Yesterday, I was invited by New Local to be their "vision setter" at their Innovation Exchange session on community deliberation

The brief was to cover "what it would look like, how it could/would work ideally (no negatives), and all the wider benefits". It got me thinking about what it would mean to be a "deliberative council", so I thought I'd share my speaking notes here.

What would it mean to be a deliberative council?

I thought a good place to start would be to talk about what deliberation is, and also what it’s not.

I think the best way of thinking about deliberation is as an approach to a conversation. Here we can think about three different types of conversation, which have different objectives:

  • Debate – about winning the argument
  • Dialogue – about understanding different points of view
  • Deliberation – about balancing different perspectives and weighing up options

While debate is typically a win-lose scenario, with dialogue and deliberation we’re often looking for a win-win scenario. What is it that we can agree on? Where is there consensus?

At this basic level, we can ask ourselves, how much of our communication with communities is about understanding their perspectives and weighing up options, versus how much is about trying to convince them of an answer? What would it mean to shift the balance of our communication with others more towards understanding and weighing up?

Another way to think about deliberation is in terms of the ingredients that are needed to make it happen:

  • Time – understanding different perspectives and weighing up options takes time, but as I’ll discuss later that upfront investment often pays dividends;
  • Balanced information – fundamental to high quality deliberation is that it’s informed by information and evidence;
  • Diverse perspectives – good quality deliberation relies on people constructively engaging with different points of view and people not like them.

So again, we can ask ourselves, how often are these ingredients present within our decision-making processes? What would it mean to inject more time, information and diverse perspectives into how we make decisions?

So why is deliberation important? I want to suggest four ways that deliberation can help deliver better outcomes:

  1. Improving governance – engaging with communities in a deliberative way can result in greater trust and legitimacy through building stronger relationships and ensuring decisions are in line with people’s values.
  2. Bridging divides and building cohesion – deliberation helps to expose people to different points of view and people not like them, understand and negotiate differences, and seek out win-win solutions.
  3. Improving the quality of projects, programmes and services – there’s a lot of evidence to show that deliberation can result in better decisions. We know, for example, that diverse groups typically reach better decisions than homogeneous ones.
  4. Capacity building and learning – deliberation can also support mutual capacity building and learning between organisations and communities. It typically leaves residents feeling more confident and able to engage with decision-making. For organisations, it often uncovers new insights and increases confidence to engage the community.

So if those are some of the benefits, what would it mean to be a deliberative council?

It can be tempting when we talk about deliberation to immediately think about citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries, which have become very popular over the past few years. They’re great, and we will talk about them, but deliberation can take place in many different ways and settings.

First off, deliberation can happen within our teams and organisations. How often do we bring together different perspectives from across the organisation together with time and information to explore an issue? For example, we’re starting some work with the NatWest Retirement Savings Plan Board to bring a diverse group of staff together from right across the organisation to consider ethical and social investments in pension planning.

Beyond our organisations, there’s also the opportunity to bring more deliberation to how we work with partners. We’ve recently been working with Bristol City Council, who have established Bristol One City to bring together partners across the city. Other examples like the Yorkshire & Humber Climate Commission present an opportunity for enabling deliberation across partners on specific topics – in this case, climate change. These sorts of structures aren’t necessarily deliberative in and of themselves, but if done in the right way they can provide a forum in which deliberation can take place.

So deliberation can take place within and between organisations, but it can also take place with residents and communities, which is the focus for us today.

Citizens’ assemblies and juries are one way of doing this. They bring together groups of residents who are broadly representative of the local community to consider and issue in depth and make recommendations. We’re seeing lots of councils using citizens’ assemblies to tackle the climate emergency, but they’ve also been used on topics including hate crime, congestion, air quality, health inequalities and the COVID recovery.

Beyond assemblies and juries, there are lots of other deliberative methods that can be used. For example:

  • Community conversations 1 support residents to deliberate with one another in their communities and feed back their conclusions, as we’re piloting in Camden right now;
  • Participatory budgeting involves residents in weighing up the options for how we spend money;
  • Digital platforms like Pol.is, which was pioneered in Taiwan, can be used to enable residents to weigh up arguments on different issues;
  • And methods like Future Search, based on the idea of bringing the system into the room, can be used to support collaboration between residents, officers, councillors and other partners.

The options are nearly endless, but what I want to leave you with is the conclusion that community deliberation is fundamentally about culture change. 

It’s about a new style of leadership, which recognises the power of working with and through communities. It’s about switching how we make decisions from Decide, Announce, Defend, to Engage, Deliberate, Decide.2 And it’s about focusing long term on building relationships, trust and capacity within communities.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash