débat. It must also include an online strand. Ideally the digital aspect would not just be for gathering opinions, or live-broadcasting central events and sharing information, but be a portal where citizens can interact properly with the process, and contribute meaningfully. Inspiration could be taken from NHS Citizen, or the digital tools used widely in Participatory Budgeting projects. Online, the Parliament suggested at least three citizens’ agoras in each member state, not including several youth agoras. This is a good start, but must go wider than three centrally located events, with a representative but limited number of people involved. Working to include those who live in rural areas, who are not able to or do not wish to travel, who won’t access digital tools or who aren’t interested in national or european level issues, to name just a few potentially excluded groups, is key to the success of the process. To complement the more formal, larger, central events, it would be wise to also allow civil society and local partners, under ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ branding and whilst adhering to guidelines, to run smaller events across all corners of the EU. Going to where citizens are will actually ensure they feel that their opinions are respected and will hopefully go some way to encouraging longer term buy-in to engagement processes, and will build trust in the European institutions. It will also mean that the Conference can discuss with citizens the issues that matter to them, which will take the Conference away from being a discussion about the efficiency of the institutions, and will instead make the most of citizen expertise of their own experience.

This touches on the last strong similarity between the Parliament’s resolution, the Commission’s communication and the non-paper. All have strong opinions on what themes the Conference should frame the discussion around. For the Commission this is it’s six political priorities, for the non-paper it is issues relating to the Institutions, including how to make the EU more united and sovereign. Laying out the parameters for conversation before the process has been designed is dangerous. It already discourages citizens, who if they disagree with, for example, the premise of making the EU more united and sovereign, may disengage totally. The parliament much more closely reflects Demsoc’s thinking, when it suggests that there should be an open forum for participants to discuss, without limit, any issues, thoughts or ideas they have which can then be shaped into a set of themes. This coupled with smaller local events, and a digital tool that are truly open, may create the most interesting results, and allow for change that accurately reflects what citizens want. 

Using lessons and ideas from the Grand Débat and the proposed UK Citizens’ Conventions, amongst other programmes of work, that have similar mixed and multi-layered approaches will also be useful to building the programme for the Conference. Ideally one that brings in citizens from the start, to shape the entire process; one that includes as many types of involvement as possible, to give as many people as possible the chance to contribute; one that involves citizens from the very beginning, allowing them to form a process they want to see; and, one that has long lasting effects, beyond the end of the Conference on trust and collaboration between citizens and institutions.

Taking all of these similarities and differences into account, combined with the review of other best practice from across Europe, it seems that taking a “yes, and…” approach, combining a mixture of agoras, citizen dialogues and digital tools would provide the best reach, most complete conversation and greatest potential success to the Conference on the Future of Europe, as well as adding considerable longevity to the project of including citizens in European idea shaping and decision making, past summer 2022.

Conference on the Future of Europe: Comparing and Contrasting

This is the second in Demsoc’s series of blogs, laying out our thoughts on the Conference on the Future of Europe. Here, we compare and contrast not just best practice examples of citizen engagement across Europe, but also the statements laid out by different European institutions in recent weeks, on the upcoming Conference.

Below, we look at the European Commission Communication, the Franco-German non-paper, the European Parliament’s Resolution, compared with the work of the Conventions Citoyennes pour le Climat, The Citizens’ Assembly 2016-2018 in Ireland and the proposed UK Citizens’ Convention. 

We will take you through each of these, comparing the approach to: timeline; geographical scope; local action; online engagement; number and type of assemblies; how they handled multiple themes, and; what power the citizen decisions had.

Whilst the European Institutions’ thinking on citizen engagement in the Conference seems to be positive and definitely committed to some sort of engagement, that engagement is not as deep as could be hoped for, nor is its impact broad enough. 

In considering what the proposed Joint Declaration from the European Council, Parliament and Commission might look like, it is interesting to see the differences in their current visions for the Conference. Specifically, the approaches to choosing or sourcing the themes and subjects for discussion, how those are shaped into a coherent and comprehensive process and how the process would cover each topic.

At the end of the Conference process there must also be a commitment to taking the outcomes and recommendations seriously. At present, the proposals have only weak assurances that this will happen, being consultative and disconnected from final processes.

It is positive to see the importance placed by all actors on having a transparent process, that shows that participating in democracy is a constant process that thrives beyond elections, and that the Conference on the Future of Europe can be a mechanism by which the EU starts a process to evolve through innovative participation and engagement with its citizens. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the common features and differences in more detail, and think about where the inter-institutional negotiations could end up.

