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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

Final report: Dudley People’s Panel

We’re publishing the final report from the Dudley People’s panel. Residents have recommend a blue print for a series of improvements for Dudley and Brierley Hill town centres.

40 People’s Panel members, invited randomly through a civic lottery, came together over two weekends in November and December to work together answering the question:

“What can communities and the Council do together to make Dudley and Brierley Hill town centres places that are vibrant, welcoming and somewhere we are proud of?

“How will we know we are making a difference in: 12 months; 3 years; by 2030?”

Dudley People’s Panel was a citizens’ assembly. You can now read our report which sets out what expert information panel members heard and how they came to vote on 12 recommendations put forward for both Brierley Hill and Dudley town centres. The recommendations which received the highest support from panel members are as follows:

In Dudley, the three ‘key success proposals’ with the most support were:

  • Be safer with less crime
  • Be full of public squares to meet, eat, relax and be
  • Be home to first rate entertainment with venues for live music, comedy and festivals

In Brierley Hill, the three ‘key success proposals’ with the most support were:

  • Involve local people in creating community events and participation
  • Be livelier with open public spaces for people to sit and congregate
  • Be safer with less crime

Press release: Cracking down on crime number one priority for People’s Panel

Safer streets and less fear of crime are critical for the future success of Dudley and Brierley Hill town centres, a new people’s panel has concluded.

A group of 40 people from the two towns were selected to form the first ever Dudley People’s Panel.

The panel was independently designed and facilitated with the support of The Democratic Society. It met to discuss what communities and the council could do to make Dudley and Brierley Hill town centres vibrant, welcoming and places residents could be proud of.

Cracking down on crime featured prominently on both lists – and council bosses said today measures were already being put in place to help people feel safer in town centres. They include investment in CCTV cameras and new Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), while a plan is also in the pipeline for a new police station in Dudley town centre.

[lists in blog above]

The panel discussed the issues and heard evidence from experts on a range of subjects relevant to the future of Dudley and Brierley Hill’s future development including town centre regeneration, community safety, public health and leisure over two weekends in November and December. People’s Panel members spent time coming up with detailed recommendations to present to councillors.

A full report of the People’s Panel findings will go before Dudley Council’s ruling cabinet for consideration at a meeting on February 12 at the Council House. It will also be discussed at Dudley Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee on January 29.

Councillor Patrick Harley, leader of the council, said:

“We wanted to run the People’s Panel in order to give members of the public more say over decisions that affect them and their communities.

“As part of this, the council was thrilled to be one of only three local authorities selected by the government to take part in the Innovation in Democracy Programme.

“It has not come as any great surprise to us that fear of crime is high up on people’s priorities. It is one of our key priorities as well, reflected in the fact we are spending nearly £2 million on boosting CCTV coverage in the borough and £750,000 on new PCSOs. We are also in talks with the police about utilising land we own in Dudley town centre to build a new police station.

“As a council we will use the information provided by the People’s Panel to help us decide what further we can do in the short, medium and long-term to make the borough’s town centres vibrant and welcoming.”

The People’s Panel was a citizens’ assembly run by independent facilitators from The Democratic Society.

Mel Stevens, programmes director at The Democratic Society, said:

“The people of Dudley borough are extremely passionate about the future of their town centres. This process, independently facilitated by The Democratic Society, has enabled a group of 40 randomly selected residents to craft a blue print for the future of Dudley and Brierley Hill town centres.

“By considering evidence and working with each other to weigh up options and consider trade-offs they have developed a set of meaningful, actionable recommendations.

“It will be exciting to see how the recommendations made by the People’s Panel are valued by elected members to aid their decisions to make town centres places which are vibrant, welcoming and somewhere residents are proud of.”

Kevin Ditcham, local democracy delivery manager at The Democratic Society, said:

“The Dudley People’s Panel has shown the power of residents being involved in local authority decision making. Engaging with residents in a genuine and meaningful way is a powerful and worthwhile process.”

Notes to editors

In October, letters were sent to 10,000 randomly selected households, inviting people aged 16 and over to register their interest in becoming a People’s Panel member.

Households which received the invitation were able to register their interest in participating. The Sortition Foundation then randomly selected 50 individuals from the pool of responses who broadly represented a cross-section of Dudley’s demographic profile in terms of age, gender, geography, household type, occupation, disability and ethnicity.

Panel members were given £150 via BACS transfer at the end of each weekend – £300 in total – to incentivise, retain and recognise their commitment and thank them for their involvement.

Dudley Council was awarded funding and support from the UK Government’s Innovation in Democracy Programme to hold this citizens’ assembly. The Innovation in Democracy Programme (IiDP) is trialling innovative models of deliberative democracy to involve residents in local government decision-making.

An accessible version of the report, produced by mySociety, is available here.

Final Report: Romsey Citizens’ Assembly

We’re publishing the recommendations made by the Romsey Citizens’ Assembly, which met last month to consider the future of Romsey Town Centre.

You can now read our report, submitted to Test Valley Borough Council, which will consider the recommendations the Citizens’ Assembly has made.

The report tells the story of the assembly, the evidence it considered and how it was brought together and run over four days on two weekends.

The Citizens’ Assembly was formed to answer the question: 

“How do we improve the area around Crosfield Hall and the Bus Station to deliver the maximum benefit to Romsey?”

The 42 members of the Citizens’ Assembly proposed a series of recommendations for the future of South of the Town Centre. Proposals receiving the most support among assembly members were: 

  • Make Romsey an attractive, vibrant town, a centre of excellence, including green spaces and wildlife corridors
  • Improved transport infrastructure to encourage a sense of community – with viable options for moving around
  • Lots of things to attract people into the town centre that are affordable and accessible for all which everyone living in Romsey knows about and can take part in
  • In Romsey there will be more green spaces in the town area that will protect enhance and increase our natural environment, which includes the wild animals and plants
  • Community hub and green spaces that bring people together (across generations)
  • Design the transport and parking with an integrated plan that includes walking, cycling, public transport and cars and think about all the different kinds of people coming into the town (parking, accessible, but still encourage bus use, especially by younger people)
  • Well planned, connected accessible infrastructure (including travel, access, public spaces, education, tech and business) with good flow for transport and pedestrians to encourage business and tourists. 

A press release from Test Valley Borough Council can be read below.

Press release – Romsey citizens’ assembly makes proposals to transform area south of the town centre

Romsey’s pioneering citizens’ assembly has today announced its recommendations to transform the area south of the town centre.

The Romsey citizens’ assembly heard evidence from experts in town centre regeneration, planning, environmental issues and public health as well as views from local stakeholders and examples from other towns over two weekends in November.

The assembly concluded with the 42 members voting on a number of recommendations to transform the south of the town centre, which includes the area around the Crosfield Hall and the bus station.

A report outlining the recommendations has been published by The Democratic Society, a non-profit organisation that supports democratic involvement in the UK and EU and also helped to facilitate the assembly. The report will be presented to council’s cabinet at a special meeting in January and to the Romsey Future partnership by some of the members of the citizens’ assembly. 

Mel Stevens, director of programmes at The Democratic Society, said: “Members of the Romsey citizens’ assembly were recruited by a random process to represent the local area, giving up their own time for the benefit of their wider community. 

“Over two weekends, they’ve listened to experts, considered evidence and worked together to weigh-up options, make trade-offs and come to a set of coherent, well thought through recommendations.

“Not only have they made an important contribution to Romsey and Test Valley, they’ve helped to show that citizens can play a vital, active role in local authority decision making.”

Kevin Ditcham, local democracy delivery manager at The Democratic Society, said: “It’s been excellent to witness the community come together through the Romsey citizens’ assembly process. It has shown the amazing and exciting ideas which develop when communities are empowered to have agency and affect change in a genuine way. 

“We know that too often, communities feel like they are unable to do anything about the things which matter to them. This process in Romsey has enabled 42 people, who didn’t know each other before, to make recommendations based on their aspirations for the south of the town centre. The recommendations are realistic, deliverable and meaningful because of the process. It’s fantastic that Test Valley Borough Council has invested time and energy to this and to deliberative and participative engagement approaches with citizens.”

Chair of Romsey Future and deputy leader of Test Valley Borough Council, councillor Nick Adams-King, said: “It has been brilliant to witness the power of the citizens’ assembly process. By bringing together 42 public representatives and providing them with key facts, figures and evidence, they have developed a set of well-rounded, clear, ambitious and achievable recommendations to help shape the masterplan as part of the redevelopment of the south of the town centre.

“I look forward to meeting with the council’s cabinet in January when the citizens’ assembly members will present their proposals for the first time.

“I would like to thank everyone involved in the process for their hard work.”

About the Innovation in Democracy Programme

Test Valley Borough Council was awarded £60,000 plus expert support to run the citizens’ assembly as part of the government’s Innovation in Democracy Programme, jointly delivered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The assembly members were selected at random by The Sortition Foundation, following invitations to 10,000 addresses in Romsey and surrounding parishes.
From this fifty individuals from the pool of responses who broadly represented a cross-section of Romsey’s demographic profile in terms of age, gender, geography, occupation, travel frequency and ethnicity were chosen to form the assembly. The presentations and expert panel discussions from the citizens’ assembly were recorded and are available to view on the Romsey Future website.

Further information and frequently asked questions about the process is also available on the above website. You can read the report here.

The report is also available in alternative formats for e-readers here – produced by mySociety.

PaCe project at the EuroPCom

Last Thursday, part of the Populism and Civic Engagement ‘PaCE’ team, including Nadja Nickel and Beth Wiltshire from The Democratic Society and Magnus Josefsson from the City of Reykjavik, Iceland presented the PaCE project as part of an interactive ‘Ideas Lab: Discovering innovative forms of citizens engagement against populism.’ at European Public Communication Conference EuroPCom 2019 in Brussels, Belgium.

7 November 2019, Ideas Lab: Innovative citizen engagement to counter populism

The entire session was framed around the question ‘How can we make our democracy stronger?’ and it was introduced as a real time citizen participation simulation, with half of participants discovering the #HomeParliaments experience, with Pulse of Europe and half looking at ways to strengthen democracy and fight populism together with the PaCE team. Both of these projects are looking at the need for developing new methods for engaging citizens about decisions that affect their lives.

7 November 2019, Ideas Lab: Innovative citizen engagement to counter populism

Many people across Europe feel they are not heard and they do not have an option to influence decisions that affect their lives, beyond the right to vote in an election. From populist parties that are challenging democracies and claiming to speak for the ‘ordinary people’ to the decline of traditional people’s parties and challenges around the forming of coalition governments  – the argument was that democracy in Europe is floundering. Participants were asked to think about the need for establishing a close link with European citizens as well as countering and responding to populist movements, and how this must remain at the heart of the EU’s communication goals.

The part of the session run by PaCE was focused on answering the question “What needs to be done to ensure informed voting?”. Key part of the PaCE project is to understand how citizen’s attitudes towards democracy are shaped across Europe and how they arrive at a specific voting decision. Each person evaluates what information, gathered through e.g. media, social media, interpersonal relations or interactions with political representatives, they can trust before making a voting decision. Some only trust specific sources, some ensure they shape their own opinion through discussions, others combine different types of information.

Participants were split into five groups, with each one nominating a moderator, a notetaker, a timekeeper and a presenter. They were asked to come up with five ‘takeaways’ to present to the wider group at the end of the session, but were also asked to note down any other aspects of their conversation.

The discussion revolved around innovative new forms of citizen engagement to address populism in the EU, the need to include emotions & values in our communication, but also the responsibilities that come with citizenship.

Each team came back with different takeaways, although there were several themes:

  • Access to neutral, objective, non-partisan information was consistently ranked as a priority. However, participants acknowledged that voting decisions have emotional aspects that need to be addressed. 
  • Tougher stance on disinformation and better prioritisation of transparency. This should include accountability measures and e-tool development for ‘fake news’ especially for politicians, as well as more strict rules on social media.
  • More frequent, meaningful interactions between citizens and politicians to create relationships and mutual understanding.
  • Focus on education – not only on specific political or citizenship subjects but also in areas such as critical thinking and media literacy.

PaCE is a Horizon 2020 project funded by the European Commision. For this project, nine different partners across Europe are aiming to understand aspects of populist movements, to build upon the lessons from positive examples of connecting with citizens, and through this play a part in constructing a firmer democratic and institutional foundation for the citizens of Europe.

Find out more about the project on Twitter: @popandce, or at 
Follow #DemocracyLab to join the discussion.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 822337

Dreaming Democracy in Dundee

Annie Cook from The Democratic Society chats to John Alexander, the current Leader of Dundee City Council, about all things Dundee, participatory budgeting, the role of elected members, and Scotland. 

John was part of Dundee Decides, Dundee’s participatory budgeting process that brought people together to decide how a £1.2 million budget across eight local community areas was spent by also using a digital tool for citizens to vote. 

Listen to the podcast below or on Spotify via The Democratic Society…

Here are 7 things we learned about PB from Dundee’s John Alexander: 

  1. By involving more people in decisions through PB this means more people can understand how decisions are made. 

A perk of the John’s job is seeing the benefit of decisions that are made. John says “everybody knows that not all decisions you make are positive ones sometimes necessary ones, but they’re not always well received.” 

We also asked John about decision making and the role of elected members: 

“I don’t think it’s as black and white, perhaps as it can be portrayed. I think it’s really good for people to get an understanding of how this process (participatory budgeting) works… I think there’s always a balance to be struck between making sure that counsellors are held to account for the decisions that we make, also giving people the opportunity to inform those decisions… So I think it’s not having your cake and eating it, but certainly being reflective and being flexible about who we make those decisions for and listening at the bottom line.” 

  1. Making things inclusive means taking the vote to people.

Dundee Decides meant bringing people together in deciding how a 1.2 million pound budget across eight local community areas, was spent. This was a process that ran on a very local level, where people could have input and see the benefits quite quickly of their decision. 

In order to involve people John says “we had a widespread participation from skills from community groups, and we didn’t just expect people to log on to the website. We took the vote to people….It was a hugely successful exercise. Over 11,000 people participated in the actual vote and exercise of Dundee Decides, which was more than 10% of those eligible eligible to vote. We made sure that it was as inclusive as possible. So the limit, I suppose… was that you had to be over the age of 11. So being quite liberal and making sure young people had the opportunity to fit in as well.”

  1. PB is worth it.

“I think PB is fantastic. I really wish we had been doing it for a lot longer” 

After having done a process with a 1.2 million pound budget, John sees a huge benefit in involving people in decision making. 

A decade ago, we could have been having a discussion about how we deliver services, not just how we deliver them individually. Projects have a capital nature, we could be looking at revenue funding, etc. So, I think it would have completely changed the dynamic in the way that cities work more generally because, you know…it’s power to the people, isn’t it? And I don’t think anybody could see that as a bad thing.” 

  1. Getting different people to work together . 

The council’s efforts to engage with communities involved people from across the local authority, who would not normally work together. This included professions, such as engineers and others from different services departments. John said it helped people with different backgrounds in the council to work together and listen to different points of view.

  1. Money matters but not for the reason you might think…

 “You get what you put in is what I would say, we put in quite a sizable budget at you know, in the current financial climate particularly. And that was deliberate because in order to make it…real in order to get people to buy in, they need to believe that there’s real impetus behind it…And they have an ability to use some significant funds to change their community. Now, if what you do is a token gesture of £10,000, it’s not going to go very far. It’s not going to tell about multiple projects across the world. And so I think you’ve got to mean it, it’s kind of bottom line for me.”

  1. While some councillors may worry about PB John says he doesn’t see how it could negatively affect elected members. “we should never be in this kind of mental state of thinking that we’ve got all the solutions and all the answers because we don’t.”

