This blog explores how local authorities are currently, or planning to in future, use deliberation and participation in their response to Covid-19. There’s a short read and a long read option depending on your time!

The blog shares case studies of where deliberation and participation is already being used in Covid-19 responses; opportunities and challenges around issue areas that could lend themselves to this type of engagement and alternative approaches local authorities could take. The blog is informed directly by the current experiences of local authorities shared at a workshop discussing these issues in early September 2020.

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Short read - for those with 3 minutes!

Key takeaways 

  • Different parts of our population are experiencing the pandemic in very different ways. It has exacerbated existing inequalities and created new ones. It is important that government policy and decision-making reflects that diversity of lived reality. 

  • Local authorities are faced with increasingly difficult challenges and choices which will affect local residents – from local lockdowns through to creating resilient economies on restricted budgets. It’s important that local communities are involved in helping to address these challenges – offering their ideas and experiences; helping to make difficult trade-offs; and taking action.

  • There is a huge appetite from local authorities to learn about the mechanics of engagement/deliberation and how this can be applied generally and in response to Covid-19.

  • The politics and "selling" of deliberation/participation are often barriers for these processes including spatial and geographic challenges at a local level. 

  • Resources to explain the value, place and benefits of deliberation/participation are needed including explanations for councillors; and the distinction of this from survey type consultation. (Keep an eye out for a Handbook we will soon be publishing for Local Authorities around involving communities in response to Covid-19...)

  • Securing political and institutional commitments is imperative and part of the process must include preparing the ground for the authority to welcome the recommendations. This can “slow” the process but will increase success. This extends to the stakeholders that are part of the wider system in a local area who may need to pick up recommendations outside of the local authority’s remit. 

  • Many of these recommendations are picked up in the case studies and report from the Innovation in Democracy Programme.

Covid response issue areas for deliberation & participation

We asked those at the workshop to identify what issue areas they are working on that lend themselves to deliberation and participation in a Covid-19 context. The issues raised were:

  • Emergency response learning 

  • Poverty

  • Transport

  • Community participation

  • Town centres

  • Health

  • Climate change

  • How to reach hard to reach / seldom heard citizens: 

  • Equality in participation

Next steps

  • We will soon be launching a live resource for local authorities for involving communities in their response to Covid-19.

  • Keep an eye out for more in this blog series on “A democratic response to Covid-19” - and tell us if you’d like to contribute!

  • Join the local authority peer learning network mailing list for more workshops like this.

Longer read - for those with 10 minutes!

Where is participation and deliberation already being used in response to COVID-19?

We heard from West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and Bristol City Council about the deliberative approach they are taking to their Covid-19 response.

WMCA delivered a citizens’ panel for residents to put forward their priorities and principles to rebuild the region following the coronavirus pandemic. Here are the final recommendations from the panel. 

Bristol have recently launched their “Your City Our Future” project. They currently have an online survey live for residents to share their views. This will be followed by an online discussion forum and then a citizens’ assembly which will bring together the views from the survey and forum to identify a way forward for the city. They’ve also written this blog for us to explain more.

Additional case studies were shared at the workshop from Fife Council around participatory budgeting and Kingston Council around some consultation and engagement work they are just beginning. 

These plus other examples we’re aware of are being pulled together into a live resource for local authorities which includes case studies and engagement methods for different issue areas. The resource has been pulled together by ourselves and members of our Deliberative Democracy Practitioners’ Network.

Where could local authorities use deliberation and participation in their future response to COVID-19?

In the short read above we listed possible issue areas Local Authorities identified for deliberative or participatory approaches. Participants had focused discussions around some of these issue areas which are summarised below exploring challenges and opportunities for engagement.

Poverty 

Participants flagged the challenge of language to effectively engage around this topic without using stigmatising words or labelling individuals. This issue area and using effective language is a challenge for many voluntary organisations so there could be an opportunity for shared and peer learning here as well. Discussions considered how strengths-based approaches could work or using narrative enquiries training for community workers. The importance of focusing on lived experience for engagement on this issue was emphasised too. 

Community participation 

This discussion focused on now being a good time to focus and build on community participation due to the challenging issues facing local authorities; increased numbers of volunteers (i.e. mutual aid groups) and increased use of tech in community participation. Possible ways to keep building on this could be through: deliberative processes helping to build on the general feeling of goodwill towards local authorities currently; alliance neworks; ambassadors; citizen panels and the use of platforms such as engagement HQ.

Participants discussed the need for internal culture change at local authorities as a way to ensure the above can happen too. This was a theme throughout the workshop. 

Town centres

This group focused on the changing nature and function (even more so because of Covid-19) of the town centre and felt that framing would be at the heart of any deliberative or participatory discussions on town centres. The group recommended the need to include community and businesses in any process. Examples offered were citizen panel feedback to help understand how people feel about the future potential of town centres. During the Innovation in Democracy Programme (IiDP), Dudley Borough Council and Test Valley Borough Council did just that. Here are case studies explaining the engagement they carried out.

Health 

Participants focused on the need for health policy makers to hear from those who may have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic - who may also be those who are not always heard or listened to. The group outlined the need to find new routes to engage and hear voices for example through trusted intermediaries such as refuge groups. These discussions also recognised the need for a multi agency approach and buy-in from the outset as it’s likely the local authority won’t be able to implement all recommendations from any process alone.

Climate change

These discussions concentrated on ensuring buy in from senior leadership for this issue area and the need for preparatory work to make sure silos within a local authority around an issue area are broken down before an engagement process begins. Connected to this, the group recommended the need to attach any recovery funding with climate change to link up the work with other areas in the local authority.

Participants also recognised the need for local authorities to be really clear in any engagement what is within their power to change, especially on such a far reaching topic as climate change.

Underrepresented Communities

This group started by identifying “hard to reach groups” most affected by Covid. Then focused on finding solutions to opening up spaces for greater participation. Ideas included: 

  • use different languages and communications methods e.g. video; 

  • pay attention to the cultural context of communications not just language;

  • work closely with grassroots groups - e.g faith groups and community responders with much more direct understanding of communities;

  • write directly to people living in areas of deprivation whilst balancing area focused approaches with regional approaches in order to balance the local politics. Some recommended that paper copies of information can work better for some and social media techniques are better for others and it’s important to recognise these different approaches;

  • educate people about power, skilling people up on how to influence and what the frameworks for influence are on services;

  • guarantee feedback loops in engagement explaining what has happened as a result of participants’ input. It builds trust and is another opportunity to listen as well as talk.

A challenge to this discussion area is the notion of “hard to reach” communities. Would an individual identify themselves as being “hard to reach”? This Twitter thread from Ruth Ibegbuna from the Roots Programme asking for examples of the language used in this area is worth a read. 

What next?

It’s clear that in local authorities across the country there is an appetite to engage and work closely with residents to respond to this pandemic. We would recommend careful thought is put into the purpose and ultimate aim of doing this to ensure much more effective engagement for all involved.

We have outlined our immediate next steps at the end of the short-read above which we hope can help on top of the ideas shared in this blog. And please don’t hesitate to get in touch to discuss any of the points raised further via email: lizzie@involve.org.uk