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Home Opinion How can we give citizens a meaningful voice in big public decisions?
The People's Verdict

How can we give citizens a meaningful voice in big public decisions?

Clauida Chwalisz and Neil McInroy - 10 July 2017

Introduction: A few thoughts on the problem

NM: The world has many wicked and complex issues. Global finance, climate change. Our problems are system based; we live in a network, not in a hierarchy. In this context, there is also a new questioning of democracy and elected politicians.  Trust in representative democracy is and has weakened.

In the UK, our 19th century or even older arcane and archaic modes of governance, institutions and practice are out of kilter with a networked 21st century.  It’s analogue in a digital work. Centralised in a distributed world. I sense a new hankering for a new type of politics.  People are not anti-politics, they are maybe anti the type of politics we have.

Your book explores the gap between the governed and the governors, and how we fill it. A key question it seeks to answer is:

How should we solve complex and difficult problems in a democratic society?

Opportune and timely, your work presents options to revitalise democracy. I want to structure our discussion around 5 key sections:

  1. What is the democratic problem?
  2. Where should we be heading?
  3. What we have in the UK?
  4. What we can learn from elsewhere?
  5. What needs to happen? How do we accelerate the citizen in decision making?​



NM: We know there is a new questioning of democracy and the way politics operates.  What for you is the problem here?

CC: The problem is threefold. The first part you alluded to in your introduction – the mismatch between the archaic, hierarchical, elite-driven political institutions established in the 19th century and the open, interconnected, networked society of the 21st century.

It is no wonder that people are no longer satisfied with the right to vote; they are in greater demand of a right to have a voice. Representative democracy on its own does not satisfy this desire. In my previous research for The Populist Signal in 2015, I found that only 21% of people in the UK feel like their voice counts in the decisions being taken by their elected representatives. A new Chatham House report published in June 2017 suggests this feeling is even stronger now. In their study across 10 European countries, they found that only 8% of the public answered that politicians care about what people like them think.

Second, the Westminster political system is inherently adversarial. Politicians are incentivised to debate, to seek the points of difference, to beat their opponents rather than to try to find the common ground between them.

The third part of the problem has to do with elections. Politicians are constantly campaigning. Sometimes making promises they know they will never even attempt to keep – Boris Johnson standing in front of the ‘Vote Leave’ bus with a promise to give £350 million a week to the NHS if the UK leaves the EU comes to mind. But even when politicians’ intentions are good, they are faced with a dilemma summed up by Jean-Claude Juncker that: “we all know what we need to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it.”

This impasse then leads to policy gridlock; big decisions are avoided, sometimes for decades. The third runway debate is a perfect example of politicians failing to do their job due to fear of electoral consequences: after millions of pounds spent, years gone by, expert reports written, independent commissions reporting their findings, and public consultations conducted, the Theresa May has kicked the can down the road with yet another public consultation on the matter.

Together, these three problems go a good way in explaining why people feel disillusioned with politics as usual.

NM: What about referendums?

CC: I think referendums are also part of the problem rather than the solution. They boil complex, multi-faceted issues down into binary options. More often than not, this means that the outcome is then unclear, translated into numerous possible interpretations. They are also incredibly divisive, forcing people to choose between black and white sides, when often most people have some common ground between them in various shades of grey.

NM: You say that rather than referendums, there is a need for ‘long-form deliberative processes.’ What is this?

CC: Yes, I argue that there are forms of direct democracy beyond referendums which involve the public more meaningfully and constructively in public decisions. While it is a bit of a wonky phrase, I call these ‘long-form deliberative processes,’ a term that was originally coined by Peter MacLeod, who is the Principal of MASS LBP, a Canadian company that has specialised in involving citizens in tackling tough policy choices.

Long-form deliberative processes fit under the umbrella of ‘mini-publics’ – innovative mechanisms for involving citizens directly in dealing with public issues (see this excellent note on mini-publics by Oliver Escobar and Stephen Elstub). It is a method used by public authorities to include informed citizen voices directly in solving policy dilemmas. Most often, a group of up to 50 people is randomly selected using a two-stage lottery. They are given the opportunity to hear from experts, deliberate with one another and prepare concrete recommendations to government over a longer period of time – meeting for around 4-6 days over 2-3 months. The public authority is then expected to respond to the proposals publicly.

