As in many parts of the world, citizens assemblies, juries and other deliberative assemblies are gaining popularity in the UK. The UK Parliament has recently commissioned a nationwide citizens assembly on climate change. My own efforts were on a much smaller scale: a citizens panel for Penzance, a town of 21,000 people, and one of 213 civil parishes in Cornwall.
The Penzance Citizens Panel on Housing and Homelessness was convened by Cornwall Independent Poverty Forum (CIPF) a network of church-based charities that address homelessness and poverty issues. The panel met for five evening sessions over six weeks, and listened to 9 presentations by expert witnesses. The question they addressed was as follows:
“High housing costs, low paid insecure work, eviction and homelessness are all issues that blight local communities in Cornwall, including Penzance. How can we as a community come together to address these issues?”
At the end of it they have come up with a report setting out 21 recommendations. Here is what I learned from the experience:
1. You don’t need permission from a decision-making body
Normally citizens assemblies, panels and other forms of ‘deliberative assemblies’ are commissioned by a decision-making body such as local or central government.
Cornwall Council refused to back this, and the whole issue of citizens assemblies has drawn a mixed reaction from elected councillors and senior council staff. By contrast, we found much more enthusiasm from local authority frontline staff.
With no backing we were uncertain whether to proceed since any deliberative assembly risks becoming a talking shop if it has no engagement and support by a decision-making body. In the end we went ahead and found that once the panel was set up, elected councillors were more than happy to come and speak. This suggests that ‘facts on the ground’ are more important than arguments with councillors over the principle or concept of deliberative assemblies.
‘Facts on the ground’ are more important than arguments with councillors over the principle or concept of deliberative assemblies.
2. Deliberative democracy doesn’t have to cost the earth.
Anyone who has looked into running a citizens assembly knows that the price tag can be high – anywhere between £25,000 to £60,000. Ours cost just under £1,500 mainly because this was almost entirely volunteer driven. The main costs were a £50 stipend for each of the 15 members of the panel, the cost of the website (£50) and a geo-located Facebook Ad promoting the panel within a 10-mile radius of Penzance town centre (£50), and also printed leaflets (£60) for distribution.
Ours cost just under £1,500 mainly because this was almost entirely volunteer driven.
3. It can strengthen democratic accountability
Three of the speakers were elected councillors, including the ex-Mayor of Penzance, the Cornwall Cabinet portfolio holder for housing, and the chair of Cornwall Council Inquiry into the Private Rental Sector. They not only brought their own expertise and thinking to the panel sessions but also afforded the opportunity for panel members to quiz them as their elected representatives.
The final report setting out 21 recommendations has now been submitted to both Cornwall Council and Penzance Town Council. This includes a specially convened Cornwall Council Inquiry into the Private Rental Sector who are using the report as part of their own deliberations. The report has also gone to all local political parties in the St Ives constituency. At time of writing we are in the process of setting up a meeting with our local MP.
The dedicated website has also been adjusted to include an automated RSS newsfeed which tracks what our local MP says in parliament, with a link to his voting record. click here to view.
The dedicated website has also been adjusted to include an automated RSS newsfeed which tracks what our local MP says in parliament.
4. It can give voice to community groups who feel ignored
One of the sessions involved a joint presentation by Penzance Street Food Project and Rebuild South West. The latter trains homeless youngsters and the long term unemployed. This community business has struggled to get the attention of Cornwall Council and Housing Associations. Their presentation raised the profile of their work and has resulted in positive communication with both elected councillors and the CEO of Coastline Housing (who was also a speaker at one of the sessions).
Their presentation raised the profile of their work.
5. It promotes consensual understanding in place of party tribalism and polarising debate
Ideally, citizens assemblies and juries offer a safe space, key information and expert facilitation where participants first learn about an issue in depth before arriving at a considered judgement. We did not have the budget to employ an expert facilitator. Instead, we relied on a set of conversational guidelines which we discussed and agreed with participants in the very first session.
In the end we found this worked. Participants showed themselves to be more than capable of having adult conversations and handling disagreements without resorting to blame or personal attacks. This is in contrast to online platforms such as Facebook where disagreement can quickly turn toxic, resulting in polarised opinions and a refusal to listen to the other side.
We feel that while online discussion is important as a means of engaging with a very wide audience, this has to be anchored in face to face discussions which are far more likely to result in positive change and the development of real face to face relationships that strengthen rather than divide communities.
While online discussion is important as a means of engaging with a very wide audience… real face to face relationships strengthen rather than divide communities.
A simple dedicated website was used to publish presentations by speakers and circulated on social media. We also published and shared the introductory background brief which seeks to give politically neutral, factual information. You can see it here.
6. Local deliberative assemblies can come up with their own community manifesto
There were twenty-one recommendations in all, covering housing, homelessness, low pay, employment and welfare. See report
In contrast to election manifestos which are a top down party-political process written at Westminster, ours was a bottom up process that drew policy ideas and recommendations from local NGO’s and panel members themselves. Its evolution into a community manifesto was an unintended consequence and had less to do with the recent election and more to do with the open-ended nature of the question.
It is important to stress that open-ended questions break with good practice; a narrow, clearly defined question helps give structure and focus to a deliberative assembly, for example: “should there be a wind farm on the outskirts of X-----town?”. The answer invites a yes or no with clear, well argued reasons why.