“For all democrats, there is no better argument for PB and enhancing democracy because that’s what you’re doing and councillors will form views, they’ll have their opinions and that’s all well and good. But, you know, power to the people… I don’t think any of us should lose perspective at the fact that actually the power does lie with people we’re elected for a set period of time… If we don’t deliver, then we’ll be out on our backsides. And that’s right but people should have the ability to formulate plans for their own local areas. Because no matter what councillor, you speak to what party they are from, they do not speak for every single constituent. They represent both their own views the views of their party in which they are elected on and on a subset of their constituents, I’m very conscious that I represent- if you’re considering how many people vote for me over the potential electorate- less than 10% of the electorate voted for me, of those that participated”

There is a real value in engaging with people on their own terms on a daily basis, on projects they are really passionate about. John argues “there is so much to be gained from going out and speaking to people and finding out what their challenges are and ideas, actually, because we should never be in this kind of mental state of thinking that we’ve got all the solutions and all the answers because we don’t…The end result is a more engaged population, who respects what you’ve done, who is engaged in a process of participation, and ultimately, you’ve improved the community in one way, shape or form from the projects that have been voted for. So, I see far more positives than I do pitfalls, from a counsillor perspective”

7.) Jonn says people need ‘guts’ to make PB a mainstream activity for Scottish democracy

“People can see it as passing on potential decisions, and that’s never what it is about. It’s about enhancing democracy, enhancing people’s input. One of the kickbacks I’ve heard from colleagues that I’ve spoken to, is about how do we do this when our budgets are already tight? And what I’ve said to them is just what I would say to you right now is if you are absolutely engaged and participate in the budget, if you believe it, then you just make it work. You make a decision, you do it. There is no kind of grey space, if you are really passionate about delivering something, you’ll find a way of delivering it. And that’s how we’ve delivered projects like the VNA. We didn’t have all the money when we came up with the idea, but we delivered it…if there’s a will there’s a way!”

Demsoc book club: How Democracy Ends

We’re starting a semi-regular slot where Demsockers (our staff) review books they’ve recently read. To start, Andrew Brightwell talks about How Democracy Ends, by David Runciman.

If you’re looking for a light spot of summer/autumn reading, this book by the Director of POLIS at Cambridge University might not make it to the top of your list, starting as it does with the observation that democracy will end, and its demise might be rather closer than we might hope.

But if this doesn’t leave you spitting out your Pina Colada and rifling through your hotel’s battered paperbacks for an alternative, you’ll find a fascinating, accessible introduction to many of the most interesting existential questions our democracies face.

Unlike a slew of editorials, books and other media calling time on democracy, Runciman steers clear of hyperbole and melodrama. The notion that tanks will roll on to the manicured lawns of the White House, trundle up Downing Street, or burst the gates of the Elysees Palace, is quickly dismissed. Instead, he suggests, the risks to democracy – at least for wealthy nations, where coups are vanishingly unlikely – is that democracy is deemed unfit for the challenges ahead.

As the author points out, democracy is more likely threatened by our technological revolution and, and the potential for existential catastrophe. Indeed, while the threat of coup d’etat may have withered, the good times our liberal democracies have enjoyed are unlikely to be repeated either.

A historian of political thought, he is skilled at introducing us to the development of our democracies, their weaknesses and to a range of academic responses and critiques. These include an insightful exploration of a contemporary proposal for ‘epistocracy’, rule by the experts, which was made into a long read for The Guardian.

Gideon Rachman, reviewing the book for the Financial Times, suggests that it’s probably best to see Runciman’s work as a thought experiment. In fact, it’s part of a growing body of work that the writer is amassing, which explores what might – perhaps should – happen to our democracies. And some of Runciman’s most interesting suggestions are to be found outside this work, in particular in a series of lectures he has delivered since its publication – which are available as part of his Talking Politics Podcast. These include the startling, but not entirely serious suggestion that we should lower the voting age to six – and Runciman’s use of the Copernican Principle to underline how fleeting our current form of representative democracy might prove to be.