I go into it in more detail in the book, but these are the key defining characteristics, which set long-form deliberative processes apart from citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies and other mini-publics with which some readers might be familiar:

  • Authority: Always commissioned by a minister, mayor or other person with the decision-making power to act on citizens’ recommendations at the end.
  • Random selection: Two-stage lottery process. Stage one: 10,000-20,000 invitations to participate are addressed from the person in a position of authority and sent out at random. Among those who respond positively (usually between 3-15% of recipients), a group is chosen based on criteria such as age, gender, geography and/or housing tenure to ensure that anyone looking at it from the outside can see ‘someone like me’ who is part of it.
  • Time and resources: Usually between 4-6 full day meetings over 2-4 months, sometimes complemented by online activities. There are usually 1-3 weeks between meetings to allow participants the time to speak with their friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues and gather their input, as well as time to reflect and learn about the topic at hand. This is key to ensuring that the end result is a set of informed
  • Deliberation: Defined as “long and careful consideration or discussion.” It’s about the force of the best arguments winning out. Rather than the loudest voices, the greatest numbers, the most money or other forces shaping a policy outcome.
  • Publicity: It’s a public process, with media coverage before and after the process for accountability.



NM: You outline three key strands of thinking that shaped your approach in this book: Social coordination; inclusive institutions, and participatory governance. I want to briefly touch on each of these and identify why it’s important. First, social coordination theory. There is a phrase you quote by the thinker Charles Leadbeater, “creative communities with a cause.” What are they and how are they useful?

CC: I found social coordination theory, sometimes called cultural theory, to be particularly useful in framing the response to the question we discussed at the very start: How should we solve complex and difficult problems in a democratic society?

Social coordination theory, which was first developed by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, and whose most prominent modern day proponent I would say is Matthew Taylor of the RSA, purports that there are hierarchical, solidaristic and individualistic forms of problem-solving. Leadbeater’s phrase “creative communities with a cause” embodies when these three forms are in harmony – values-based leadership (hierarchy), a sense of people getting behind a common cause (solidarity), and people being empowered to flourish (individualism).

Arguably, in British society we have perhaps had too much emphasis on individualism within a naturally hierarchical system, so there has been greater political pressure for increased solidarity and collectivism. But I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is the balance of all three that is the sweet spot.

NM: You also talk about inclusive institutions. How do we know if we have them?

CC: Yes, another theory that I found particularly influential was Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s work on inclusive institutions, most notably detailed in their book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (2012). Their 15 years of research into this topic provides a compelling argument that nations flourish to a greater extent the more their political, cultural and economic institutions are inclusive.

Their findings were also complemented by a recent rigorous World Bank study looking at citizen engagement in rule-making (regulation) in 185 countries. The authors found that in countries where there was greater citizen engagement in policymaking, the result was higher-quality regulation, stronger democratic regimes, and less corrupt institutions.

NM: Finally, what is participatory governance?

CC: Participatory governance theory has a long tradition, looking at the impact of citizen involvement in policymaking has on the effectiveness of policies. It’s discussed in depth in the book, but the key takeaway is that there is extensive evidence to show that involving the public in policy decisions leads to faster responses to problems, more effective design and implementation of solutions, as well as a higher level of commitment to implementation among politicians. So it does not just lead to better and more effective policies, it also helps to overcome one of the fundamental democratic problems we discussed earlier: overcoming gridlock to get stuff done.



NM: In your book, you also discuss the usual approach to big policy dilemmas in the UK – commissions, inquiries, traditional consultations, and lately referendums.

CC: Yes, so although the focus of the book is on long-form deliberative processes in Canada and Australia, I set out their usefulness by putting it in the context of how the same types of problems are often approached in the UK. The types of policy issues that long-form deliberative processes are typically used to help solve are those that are slightly contentious, involve trade-offs and require priorities to be identified. They don’t have simple black or white answers.

In the UK, most of these types of problems tend to get relegated to independent royal commissions or inquiries – removed from the political sphere to be pored over by experts. While sometimes this is a useful approach, and I should say that this also happens in Canada and Australia, it is arguable whether it is truly an effective way of solving problems. Take the third runway at Heathrow debate, for instance. The inquiry tasked with providing recommendations to government took much longer than scheduled, cost over £20 million, and has still not resulted in a solution being reached.

Beyond these really big issues though, there is a statutory requirement for consultation on a whole host of issues in the UK, meaning there are many traditional consultations that take place – mostly surveys and town hall meetings. However, those I interviewed for the book, as well as other academic research, point out that this is often not the best way for gaging the public’s view. The way in which these consultations are designed mean that the loudest voices have a much stronger say than the average citizen. It is usually those who are opposed to something or trying to prevent a measure from going ahead who are more mobilised. Furthermore, the demographics of those participating in such consultations are far from representative, usually dominated by wealthy, well-educated, older, white men.

I already touched on why I find the increasing trend of using referendums worrisome for democracy.

NM: You also mention some uses of citizens’ juries. What do we have in UK as regards deliberative processes?

