#demsoc10 Le Agorà di Messina

Demsoc works across Europe, and very often also outside capitals and government buildings. One of the most striking projects in recent years was Le Agorà di Messina, which ran over the course of a year in Sicily and was entirely designed and executed by the citizens taking part, supported by Demsoc. Francesca Attolino and Ivan Tornesi of Demsoc worked intensively alongside that group, and brought the world to Messina to expand the possibilities. 

Le Agorà di Messina aimed to encourage citizen participation in decision-making across Messina, with its final goal to set a protocol for participation. The project was named ‘agora’, meaning gathering place in ancient Greek, used by citizens for public meetings and decision making. 

The three main aims of the project were to: 

  1. Support and enhance existing ground-up networks and actions in a systematic way.
  2. Increase opportunities for citizens to be involved in dialogue, deliberation and decision-making.
  3. Create something that is long-term, conversational, and not driven by a single event or decision point, so that the networks and structures we create are around for longer than the period of the process.

Le Agorà di Messina concept originated from an event that The Democratic Society organised in Messina in October 2017 for the Incubator for Participatory Democracy, run by the Council of Europe. On that occasion, Messina citizens stated very clearly what their vision of participation and democratic practices in the city would be. Their priorities were to avoid one-shot participation exercises, to go beyond elected mandates and to empower citizens, find places for citizens to meet and discuss citizen ideas and develop participative skills. Above all, the citizens asked for instruments to develop citizens’ autonomy ( which is a reference to art. 118 of Italian Constitution), and for institutions should look at emotions, not only rationality. 

In our view, this project succeeded in doing that, demonstrating the ability of a group of citizens to proactively advocate and work for democracy, transparency and accountability. This also happened under particularly difficult circumstances of political changes in the local council, and economic challenges in the region. 

Undeterred by setbacks, the Steering Group of citizens decided to focus on very specific issues of urban regeneration of public spaces in their city. They developed a proposal “Gesti Lenti e Pieni d’Amore” aimed at re-establishing the citrus processing craft, in a form would have women from disadvantaged groups trained and supported towards financial independence. The support of Agorà di Messina and the skills provided to look for external funding, made this a clear case where could citizens take action in their city in a participative way, independent of the city council. This meant to provide the city with ”a beautiful memory, and a sustainable future”. 

By the time the final Festival Messina Partecipa was organised, 76 committed citizens were holding Le Agorà di Messina, across a very diverse spectrum of people. Throughout one intense summer day in a Sicilian Palazzo, they developed the ‘Messina Charter for Participation’, setting out the conditions under which the citizens of Messina wish to organise their participative decision making from then on.

Today, the group of citizens we worked with remains active and connected, and Messina a distinctly meaningful place on the Demsoc map. 

#demsoc10 Collaborative Government in Scotland

The #demsoc10 post we planned for today has been slightly delayed by engineering works and Storm Ciara, so tonight Anthony looks back at our first project in Scotland.

Demsoc started life in Brighton, and our first office and team was based there. Much of our early work was with local government, and we’ll share some reflections on our Zero Heroes project later in the week, but quite early on we started talking to the Scottish Government. This was in the midst of the referendum campaign on Scottish independence, but the open government team there knew that, whatever the result, there was a need to work in different and more collaborative ways.

This attitude is reflected in “the Scottish Approach to Government“, putting participation (along with asset-based thinking and improvement) at the heart of Scotland’s service delivery model.

As part of this strand of thinking, we worked with the Scottish Government in summer 2014 to run a workshop on Collaborative Government, looking at trends in government and how the Scottish government and its partners could respond to them. The discussions covered the benefits of collaboration and participation; examples of effective collaboration; how joint work between government and civil society can encourage people to participate effectively in the decision which affect them; and areas where Government could experiment with collaborative working.
The full report of the event is still online.

As with so many of our older projects, the interest lies not in the conclusions we came to, but in how new those conclusions seemed at the time and how mainstream they seem now. You achieve more than you think in ten years, and less than you think in one year, as someone said. While collaborative governance is not a reality in Scotland quite yet, some of the work that we have since been involved in, on participatory budgeting, on the current Citizen Assembly, and on the internal framework for participative government show that we are a lot closer than we were (and if the saying is true, we still have four years).

#demsoc10 How to spend a hundred billion euros

All this month, we are looking back at Demsoc projects from our last ten years. Today, Anthony looks at our 2018 report on how to involve citizens in decision making on research spending.

Most of the work that we do at Demsoc is practical, in that we are asked to work and test things with real people, in real situations. That doesn’t prevent us (me) from being massive politics geeks, of course. I’m always happy to talk for an hour about representative and participative democratic theory, or Spanish election results, but that’s just for pleasure. Work is making democracy work, in the real world.

Sometimes, though, we are asked to do a piece of pure research, informed by our practice and what we know of our field. In 2017, we undertook some work for the European Commission’s research directorate, on how citizens could be involved in setting the mission goals for Horizon Europe – the EU’s research fund, at that time known by the less buzzy title “Framework Programme 9”.

The full report can be found on the European Commission’s website, and the core diagram is the featured image for this post. Our suggestion, in summary, was to have an online idea generation phase, where citizens could make suggestions. These ideas would then go through a prioritization process in mixed public-expert groups, before a citizen assembly, run in a distributed way across the different countries of the EU, would produce a final ranking of the different topics in each mission area.

The project was, for all our bias towards practical action, a great opportunity to think through some ideas that we’ve since taken further in some of our thinking on the Future of Europe Conference, and have shared with those working on the proposed UK Citizen Convention.

What has been most interesting, though, is how the ideas in that report, which seemed utopian in 2018, now seem like an ambitious but plausible future. The European Parliament is proposing citizen agoras on the future of Europe – it doesn’t seem unrealistic to use a similar process in policy making on other big European issues. Something is definitely moving at European level – however, for it to work properly it will also need to work at local level. Tomorrow, Marian will tell the story of how our local project in Messina tried to connect up civil society.

#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.