Timeline: The Conference will launch on Europe Day, 9th may 2020, and should wrap up during the first semester of 2022, when the outcomes and recommendations from the process can be discussed and next steps considered.
Geographical scope: It is a priority to include citizens “from all corners of the Union”, and must be as accessible and inclusive as possible to every resident of the EU.
Local action: The process must include local, regional and national partners and governing bodies.
Online engagement: There will be a strong digital strand to the Conference. A multilingual online platform will give access to: all related documents; live-streaming debates; gathering outcomes, and; promoting other methods of interaction.
Number and type of assemblies: Deliberative panels will be held regularly throughout the duration of the conference and partners will be able to hold as many debates as they wish.
How multiple themes are handled: The Conference will be framed around the Commission’s six political priorities. This will be complemented by a second strand addressing democratic processes and institutional matters.
The power of citizen decisions: President von der Leyen has pledged to follow up on what is debated and agreed during the Conference.

Conference on the Future of Europe –  Franco-German non-paper
Timeline: Phase 1 would start as early as February 2020, until the summer of 2020, and focus on issues related to EU democratic functioning. Phase 2 focusing on policy priorities should be launched in mid-2020 and be closed in early 2022.
Geographical scope: EU-wide participation of our citizens on all issues discussed is key.
Local action: The process should be bottom-up, and EU member states must be involved.
Online engagement: None specifically mentioned.
Number and type of assemblies: There will be meetings and citizen dialogues throughout the process, and thematic and midterm review conferences, and the process will culminate in a closing conference.
How multiple themes are handled: The conference should address issues at stake for the future of the EU, to make it more united and sovereign. It should also look at policies and reforms to be implemented and also institutional issues, to improve the functioning of the Union.
The power of citizen decisions: The conference should produce clear recommendations, put into a final document which should be presented to the EUCO for debate and implementation. 

European Parliament’s Resolution on the Conference on the Future of Europe
Timeline: The Conference should be a process lasting two years, commencing on Schuman Day, 9 May 2020 and aiming to end by summer 2022. Before it begins there should be a phase where citizens can shape the process.
Geographical scope: All citizens from across the EU to be given the opportunity to be involved, and events in each member state.
Local action: Civil society and a range of stakeholders at European, national, regional and local level should be the key element of the process.
Online engagement: There should be a digital tool to allow citizens to stay abreast of any developments with the Conference, and to allow it to be an open process.
Number and type of assemblies: Several thematic Citizens’ agoras reflecting the policy priorities should be held throughout the Conference process with a minimum of three per Member State and two Youth Agoras.
How multiple themes are handled: The the Conference Plenary should be an open forum for participants to discuss, without limiting the scope to pre-defined policy fields or methods of integration. Special Eurobarometer surveys could also be used to support agenda setting.
The power of citizen decisions: Right from the beginning, a listening phase should be initiated to enable citizens from across the EU to express their ideas, make suggestions and propose their own vision of what Europe means for them, to shape the conference.

La Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat
Timeline: Seven months. The Convention began with the first meeting on 4, 5 and 6 October 2019 and will deliver its conclusions in April 2020.
Geographical scope: France. The meetings are held at the EESC in Paris, but the participants are 150 citizens, drawn to reflect all areas of France.
Local action: None specifically mentioned.
Online engagement: All citizens can contribute their thoughts online, through the portal on the website. 
Number and type of assemblies: The Convention will meet seven times, for three days each.
How multiple themes are handled: The overarching theme was of course climate change, but this was broken down into five sub-categories: accommodation; food; travel; consumption and; work/production.
The power of citizen decisions: The Government will respond publicly to the proposals and publish a provisional timetable for the implementation of these proposals, following which citizens will be able to formulate a joint and public reaction to the Government’s responses.

The Citizens’ Assembly 2016-2018, Ireland
Timeline: The Citizens’ Assembly was first convened in October 2016, it ran until April 2018, meeting 12 times, and the final report was published June 2018.
Geographical scope: Members of the Assembly were selected at random, and reflect Irish society in terms of regional spread. 
Local action: No specific local action.
Online engagement: Plenary sessions were livestreamed. 
Number and type of assemblies: The Assembly met 12 times, throughout the two year period.
How multiple themes are handled: The Assembly wash asked to consider five themes, each on a change to the constitution. These themes were discussed one at a time, with a report being produced before the next one was begun. There was a different panel of experts for each theme.
The power of citizen decisions: The conclusions in the Assembly’s reports, formed the basis of a number of reports and recommendations that were submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate.

