The Innovation in Democracy Programme, commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, supported three local authorities to involve residents in decision-making through an innovative model of deliberative democracy – citizens’ assemblies.
The programme’s aims were:
- To increase the capability of local people to have a greater say over decisions that affect their communities and their everyday lives.
- To encourage new relationships and build trust between citizens and local authorities.
- To strengthen local civil society by encouraging participation in local institutions.
Three authorities were selected to take part in the programme. We supported the councils to choose a topic and create a question that was important both to the council and to their residents:
- Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council - "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?"
- Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership (Cambridgeshire County Council, Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council) - "How do we reduce congestion, improve air quality and provide better public transport in Greater Cambridge?"
- Test Valley Borough Council - "How do we improve the area around Crosfield Hall and the Bus Station to deliver the maximum benefit to Romsey?"
Democratic Society, Involve, mySociety and the RSA (with support from Sortition Foundation for recruitment of assembly members) worked from March 2019 to March 2020 with the councils to pilot their citizens’ assemblies.
We supported the local authorities by:
- Randomly selecting a group of residents who reflected the demographic profile of their area;
- Designing and facilitating their citizens' assemblies;
- Developing a digital strategy to extend the reach, transparency, and accountability of the process;
- Collecting and sharing the local authority’s learning within and beyond their authority; and
- Producing each assembly's recommendations report.
During the assembly, participants were given wide-ranging information and time to deliberate, weigh-up options, reach consensus, and make recommendations on the questions posed.
This led to people having a real impact on local policy development and delivery. The face-to-face participation was complemented by digital platforms to increase reach, accountability and transparency of the process.
This gives a unique insight into the citizens’ assembly process from the perspective of three participants from each of the areas.
Reports from each of the three citizens’ assemblies are available to download below.
Impact and learning
People are most likely to engage where they see the everyday impact of the decisions that are made, and feel they can make a difference by being involved. The Innovation in Democracy Programme gave three councils the opportunity to pilot an innovative way to achieve this through the robust methodology of deliberative democracy.
You can read the participating councils case studies, which were written by the staff who ran the citizens’ assemblies who have shared their experience in their own words.
There was so much learning for us, our partners and participants that it is hard to do it justice. What we saw was transformational, for individuals, for the organisations and in how representative democracy and deliberative democracy can work together to achieve not only in policy development, but in strengthened trust, confidence and a deeper understanding of how democracy can work at a local level.
The learning, processes, tools, and guides we have collectively created have been turned into a handbook on how to run a citizens' assembly for local authorities.
As part of the programme, we wanted to ensure that learning was captured along the way and that it was shared with others. To do this we ran:
A Peer Learning Network (hosted by RSA) which held 4 workshops
1. Introductions, preliminary learning and planning for the rest of the programme
2. Bringing councillors on board (featuring councillors from each of the participating authorities)
3. Disseminating the learning from the programme (featuring representatives from other councils from across the UK)
4. Evaluating the programme (co-hosted with Renaisi, the programme evaluator)
An Innovations in Local Democracy Conference
The conference shared lessons from the Innovation in Democracy Programme (and our other local democracy programme Public Square). Both of these programmes focus on supporting local councils to experiment in the use of innovations in participatory and deliberative democracy.
Through speakers, unconference sessions and facilitated discussions we shared what worked well, what the challenges have been, and discussed next steps in this field. We also highlighted other exciting projects from around the UK and international experts about their cutting edge exemplars from across the world.
All of the conference materials are available here. This includes slides, videos and notes from the many lively discussions.
An independent programme evaluation
The programme was independently evaluated by Renaisi. The full programme evaluation can be found here. It highlights how these processes can enhance relationships and provides useful recommendations to ensure as much positive benefit as possible from using citizens’ assemblies.
Taking part in it, particularly at a time when national politics was so fraught and there was such a feeling of disenfranchisement, to take part in local democracy that's really deliberative…[I] think this is what it should be like, get involved and make a difference.
For further information about this work, please contact Mel Stevens on firstname.lastname@example.org.