Published on November 4, 2014

On Democratic Reform: How do we start a national conversation?

People & participation

By Sonia Bussu

Dr Sonia Bussu is a researcher at Involve. She is passionate about increasing citizen voice in public policy (so much so that she did a PhD on the topic) and over the past few years she has been involved in several research projects on citizen participation in policy-making.

#demofutureHow do we capitalise on the momentum of the Scottish referendum to start a meaningful national conversation about democratic reform, beyond the (quite sterile) political discussion around constitutional change that is happening in Westminster? How do we spark people’s imagination? How do we make the debate relevant to them, beyond petty nationalistic feelings around the politically toxic West Lothian question and into the realm of true democratic change and devolution of power? And how do we balance the geeky details of democratic reform with real life problems, jobs, homes, inequalities? Are “shared discontents” a way into the discussion? Or should we frame it in terms of positive change?

Involve, Demsoc, Democratise and the Centre for the Study of Democracy have started this conversation a few weeks back and joined a number of civil society organisations, academics and democratic experts in demanding people are given a say in shaping our political system. Yesterday’s event was another step in this process, as we explored new ways to help create a national conversation about what democratic reform means for ordinary citizens.

This was an “open space” debate, where participants flagged up issues they felt were important to help frame a conversation around democratic reform. They then formed small groups to discuss different topics based on their interest: from community organising and linking up community groups, to involving marginalised and non political groups; from taking the conversation beyond London and making it visible nationally to considering what type of leadership we would need and what type of infrastructure would serve this process best.

It’s always so difficult to capture the richness of these conversations in a few hundred words, but Andy Williamson’s post does a good job at identifying the key themes that emerged.

A range of important points were made: the need for tapping into existing conversations and framing the debate around local, place-based issues is clear, but how do we aggregate these different voices without losing their authenticity? Bypassing politicians would be hard and self-defeating, but how do we involve political actors without letting them and constitutional “experts” dominate the process? How do we prevent ordinary citizens from shying away and ensure that they feel they belong in the debate?

The issue of what kind of leadership we want and we need remains a key one. Is our focus on leaders and big personality misplaced? Should the focus be on leadership rather than leaders? Whereby leadership is collaborative and opens up beyond political actors? The more I study democracy, the more I feel local leadership (including community leadership and councillors reinventing their role as facilitators and advocates around local issues) is best placed to drive a meaningful process of change that goes beyond party politics.

So what do we need to do next? What actions can we take? Where can we look to see what has worked? At the event I heard some great stories about what is already happening out there. Andy Paice told me about the Community Wisdom Councils, randomly selected deliberative councils, which have been used very succesfully in local government in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg. He’s working on setting up something similar in London. And what can we learn from the Transition Town movement and the key role of neighbourhoods in starting conversations leading to action?  Personally, I’m a big fan of the G1000 in Belgium, which built on discontent with the political class unable to form a government for 500 days to start a big national conversation (offline and online) around democratic change, in a fully crowdfunded process.

All these experiences show that people want and can be involved when they have the space to do so and the hope their involvement can somehow make a difference. Of course the recommendations of the G1000 citizens’ assembly were put aside by politicians, as also happened in Iceland. The issue of how to involve political leaders constructively, without letting them run the show, might be our biggest head scratching problem.

Moving to action points, here are some suggestions:

  1. connect with different civil society groups (online and offline) and local councillors around the country as the perfect bridge to reach out to as many people as possible;
  2. encourage local level conversations (think really local and bring cake) and
  3. connect them through an online platform to identify key themes around democratic change that people are genuinely interested in.

As we frame the debate from the grassroots and there is some momentum for genuine democratic reform, we should think about:

  • how we want to involve political leaders;
  • which process we want to go for (a stakeholders’ assembly or a randomly selected citizens’ assembly, for instance. See my recent post on different options); and
  • what we do next, i.e. how we ensure implementation of citizens’ recommendations.

Finally how do we fund this whole process? No easy job. Who’s in?

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