As part of the “A democratic response to COVID-19” project, we have been scanning print and social media to get a sense of how arguments for participation and deliberation are resonating in public debates.

This is a summary of what we’ve found so far. We plan to share further examples as and when we learn about them. Please get in touch with material we may have missed.

Stack of newspapers
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

What’s happened so far? 

The tendency of the UK government in its response to COVID-19 has been to centralise – for a small group of politicians, officials and advisors to attempt to manage the crisis from Whitehall. Early on it was pointed out how few women were involved in critical decision making; the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has publicly raised concerns that groupthink may be a problem in the scientific advice that the government is relying upon; and ongoing criticisms have emerged about the failure to involve devolved and local government in decision making.

We are hearing growing concerns that in the name of the health and economic emergency, participation and deliberation are being abandoned, whether this is in relation to local planning or hearing the voices of patients in health decision making

And social groups too often marginalised from the political process are voicing concerns that their vulnerability to the impacts of COVID-19 are being overlooked. For example, the Voices Network with the British Red Cross produced this lockdown appeal from refugees in the UK. Both UNICEF and UK Youth Voice have made passionate calls to listen and respond to the concerns and lived experiences of young people. 

As the Nuffield Council on Bioethics argues: “it is right to regard COVID-19 as a crisis; it is right to talk about urgency, even an emergency. It would be wrong, however, to allow it to become an excuse for bad governance.”

What might “good governance” look like in our current context?

Researchers from the Institute for Development Studies point to learning from previous pandemics. Drawing from their experience of working on the ebola epidemic in West Africa, they argue that pandemics are not just technical problems to be solved, but are social in character. They call for more deliberation and participation to ensure that decisions reflect not only the diversity of expert opinion, but also respond to the experiential knowledge of the most vulnerable.

Important insights into why and how a more deliberative and participatory politics is necessary have been offered by well-known players in this space, including Clodagh Harris and Ian Hughes (both of University College, Cork), Tom Steinberg (founder of MySociety), Jez Hall (Shared Futures) and Jon Alexander (Director of the New Citizenship Project). Stuart White (writing for Compass) has made the case for a People’s Inquiry into how we can best deal with a future pandemic. 

A number of these proposals call for citizens’ assemblies, perhaps to the detriment of other participatory and deliberative processes. The Carnegie Trust offers a broader agenda, reminding us of the pressing contemporary significance of their pre-COVID-19 calls for co-design and co-production. 

The Nuffield Council offers some simple guidance to government about how to act:

  • Show us (the public) what it is doing and thinking across the range of issues of concern

  • Set out the ethical considerations that inform(ed) its judgements

  • Explain how it has arrived at decisions (including taking advice from e.g. SAGE, MEAG), and not that it is just ‘following the science’

  • Invite a broad range of perspectives into the room, including wider public representation 

  • Think ahead – consult and engage other civic interests

We have found only a small number of examples of specific initiatives taking a participatory or deliberative approach to bringing in a broader range of voices in response to the pandemic. Our Covid Voices is gathering written statements of the experience of COVID-19 from those with health conditions or disabilities. The thinktank Demos is running a ‘People’s Commission’, inviting stories of lockdown life. It is not only reflections or stories. The Scottish Government invited ideas on how to tackle the virus, receiving and synthesising 4,000 suggestions. The West Midlands Combined Authority has established a citizens’ panel to guide its recovery work. The UK Citizens’ Assembly (and the French Convention) produced recommendations on how commitments to reach net zero carbon emissions need to be central to a post-COVID-19 recovery. We are sure that these examples only touch the surface of activity and that there will be many more initiatives that we are yet to hear about.

Of course, in one area, citizens have already taken matters into their own hands, with the huge growth in mutual-aid groups to ensure people’s emergency needs are met. The New Local Government Network has considered how public authorities could best support and work with such groups, and Danny Kruger MP was invited by the Prime Minister to investigate how to build on this community-level response.

The call for a more participatory and deliberative approach to governance needs to be more than a niche concern. As the Financial Times recognises, we need a “new civic contract” between government and the people. 

If you’ve read, watched or listened to a piece that would be of interest to the project, please send us a link. If you have produced something yourself – or would like to contribute something, then get in touch… 

Contact: lizzie@involve.org.uk 

Graham Smith1; Joe Mitchell2Tim Hughes3Lizzie Adams4

  • 1. Graham is Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) at the University of Westminster
  • 2. Joe was a founder of Democracy Club and is now working on scoping the potential of a Democracy Sector Network
  • 3. Tim is director of Involve
  • 4. Lizzie is Project & Governance Lead at Involve