Proposed UK Citizens’ Convention
Timeline: The process would take two years, and would consist of four parts: 
1) UK Conversation – a mass communications and engagement exercise to spark and support a UK- wide conversation on the challenges facing UK democracy and how they should be tackled. This stage will last for nine months;
2) Prioritisation Convention – to hear evidence collected from the UK Conversation and agree the key challenges that the Citizens’ Convention should explore;
3) Thematic Assemblies – to consider the key challenges identified by the Prioritisation Summit and their potential solutions in depth and produce recommendations for reforms; and,
4) UK Summit – to ratify the recommendations produced by the Thematic Assemblies, and resolve any overarching questions or conflicts.It would then move to the political phase.
Geographical scope: It is a priority that the convention include people from every area and community in the UK.
Local action: The process will finish in a UK summit, but the stages leading up to that point will all be held at local level and with local organisations, particularly at the ‘Conversation’ stage.
Online engagement: There will be digital modes of engagement running throughout the process. A digital platform will be established for groups to report back on their conversations. 
Number and type of assemblies: During the Thematic Assemblies part of the process, there will be a number of citizens assemblies, meeting up to six times each, over a six-month period. The exact number will be dependant on budget and number of themes chosen by the Prioritisation Convention.
How multiple themes are handled: Six themes related to the UK political system will be the starting point for the conversation, but the final list of themes to be considered by the Convention will be decided by the citizens themselves. 
The power of citizen decisions: The Convention will produce a report containing specific recommendations. This final report will be translated into draft legislation that could be used or adapted by elected representatives in Parliament to implement the key recommendations of the Convention.

Conference on the Future of Europe: Principles and Exemplars

Brussels is buzzing with talk of the forthcoming Conference on the Future of Europe. The Commission, the Council and the Parliament have all been thinking individually about how to plan the future governance of the EU, in a two-year process that will involve all the institutions, and which – we are promised – will have citizen voices as a central part of the process. 

Compare the approach with that of the Convention on the Future of Europe, in 2002-3, and how times have changed! The network society, the rise of participation, and the demonstrable success of deliberative reform processes in Ireland and elsewhere have made citizens the essential partners in these processes, and shown that there are ways to bring a wide range of different voices into some of the most difficult political questions. 

However, now the inter-institutional negotiations are starting, and the compromises are about to be struck on how the Conference will actually happen. During that process, citizen voices won’t be in the room. So we’ve taken it on ourselves, over the next few days, to set out the citizen negotiating position for those negotiations. We don’t presume to know what citizens think. They think all sorts of things, that’s the point of asking them. Rather, what’s the best way to bring them into the conversation – based on the ideas already proposed by the different institutions.  

The proposals that have been set out in the different positions of Council, Commission and Parliament are positive, but they are incomplete and not very well aligned. If you took a rough average and implemented that, citizens would be involved to an extent but they would not be truly engaged in the decision making process.

No-one is asking for citizens to be at the Council table when the final decisions are taken, staring down the leaders of Europe. However, a broad and deliberative process can ensure they are more than one set of opinions among many. Citizen voices could set the broad framework within which the institutions and other stakeholders find the best ideas and reflect on their compromises – and in the process create a success story for European democracy.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with some basics.

What does good look like?

Democratic Ambition: dialogue must be a two way interaction. Citizen participation cannot just be consultative and must include citizens from the earliest stage, including how to shape their own involvement and decide on topics. 

European Connections: This project should not be a Europe-wide series of national conversations, but must instead find a way for participants to discuss issues across national boundaries.

Well informed: it must include an information element, at the very least for those involved in deliberation, but ideally more widely. Participants must understand the policy context to ensure that the process has as many applicable recommendations as possible, but we also need to make sure that policy officials understand human stories and the importance of lived experience and expertise.

A learning process: this should not be a standalone project, but the beginning of a culture change throughout the EU and institutions. If done well, this Conference can be used to develop democratic skills and confidence, that will influence future work and embolden citizens to demand a role in decision making.

Process recommendations: the process should be designed to ensure that some of the recommendations to come out of the conference are specifically about how to continue and deepen democratic participation in European decision making. We should be asking citizens how best to include them, and how they think participation in the EU should work. 