CC: Besides the more traditional forms of consultation, there have certainly been numerous experiments with citizens’ juries and other more deliberative forms of engagement as well. The most frequent use was in the late 1990s and early 2000s under the New Labour government. However, these followed a traditional citizens’ jury format, where only 12 or 24 people (like a legal jury) were involved, often for just a day or two. They were not necessarily made very public. Participants were chosen using recruiters rather than a lottery, limiting their representativeness. But the problematic element was rather that they were often used to legitimate decisions that had already been made, rather than as a way of genuinely seeking the public’s input. They were also exorbitantly expensive, especially when compared to the Canadian and Australian examples which involve a more rigorous participant selection process, more participants, and more time given for them to meet. It’s no wonder that when the 2008 financial crisis hit, the use of citizens’ juries stopped.

However, besides this, there have also been numerous academic experiments with both citizens’ juries and citizens’ assemblies (involving larger groups of people) over the past few years. These have been useful from an academic perspective, contributing to the extensive literature on the benefits of deliberation to good decision-making. However, these should also be treated with a pinch of salt as they miss out on one of the most crucial elements of success: authority. Without a government figure involved, this has a big impact on who chooses to get involved. It’s much harder to get ‘ordinary citizens’ and not just impassioned activists to give up a good deal of their time if it’s for the sake of an academic study rather than a direct impact on changing policies affecting their lives.


NM: In your book you touch upon a wide range of 48 examples but hone in on 10, five from Canada and five from Australia. The Canadian examples include: Ontario housing legislation; Ontario transport infrastructure; Citizen ID cards in British Colombia; a national Canada mental health action plan, and city planning in Toronto. The Australian cases are: Melbourne’s People’s Panel to decide the city’s 10-year, $5bn plan; a 30-year infrastructure investment plan in the state of Victoria, an obesity strategy in the state of Victoria, community safety at night in Adelaide, and a royal commission in South Australia on nuclear.

What have you learnt about long-form deliberative processes?

CC: In sum, doing this research has convinced me that, beyond the obvious democratic benefit, involving citizens in big policy decisions and giving them the time to become informed before they give their recommendations leads to more legitimate and effective policies. When given the opportunity to play an important role in shaping policies that affect their lives, people take it seriously and have proven time and time again to be competent.

Using a long-form deliberative process is also a win for policymakers. It allows them to gain the legitimacy to make hard choices that can withstand the longer term. A number of the examples also highlight that it permits public authorities to be more radical than they might have dared otherwise. Though because participants always have to consider their recommendations within the budgetary and feasibility constraints, they are nonetheless pragmatic.



NM: What are your key takeaways for the UK from your research? Are there certain conditions that need to be in place for long-form deliberative processes to work here?

CC: Given its similarities to Canada and Australia, notably in terms of political culture and institutions, there is good reason to think that policymakers in the UK would benefit from using long-form deliberative processes.

he big difference is that the UK is less federal in nature, as there is a significant amount of power that is devolved to provincial/state and municipal governments in both Canada and Australia. However, with devolution on the agenda, and already happening to some extent, it is an opportune moment, particularly for the new mayors and the devolved assemblies, to be more innovative in their methods of engaging the public.

The other key thing to keep in mind is that in both Canada and Australia, there are independent organisations that are responsible for doing the participant lotteries, developing the agendas (ensuring a balance of experts), organising and facilitating the meetings, and doing their part to hold the public authority accountable for responding publicly to the citizens’ recommendations. In Canada, it is a company called MASS LBP led by Peter MacLeod, and in Australia it is an NGO called the newDemocracy Foundation, founded by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and directed by Iain Walker. There are also other smaller organisations such as the Centre for Public Involvement and some university bodies which do similar work, but the vast majority of the case studies in my book are from examples where the work was done by these two organisations. That is mostly for the reason that they both using almost the exact same methodology, so it was possible to make comparisons. (The key differences boil down to participant payment, limits on the number of participants involved, and the extent to which online deliberation activities form part of the approach – which are all discussed in greater detail in the book).

The need for this independent organisation to do all the logistical work is imperative for ensuring participants are chosen in a fair and transparent way, that the experts and other presenters offer a fair and balanced perspective to the group’s participants, and that the deliberations are facilitated by trained moderators. This is why I have been working over the past few months at Populus to develop the logistics of how we could bring long-form deliberative processes to the UK in the form of Citizens Councils.

NM: Are there specific policy areas for which long-form deliberative processes work best?

CC: I wouldn’t put a limit on specific policy areas. The more important thing to keep in mind is that this is a process that works best for issues which involve identifying trade-offs and priorities, with no simple solution, rather than yes/no questions. Most importantly, it also works best when there is no pre-determined solution already in mind which is merely seeking legitimation; there needs to be a genuine open-mindedness about pursuing numerous policy routes which are all within the realms of feasibility.

NM: Are you working with anyone on long-form deliberative processes in the UK at the moment?

CC: Yes, but I can’t reveal the full details just yet. At Populus, I am working with one of London’s councils which wants to use a long-form deliberative process to involve people in the borough in shaping their next five-year plan. Stay tuned for details!


Claudia Chwalisz is the author of The People's Verdict. This is an interview originally published by CLES

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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