It makes How Democracy Ends a fascinating read, and a great introduction to the problems contemporary representative democracy face, but it is only the start of a longer journey – a journey we’re all on. 

Space in Common – Collaborating to Shape Our Cities – Final Report Now Published

With partners from Jam and Justice, we’ve recently published a short final report about our Space in Common project. This project was about building relationships and exploring collaboration between different groups with a stake in ‘spatial planning’ decisions about how Greater Manchester takes shape. And exploring how these decisions could be approached in a more collaborative and constructive way.

What was Space in Common?

Local authorities across England are required to set out long-term plans for how their area will take shape, which inform what can be built where – referred to as ‘spatial planning’. In October 2016 a draft ‘Greater Manchester Spatial Framework’ attracted considerable opposition, from resident groups and campaigners, objecting to plans to build on the greenbelt. In response to this recent history, and leading up of a planned re-draft, Space in Common was set-up.

The project aimed to build relationships between different people who were trying to influence spatial planning decisions in Greater Manchester. And help people to learn more about each other’s perspectives, identify points of common ground, and explore possibilities for collaboration. Through this process, we also hoped to learn how to build more constructive discussion and decision-making about spatial plans.

We decided to run four workshops with participants from a range of local groups with an active interest in how these decisions are made.. Through a series of workshops, we:

  • helped the group share their previous experiences and ambitions;
  • examined how planning currently works with a planner from a local council;
  • learnt about the alternative approach built by the community network ‘Just Space’ in London; and
  • considered possibilities for collaboration in Greater Manchester

Our Final Report

With our partners, we’ve now created a short report summarising this project and what was learnt. This evaluates what the workshops were able to achieve, and shares some of what was learnt from discussions between participants.

Click here to access our Space in Common report.

Through the course of these workshops we heard how communities feel under threat from a system that  is hard to understand, and where communities can only respond once plans are already drawn up. There are also a lack of opportunities for people with  different views to come together and discuss how they feel. And we heard how local authorities lack the resources to reach out and engage effectively and can feel overwhelmed by the weight of public opposition when plans are consulted on. And at the same time feel under threat from housing developers who have disproportionately greater resources to dedicate to contesting their decisions.

How the system can improve    

But we also saw glimpses of how things could work better. The experiences of Just Space, show what collaboration can achieve. This network has brought together and empowered a range of London community-based groups with an interest in decisions about how their city takes shape.

Rather than just responding to consultations these groups have set out their own vision for the development of their city, and are bringing new voices into spatial planning decisions. You can read more about the work of Just Space work through this blog post. And there are promising signs of collaboration and empowerment in Manchester, where greenbelt campaigners are cascading a growing understanding of spatial planning from one person to the next.

Jam and Justice

Jam and Justice logo, featuring an orange map of Greater Manchester

Space in Common was part of a wider Jam and Justice programme of action and research Local  academics partnered with a range of citizens and practitioners on 10 projects, that developed creative responses to urban challenges, such as care provision, energy, and young people’s democratic participation.

You can learn more about Jam and Justice, and its achievements and findings in this report on the Jam and Just programme.

Space in Common was delivered in partnership between a three-person team from Jam and Justice’s ‘Action Research Collective’ and Demsoc. The idea for the project came from discussions of the Action Research Collective.

We are really grateful to Adrian Ball, Beth Perry, and Bert Russell from the Action Research Collective for all their work, and to all the speakers who gave their time to these workshops, and participants for sharing their experiences, energy and ideas.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to learn more about this project please contact Mat on

Citizens’ Convention sets out vision for citizens to shape the future of UK democracy

Plans for a two-year national deliberation, in which citizens are asked to shape the UK’s democratic future, have been announced.

Advocated by Graham Allen, led by the Centre for British Politics and Government, King’s College London, and backed by a high-profile group of MPs, The Citizens’ Convention aims to deliver a new ‘partnership between elected representatives and citizens’. The team supporting the Conventions’ plans includes the King’s Policy Institute at King’s College London, Involve and us, The Democratic Society!

