Over the last 12 months, there was a sudden upturn in interest in deliberative democracy – and specifically citizens’ assemblies – in local authorities.

We count ten citizens’ assemblies or juries that were held by councils in 2019. We were involved in running them in Cambridge, Camden, Dudley, Kingston, Test Valley and Waltham Forest.  

During this time, we’ve seen a welcome and growing number of calls from local authorities for support on a range of different deliberative processes. In response, we bolstered our resources to help nurture this interest (see here for example), including further developing our online knowledge base.

What has been coined the deliberative wave was well and truly gaining momentum in the UK,….and then coronavirus hit…..

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Last week we facilitated an online workshop for over 30 local authorities to provide a space to share learning and explore what the Covid-19 situation means for deliberative democracy – what is helping and what is getting in the way.  We shared our thinking on where to start in digital participation and how to plan for online deliberation. We also talked about our experiences of bringing the final weekend of the Climate Assembly UK online and some of the considerations that had been raised as a result.  

The following is a snapshot of some of the key themes raised by participants in a rich and engaging conversation filled with a hunger to share and learn in the new reality of largely pivoting from face-to-face engagement.

How is Covid-19 affecting plans and shaping responses to deliberative democracy? 

Clearly all face to face engagement stopped in its tracks with lockdown, but many local authorities are looking to build on previous work, refocus and find new ways to engage with people. The following are some of the key points raised.

  • Immediate plans have paused or been postponed with staff and resources reallocated to new areas and towards vulnerable residents.

  • However the need for engagement is bigger than ever, and many engagement staff are on a steep and fast paced learning curve rethinking how things might be done differently and digitally. This can be challenging for those at the coal-face.

  • Many are trying to maintain momentum for engaging with those they are already connected with. The situation has also meant that there are new opportunities to engage with people and the mutual aid groups that have started.

  • Some local authorities are using this time as an opportunity to step back, reflect on what they have done previously, lessons learnt and how they might move that forwards in the coming months.

  • There is uncertainty about whether the momentum that had been building around deliberative processes might be lost by the time face-to-face meetings are possible again. Though, overwhelmingly people’s attention is now turning to how to bring these processes online.

  • Despite challenging circumstances there is energy to explore new ways of doing things; online platforms, tools and skills; and work is being reformulated, adjusted and getting underway.

  •  A key and consistent theme is how to do this inclusively.

What is encouraging local authorities to think about running deliberative processes at this time?

Despite the challenges there is a push for engagement and new opportunities emerging. The following key themes were raised by participants:

  • There has been an accelerated move to online, previous tentative steps have fast forwarded at a rapid pace with new appetite, openness and confidence.

  • Engagement with some groups that were reluctant to engage online has now become possible and there is real potential to engage widely and with new communities. 

  • Lockdown has enabled people to get more used to technology – there is still a gap, and we should ensure that it does not widen, but people are definitely increasing their ability to engage online. Participants found that people in communities are excited to learn new skills, take part and are keen to have their voices heard. 

  • Several authorities spoke about the current situation creating an opportunity for experimentation and that there was a sense of Councils being ‘game to try something different’ including some seeing unprecedented levels of interest in, and support for, tackling digital exclusion.

  • COVID recovery has provided a new or refreshed framing for engagement encompassing how communities recover and renew and the opportunity to engage with a diversity of views with a range of experiences.  

  • Authorities are finding that new ways of engaging are offering new insights – with improved discourse and seeing the potential of combining synchronous and asynchronous processes. 

  • There was a sense that the current situation has created an opportunity for participation and engagement to become part of business as usual in a way not seen before.

What is stopping local authorities from running deliberative processes at this time?

Alongside enthusiasm for new opportunities, there are inevitable hurdles and a feeling of caution about trying something new at speed, issues included:

  • Getting to know the nuts and bolts of the available technology and the skills to use it from a growing range of options. Having to use tech that may not be designed for deliberation or facing restrictions on the use of some tech – such as Zoom - that may be preferred by people in communities.

  • Lots of questions about how to run good processes online – from ensuring deliberation happens to how social interaction between participants is possible.

  • Deliberation feels high risk at the moment – there is a lack of experience in digital deliberation and a desire to ensure that any engagement is high quality and smooth.

  • Figuring out the role of deliberation at this time – what is appropriate, the scope and questions about whether previous priorities might not re-emerge or may no longer be relevant with new ones emerging

  • Concerns around the capacity for deliberation at this time – with team members being redeployed and budgets being diverted.

  • Planning with the uncertainty of not knowing when it will be feasible to meet again face-to-face.

  • Overcoming digital exclusion – this was a theme that many participants raised. Key concerns centred around:

    • Reaching new people online – how to find them and how to engage people who are not online

    • Rethinking who might be the “seldom heard” in an online world and how to reach them.

What next? 

Overwhelmingly participants were keen to continue to share learning, experience, tips and tools about running inclusive engagement online. From the practical aspects of how to create the social aspect online and questions around incentivisation and gifting equipment, through to reaching new people and sharing examples of what is working.   

If you are from a local authority and interested in being invited to future online workshops, please get in touch with lizzie@involve.org.uk