Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy have launched a project to understand how participation and deliberation can improve decision making in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By participation, we mean direct involvement of people in the decisions that affect their lives. By deliberation, we mean opportunities for people to share and test ideas through inclusive and respectful conversations.

Image Credit: iMattSmart

So why participation and deliberation?

In our original post, we recognised that governments and other public and private institutions are facing significant political decisions in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. How to respond to the immediate health crisis and ensure social distancing? When and how to transition out of lockdown? What to do to restart the economy? How to lessen the economic hardship to come? 

Beyond this, at some point, a public reckoning will be demanded – holding those in power to account for the decisions that they have made.

In all of these – and other – areas, we believe effective participation and deliberation is necessary.

Much of the rhetoric about the current crisis is that “we are all in this together” and that COVID-19 is the “great leveller”. No one can fully protect themselves from the virus.

But such rhetoric papers over the reality that this health crisis – and the economic crisis that will follow in its wake – is being experienced in very different ways by different parts of our population.

COVID-19 brings with it different experiences for different parts of the population. It is exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new ones

Particular groups in society are more vulnerable to the virus. Most of the deaths and hospitalisations have been amongst those who are old and with underlying conditions, such as diabetes. Clear evidence is emerging that Black and minority ethnic communities are especially vulnerable.

Particular groups in society have had to continue to go out to work during the crisis, often putting their lives at direct risk. This includes doctors, nurses, community health and care-home workers and others running essential services. Many are amongst the lowest paid.

Particular groups in society have been hit hardest by loss of income during the lockdown. This tends to be those who were already the most economically vulnerable. The rise in demand on food banks and local mutual aid groups is testament.

Particular groups in society are finding it harder than others to live through the lockdown. While some of us may be enjoying a slowing down of the pace of life, others are faced with looking after young children in a cramped tower block flat, with no access to green spaces; suffering with a mental health condition and not being able to access support; being vulnerable to domestic violence; having extensive caring responsibilities; working in the gig economy with an underlying condition…

Our point is that COVID-19 brings with it different experiences for different parts of the population. It is exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new ones.

Our concern is that government policy and decision making by other institutions will not reflect that diversity of lived reality.

Whether we are thinking about how best to ensure social distancing, the shape of an economic stimulus or how to hold decision-makers to account, democracy demands that such decisions are inclusive and well-considered

Participation and deliberation can lead to better decisions by public and private institutions that reflect the knowledge, lived experiences, hopes and concerns, and interests of different communities. Too often decisions are made by relatively closed groups (whether politicians, civil servants, scientific experts) who do not understand the lives of many of those who will be affected by their decisions. Our understanding and imaginations are limited by our own social experiences – politicians, civil servants, scientific experts are no different. Hearing the voices of those who are rarely listened to can radically change accepted opinions about what needs to be done. Diversity results in better decision making.

Participation and deliberation can lead to more trustworthy decisions that people are willing to accept. Sadly, politicians are not held in high regard. Survey data tells us that most people think that politicians make decisions in their own interests, in the interests of their party, or in the interests of those with wealth and influence. Responding to COVID-19 in a way that gives meaning to the idea that “we are all in this together” entails bringing the “we” into decision making. When people can see that decisions reflect their lives and interests, trust and acceptance follow.

We say participation and deliberation “can” have these positive effects because much depends on how it is organised and the response of those with political and economic power. We can design effective forms of participation and deliberation – the question is whether the will exists to put it into practice and to respond accordingly. 

Whether we are thinking about how best to ensure social distancing, the shape of an economic stimulus or how to hold decision-makers to account, democracy demands that such decisions are inclusive and well-considered. This can only be achieved through meaningful participation and deliberation.

Get in touch if you would like to contribute.

Graham Smith1 & Tim Hughes2

  • 1. Graham is Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) at the University of Westminster
  • 2. Tim is director of Involve