A process for democratic change

The Convention proposes starting with a national conversation on the future of UK democracy, open to all citizens in the UK, to establish themes and ideas for a series of citizens’ assembly-style events to then consider. 

Randomly selected citizens, convened to be demographically representative of the UK population, will then work together “to learn, deliberate and make decisions on how democracy can be deepened and improved.” 

Everything is up for grabs

While citizens will be at the driving seat of any recommendations the convention makes, a Parliamentary leaders group has set areas of interest for the convention. This includes powers and membership of the House of Lords, the voting systems we use, and how politics should be paid for – but leaves open any proposals or changes citizens want to see.

The Parliamentary Leaders Group of MPs includes Tom Watson MP, David Davis MP, Dominic Grieve MP, Sir Vince Cable and Caroline Lucas. Importantly, Graham Allen says in the Independent: “The MPs have signed a pledge to seek manifesto commitments from their parties that parliament will receive and then decide upon the recommendations and Bills proposed by the Citizens’ Convention.”

You can read more about the programme – on the Citizens’ Convention website, and in the user manual shared there – right away. 

  • You can also hear Mark Easton, the BBC home affairs editor, and Nick Robinson, discuss the Convention for short piece on the Today programme, from 39 minutes in, on the BBC website. 

Demsoc joins Chatham House’s Conversation on the Future of Democracy and Tech

As part of our digital and data work, we’re excited to announce that we’re working with Chatham House on its Commission on Technology in Europe to explore how technological change is influencing democratic governance. 

Technology and democracy

Launched in early 2019, the Commission is putting forward three research questions:

  1. What effect is technology having on democracy in Europe?
  2. Against the background of social and technological change, how can democracy in Europe be made more responsive?
  3. Are there ways in which technology can revitalise democracy in Europe? 

Chatham House are very keen to develop answers to these research questions in a crowd-sourced and collaborative fashion. Given our expertise in and commitment to improving participatory democracy, we were invited to initially share our thoughts and, subsequently, lead the writing of a response to the question 2: 

Against the background of social and technological change, how can democracy in Europe be made more responsive?

What is the problem?

In keeping with the idea of collaborative research, we pulled together a problem statement of the current challenges and broad landscape drawing upon prior submissions received in the first phase as well as our own experience, thoughts, and views. You can read it on the Chatham House website

We believe that profound technological and social changes in recent decades, together with globalisation, have enabled citizens to self-organise like never before. At the same time, however, this enormous progress has been accompanied by a growth in mass disinformation and distrust in government institutions. 

Indeed, there is no doubt that representative democratic systems are floundering the world over. Against this backdrop, there is a growing movement for more experiments in direct democracy. But while this is welcome, what confidence can we have that these experiments will always work – or successfully mitigate against democratic deficits – if these experiments rely on existing network technologies that in some cases themselves stand accused of reinforcing or exacerbating existing inequalities or creating new ones?

Others are looking to participatory and deliberative democracy as a way to make existing decision-making more consensual, more meaningful and well-informed. For example, with our partners mySociety and funder Luminate, Demsoc is involved in Public Square. This  programme is exploring how citizens can be more meaningfully involved in decision making in a handful of councils in the UK. 

Similarly, in the IiDP (Innovation in Democracy Programme), we are working with partners Involve, the RSA and mySociety, to implement three ‘Area Democracy Forums’ with three UK councils. And we’ve assisted Involve in delivering the UK’s first citizen’s assembly on climate change in Camden. Despite their current popularity in the UK and in many other places around the world, participatory approaches have their drawbacks. For example, they can sometimes be used by governments as one-off interventions that may not leave a significant impact.

Does this mean democracy is doomed? Absolutely not! But if you’re interested in finding out more about our response, please visit the Chatham House website. And while you’re at it, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. 
Only have a spare three minutes? Watch Demsoc’s president, Anthony Zacharzewski, discuss our thinking on European democracy and technological change at the Chatham House London conference in June.