For those of us hoping that devolution will bring power closer to people, the distinct lack of citizen engagement around the deals is worrying. The timetable set by George Osborne in his Budget for the first wave of councils to secure devolution is incredibly tight, and as Involve’s director Simon has written, “This raises the real risk that the public will be forgotten in the rush to reach agreement… if the public is not placed at the centre of new decision-making structures there is a real danger that democracy will be weakened rather than strengthened.”
Over 14th and 15th November, I observed a ground-breaking citizens’ assembly in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight looking into the devolution deals going through in the region. The Citizens Assembly project brought together 28 participants to think about what they want their deal to look like. It was part of a series of weekend assemblies in Sheffield (#AssemblyNorth) and Southampton (#AssemblySouth), designed to do something practical about the exclusion of citizens from devolution deals.
It was a well structured and thought through process, and participants were clearly very involved and invested in the discussions. One of the most interesting aspects was a set of five floating experts, which included the leader of Hampshire County Council, and speakers who gave the European and Scottish perspectives. These experts gave traditional presentations, but when it came to questions, they circulated on the tables. This worked well as a low pressure way of giving participants a chance to engage. However, all five experts were male and it was disappointing not to see a more gender-balanced group as an antidote to the official devolution process, which has been dominated by the usual pale, male suspects in Liverpool and Manchester.
It was useful to hear some of the participant feedback challenging the framing of the questions. One participant suggested that instead of asking the assembly to pick from a list of priority areas, including options such as health and social care, and housing investment, the assembly should be asked what they want Hampshire and the Isle of Wight to look like in the future, and priorities would flow from that vision. This would have led to a more open conversation and more organic, citizen-driven sets of priorities. This is the sort of approach that Involve itself favours and has found to produce information of high value to decision-makers.
I especially found the hopes and fears questions useful for understanding participants’ feelings on devolution. I found these discussions gave more insight into what participants wanted for their future than the headlines about which geographical area and which governmental structures they preferred. Hopes included better informed and more legitimate decisions, more control over housing and planning, and more bottom up democracy. However, participants feared differences in the quality of services across different areas, central government passing the buck for cuts and devolving the blame, and the potential expense and bureaucracy created. These are important and multi-faceted conversations which should be at the centre of devolution deals.
To my mind #AssemblySouth was a success in two respects: it allowed space for quality discussions amongst citizens of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight about the shape of the deals, and demonstrated what effective engagement looks like. The organisers clearly aimed for the project to have reach across sectors and they achieved it through actively engaging academics, practitioners and local and national politicians. The fact that participants were prepared to give up two weekends, without a cash incentive, was a testament to how engaging they found the process and content. I look forward to reading the short reports from the assemblies, which we’ll link to when they’re published.