Lasting relationships: at the end of the Conference of the Future of Europe the aim should be to keep connected with all those who participated and to cultivate the networks and relationships that have been created. This is an essential element of  creating a European public sphere for the longer term.

Case studies

Ireland: In 2012 Ireland held a Convention on the Constitution, asking 66 randomly-selected citizens and 33 politicians to discuss eight topics selected by the Oireachtas (Parliament) and two they had selected themselves, and to come up with recommendations for constitutional change. All of these recommendations were responded to by the Government, and six were accepted including: ‘on marriage equality, reducing the voting age to 16, reducing the age threshold for candidacy for Presidential elections, [and] removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution’. This was followed, between 2016 and 2018 with a series of citizens consultations, which most famously set the terms for the referendums on same sex marriage and abortion rights. https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/

Scotland: The Scottish Government, is currently running a citizens assembly. 100 broadly representative citizens will meet over the course of six weekends in late 2019 and early 2020. The conversation aims to find common ground on Scotland’s future direction, in the context of Brexit and the Government’s plans for a future independence referendum. Discussions are centred around three broad questions about the future of the country and the recommendations that come out of this process will be set out in a report that will be laid in the Scottish Parliament. https://www.citizensassembly.scot/

UK: There has been a proposal for a Citizen Convention on UK Democracy, as one of the responses to the significant constitutional change in the UK. A multi-stage process, with an open call for ideas followed by thematic then collective deliberation, was published by a group hosted by King’s College London in summer 2019. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/political-economy/research/research-groups/centre-for-british-politics-and-government/citizens-convention-on-uk-democracy

Ostbelgien: In February 2019, the German-speaking community of Belgium became the world’s first region to approve a far-reaching form of citizen participation – a sitting assembly drafted by lot. As of September 2019, the parliament will install a citizens’ council, or Buürgerrat, comprising 24 citizens who will each serve 18 months to determine the broad outlines of the policy together with politicians. With 100 signatures, citizens will be able to bring a theme to the attention of the citizens’ council. Once the citizen council has chosen the themes, these will go to the citizens assemblies, or Bürgerversammlungen, made up of approximately 50 people who will meet for three weekends over three months. It is these assemblies that will make the final recommendations, which the parliament will be bound to respond to within two hearings. This is the most important aspect of this form of citizen participation in that the parliament is obliged to put it into practice the proposals put forward by the council or explain why they will not do so. The fact that this is a long-term deliberative exercise with a clear link to politics makes it a unique experiment.

Gdansk: In the summer of 2016, the city of Gdansk experienced severe flooding that caused millions of euros in damage and took the lives of two residents. Unwilling to accept the city’s lack of preparedness against a situation that was to worsen in the face of climate change, environmentalist and activist, Marcin Gerwin, successfully persuaded the Mayor’s office to organise a citizens’ assembly to better prepare for extreme rainfall. Over the course of four Saturdays, 60 citizens chosen via random selection software came together to hear expert testimonies and devised strategies for flood mitigation. What made this citizen assembly ground-breaking, however, was the fact that the Mayor had committed to adopting proposals that received at least 80% of the participants support. The final 16 proposals included investment in monitoring systems and infrastructure, incentives to improve water management on personal property, and an educational campaign to highlight emergency resources – schemes that have resulted in the city responding faster to flooding. All of this has led to the Gdansk example being considered a well-designed public problem-solving exercise with the potential to respond to ‘formidable challenges’.

France: As a result of the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests, President Macron launched the Great Debate, a two month period of citizen engagement in the form of consultations, debates, discussions, and citizen proposals. The aim was to give citizens a voice on the development of public policies that concern them. Four themes of discussion were chosen by the government, and anyone could organise an event to contribute on one of those themes, or give their opinion on a dedicated website. More than one and a half million citizens participated, with 1,932,884 online contributions, 10,134 local meetings, 16,337 municipalities passing on citizens’s submissions, and 27,374 letters and emails received. This was followed by a similar process on climate change, called the Citizen Conventions for the Climate, which is currently underway. https://www.conventioncitoyennepourleclimat.fr

The particular challenges of European scale processes – language, culture and politics – mean that none of these examples can just be copied directly. The scale of ambition in the question also means that a single approach alone will probably not work. However, cumulatively these projects provide lessons – both positive and negative – that can help to make the most of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at what the different institutions are proposing.