Our approach was risky and could have resulted in panel discussions losing their way. However, we feel it is worth the risk provided expert witnesses/speakers come with clear and specific policy recommendations that act as a hook and focal point for panel discussions.
However, one sympathetic local councillor has expressed disappointment that many of the recommendations “focused so much on National Policy/ Funding/ Legislation rather than the practical local things within our communities and local Council's controls that could make a difference to the lives of people in West Cornwall”. This is something to consider at any future deliberative assembly.
In contrast to election manifestos which are a top down party-political process written at Westminster, ours was a bottom up process.
7. Random selection of panel members has to be adapted according to your budget
Ideally a strict process of ‘random stratified sortition’ to select a 15-member panel requires sending out roughly a thousand letters to random addresses in a target area, in order to gain 40 responses. The 40 applicants form a pool from which 15 people are randomly selected. This is according to the Sortition Foundation who are experts in the process and who offer a community tariff of roughly £500 (more or less) to do this. Importantly the selection has to be balanced with the need to ensure that the final panel is diverse in terms of gender balance and a spread of ages.
We did not have the budget to employ the Sortition Foundation and resorted to an adapted version of random stratified sortition. Using Google forms, we devised an online form promoted via social media along with a leaflet distribution in the town centre. We had 40 online responses exactly, and we then segmented the pool of 40 applicants into different groups based on age, gender and housing tenure (social housing, private rental and home ownership). Each segment or strata was then subject to random selection.
We found that this is an imperfect system but one which still resulted in a balanced and diverse panel. Bear in mind that each selected applicant has a number of other demographic characteristics which also need to fit with the panel/ population profile – see here.
We found that this is an imperfect system but one which still resulted in a balanced and diverse panel.
8. The pool of applicants to the citizens panel is a potential community resource
This possibility only emerged after the process of random stratified sortition was conducted. Once the 15-member panel was chosen from the pool of 40 applicants, the remaining 35 were contacted; we thanked them for their interest and told them they had been unsuccessful.
This was a missed opportunity. Future citizens assemblies and panels should consider capitalising on the interest shown by unsuccessful applicants and offer them a second role as ‘companions’: an outer ring of community activists who support the core 15-member panel and act as a communication bridge between the panel and the wider public. They would help raise the profile and promote a wider public conversation.
Future citizens assemblies should consider capitalising on the interest shown by unsuccessful applicants and offer them a second role as… a communication bridge between the panel and the wider public.
Under this different scenario, we think it worthwhile that all 40 applicants – both panel members and companions – meet together several weeks before the start of the first panel session. This helps engender a sense of community connection and at the same time builds up a sense of anticipation. While not everyone will sign up to this second role, even if 10 or 12 did so, that would be a significant resource. Some might also be recruited onto the Stewarding Committee (see below).
9. The absence of a properly convened Stewarding Committee limited the impact of the citizens panel
This was one of the biggest omissions and we urge anyone seeking to create a citizens assembly/panel to take far more time in patiently bringing together a Stewarding Committee composed of key local stakeholders. Ideally, one of these should be the local town or parish council; another should be the local chamber of commerce or traders association. Creating a Stewarding Committee is about building important relationships between key people and organisations who may have different and even competing agendas. Their role is not to discuss the issue, but oversee the whole process in order to ensure fairness and balance, from recruitment of panel members to a diverse range of speakers.
They also have a potentially important second role, to promote the proceedings of the citizens panel through the different stakeholder networks. This helps maximise the impact of the deliberative assembly.
In our case, we were unable to recruit key stakeholders such as Penzance Chamber of Commerce and other key local bodies. The Stewarding Committee was composed of only two organisations: Cornwall Independent Poverty Forum and St Petrocs. Two is too small a number and greatly limits the potential to really embed a citizens assembly in the life of the community.
In our case, we were unable to recruit key stakeholders… [which] greatly limits the potential to really embed a citizens assembly in the life of the community.
10. More sessions, less speakers per session
Of all the feedback by panel members, the most oft repeated point was to reduce the number of speakers in any one session and/or give each speaker more time to speak.
As stated already, we had three speakers per session, each speaker speaking for 10 minutes. While this was followed by a 20-minute Q&A, this still left panel members feeling that this was not enough. Some wanted more time for individual speakers to elaborate on the points they made. Typical comments included:
“…. perhaps one or two more sessions so that we could have spread the speakers over more time and been able to question them in more detail….”
“Maybe the same number of speakers but over a longer time-frame, to enable more interaction with the speakers and the time to ask more questions and more deeply understand their policy statements….”
“…. I thought there was a lot pushed into the 2 hours that we were allocated and with three speakers and time to reflect this was hard to do!”
Another observation was the amount of background reading required which was harder on those with full time jobs, “…there was a lot of background reading to do which wasn't always explained at the start….”.
Another suggestion was for more small-group work to allow panel members more time to talk with each other.
Another suggestion was for more small-group work to allow panel members more time to talk with each other.
While a citizens panel at town and parish level may seem a very modest enterprise, the Penzance panel has engaged with both its town council, Cornwall Council and its MP. It has also submitted its report to all the main political parties in the St Ives Constituency, one of whom has now invited us to their next executive meeting to give a presentation. Two others have promised to get back to us and we are in the process of setting up a meeting with our MP.
This suggests that despite the very clear limitations in small scale democratic activism, it is possible for local citizens panels to influence and engage well beyond parish boundaries, and to give an independent voice to local people and communities outside polarised, party political debate.