At #Notwestminster 2019 we delivered a workshop on the question "How to introduce deliberative democracy to local councils?"

We asked attendees from local and national government, civil society organisations, academics and members of the public to provide practical suggestions for how local councils can build in more deliberative democracy to their work. 

Short Read

This was no easy task! Participants worked on five ideas suggested by attendees at the start of the day for tackling this question. They were: 

  • Focus on young people (particularly students) and local democracy; 

  • Consider "what's in it for me" for a local councillor;

  • Create a survival kit for council officers trying to secure buy in for deliberative democracy;

  • Make the language of "deliberative democracy" more accessible;

  • Develop a "Model in a Box" for councils or other organisations when introducing deliberative democracy processes.

You can find video summaries of the recommendations for each idea here.

Long Read

Attendees worked in groups (often being poached by different groups if their specific skills or experience were needed!) to develop a product for local councils to use. The following summarises the richness and variety of ideas that each group produced and includes videos of each group presenting their recommendations on the day.

Young people and local democracy

Issue
How can deliberative democracy encourage young people to engage with local democracy? The group looked at how university students could engage with campus politics and wider opportunities to be involved in democracy. The group recognised the need for informal and day-to-day interactions to engage students and young people with local democracy.

Recommendations
•    Political education on importance and impact of politics on young people must start at an early age.
•    University inductions should include an introduction to local democracy explaining how to engage with local councillors.
•    An “Open Forum” should be set up where students, young people and wider local population can discuss local issues together. 
•    Share case studies where informal engagement with democracy has been encouraged e.g. Scottish Referendum drop-in cafes.

What’s in it for me as a Councillor?

Issue
This group considered why they would adopt deliberative democracy approaches from the perspective of a Councillor. They explored the possible cultural change required to implement these processes.

Recommendations
•    Identify challenges Councillors face and demonstrate how deliberative democracy can be tailored to help resolve these issues.
•    Organise a workshop with Councillors (possibly through Local Government Association or internal training) to explain the value of deliberative democracy. 
•    Introduce the concept through smaller projects and then scale-up across different councils. 
•    Provide councils with guidance and resources where needed but place main focus on interactive learning opportunities during deliberative processes elsewhere.

Survival kit for local Councillors

Issue
Attendees were aware of the significant challenges Councillors regularly face when trying to introduce new ideas, especially around changing democratic processes. Particularly valuable here were the recommendations from council staff themselves.

Recommendations 
•   Use the list of “top tips and ninja tricks” suggested and tested by council officers in the room.
•   Specific examples of how to challenge internal barriers to deliberative democracy included:

“We rely on expertise of those we employ” – remember and emphasise the value of local residents’ expertise to solve issues and improve the local area.

“Fear of external gaze and public pressure” – consider public Perception of being given a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Making deliberative democracy more accessible

Issue
Some “deliberative democracy" terminology limits accessibility and support for these processes. Certain language could make the process sound like a burden to both councils and the public. This is an ongoing challenge we're aware of here at Involve when communicating about our work so a particularly useful conversation for us to reflect on. 

Recommendations
•    Tell the story of deliberative democracy in different ways for different audiences.
•    Use a variety of meeting formats to make engagement informal and flexible where needed. 
•    Shape the engagement as something people want to do shifting it from a potential burden to a privilege to be part of.
•    Explain to participants the impact of their feedback on decision-making.

Model in a Box

Issue
Attendees wanted a model process that Councillors (and others) could take “off the shelf” to help build in deliberative democracy to their work. The group acknowledged the importance of this model being independent so that anyone can use it if councils aren’t willing/able to.

Recommendations
•    Create the model based on an open source framework bringing in as many different actors as possible.
•    The model should use small steps to break down barriers to deliberative democracy; suggest different communications tools to engage people: social media, local or hyper-local radio stations, live video streaming of meetings and include how to measure the success of the deliberation. 
•    Join the #Notwestminster Slack channel to continue this conversation.

Please get in touch to find out more information on the above recommendations - just email lizzie@involve.org.uk