We held a workshop with our deliberative democracy Practitioners’ Network to explore what a democratic response to Covid-19 should look like. This is part of a project we are doing with the University of Westminster.

The workshop focused on:

  • What deliberative and participatory processes are already being used in the response to Covid-19?

  • What opportunities are there for deliberative and participatory processes to be used in the decisions that lie ahead when transitioning out of lockdown and responding to Covid-19?

  • What can and should we as a community of deliberative democracy practitioners be doing to ensure the above opportunities are realised?

What’s already happening?

Much of the initial discussions at the workshop suggested a low number of Covid-19 specific participatory and deliberative processes going on. There was a sense that where deliberative and participatory processes are already being explored, adjustments were being made to shift these online and where relevant, incorporate opportunities to discuss the issue in question in the current context of Covid-19.

Several Practitioners expressed the opinion that the space for deliberation is closed for the short term whilst focus on the immediate response to the pandemic is approached with more top-down decision-making. This seemed to be dependent on what area practitioners were working in, both geographically and depending on the type of issue.

Discussions did highlight however a real interest and appetite from civil society groups and some commissioners to hear the “public” voice with lots of consultation exercises happening. These consultation processes have fast turnaround times meaning they are often very high cost to the commissioning body. This was raised as a barrier for the wider and longer term benefits of deliberation.

Practitioners flagged they’re aware of lots of conversations happening around deliberation and the potential of its use. The key challenge now is that we need to capture and learn from these discussions (and in my opinion, turn conversations into action). For instance, considering who is interested in these processes; what are the issue areas where they best fit; how can these processes compliment the wider context they’re working in?

A number of new activities that are Covid-19 focused were identified. Most were labelled as research and engagement rather than deliberation and, as mentioned above, some were existing processes that have been tweaked for the different context they’re operating in. 

Some further examples of processes that were shared are:

(Do let us know of other examples that may be missing from this list!)

 We Demand Democracy
Photo credit: Fred Moon @fwed

What and where are the opportunities for deliberation & participation in response to Covid-19?

Practitioners were optimistic that new opportunities for online deliberation exist. We have summarised these into the following sections: context; approach & framing and focus on “voice”.

The context is ripe for deliberation

Practitioners shared the observation that Local Authorities have understandably been in response mode but are now beginning to think about what’s next for their work. They identified this as a good time for engagement.

A key message that came through the discussions was the need to recognise and build on what is already happening organically in communities, especially in terms of participation. Discussions at the workshop considered how to harness this upswell of involvement in local community activity (mutual aid groups, supporting neighbours, people’s increased sense of place) that could help push for a more democratic response to Covid-19.

Increased focus on voice

Public deliberation and participation should always be about voices. Voices that are so often not listened to by those who hold most power in our society. 

The Black Lives Matter movement was at the forefront of many Practitioners’ minds during the discussions. How can we use deliberation and participation to tackle the entrenched institutional racism that creates and reinforces the power structures in our society? How can we approach the response to Covid-19 through this lens?

Practitioners flagged an awareness of even more calls from civil society and community organisations for public deliberation and lived experience engagement in any response to Covid-19. The message was clear that this must be done through building on stories from community levels and lived experiences which will help demonstrate the requirement and value of deliberation and participation to decision makers. 

Approach & Framing

Practitioners saw further opportunities for deliberation and participation if the framing and narrative for an engagement process was done well. The approach and framing must incorporate wider concerns that are prevalent at the time. 

There are opportunities for us to be strategic in how we approach deliberation and participation too. Practitioners called for us to push for short, medium and long term and not just about single issues around engagement. Within this, there is an opportunity to build in understanding for the public on issues; a chance to consider different options for the future and ensure accountability for decision making.

To do this, we need to think about the political structures and systemic change opportunities that a response to Covid-19 provides. But in the first instance, practitioners highlighted the need to get the incentive right for decision makers to see the value of deliberation initially. Specifically, there are opportunities around the “build back better” rhetoric and exploring the different (and often greater) levels of appetite for deliberation in the devolved nations as some possible next steps. 

What can public engagement practitioners as a community do to highlight and support the role of deliberation and participation in the Covid-19 response?

Building on the opportunities identified, practitioners then focused on what we as deliberative democracy practitioners can do to realise these opportunities.

Start with a strategic approach & reflect

We need to recognise in all of our work the need for culture and system change not just process. This will allow us to understand where is the best place to have strategic influence. Within this, the focus must be on amplifying the range of voices, building trust and identifying how different players contribute instead of just playing into existing power structures. 

This approach should be supported by embedding the current reflection we are going through now into our practice. We need to continue to carve out time to step back, review our practice and not rely on the status quo of how we have always approached deliberation and participation.

Practitioners also called for some of the larger organisations in the sector with the requisite resources (they identified Involve as one of these) to take the lead in developing a strategy for trust building and public engagement. Specifically, a lack of public trust in decision-making was highlighted as an issue that engagement could address. This will need to include a reflection on the role of different players, large and small; some common themes and activities (e.g. including key criteria for every Invitation To Tender so that all commissioners hear the same thing).

Use our voice

We work day-in-day-out to support people to have a say over the decisions affecting their lives. But where and how do we use our voice?

The overwhelming theme that came out of the workshop was the opportunity for deliberation and participation to become more visible. Practitioners recommended a coalition to lobby national government as a collective calling for more deliberation and participation in decision making. 

Practitioners identified a challenge to this approach in that we are not a diverse collective ourselves. How can this network as a collective work with disempowered and disenfranchised groups and lobby for empathetic dialogue on specific subjects, rather than the abstract lobbying for ‘more engagement’ to try to address this. The pitch to the government must be about why working this way is better.

Further questions were posed as to whether to call for engagement around broad issues such as “build back better” or smaller issues? Others felt clear that a call for citizens’ assemblies at a regional level and a system of deliberative support around that was needed. From kitchen table conversations through to schools and community groups to engage with the conversation, we need to find a way to feed in existing conversations going on around the country into decisions. Some Practitioners got as far as discussing whether this could be through an app or through shared resources for people to deliberate on/with. Perhaps along the lines of distributed dialogues… or perhaps something completely new! 

But use your voice clearly

It could be argued many of the points above are not specific to the context of using deliberation and participation in the Covid-19 response. The need to communicate more clearly around deliberation and participation is an ongoing challenge to our work. This is only highlighted further if we are serious about embedding these processes into real life for many people. Our language needs to be more accessible in how engagement processes are described.

There is a sharpening of the context for engagement which is a potential turning point for deliberative and participatory processes. We need to seize this moment to give people really clear examples of what success looks like. We must demonstrate the value of engagement for those participating and the value for policy makers. Participants at the workshop recommended this should be done through telling a story of what pains people have and how these processes can tackle those challenges. 

Support don’t replicate

Another recurring theme in the conversations was the need to really recognise the existing participation and community engagement that is already happening organically as mentioned above. Practitioners felt there were ways the deliberative democracy community could support these groups in identifying their next steps by working closely with them instead of replicating similar participatory processes in parallel. And challenging commissioners to do the same.

Now is the time to act

A final thought from the workshop was a recognition of resourcing this work and the need to use resources wisely. Questions were posed around whether we wait to be commissioned or do we start pushing on the above opportunities now? No clear answer was given to this but many shared a real feeling that championing deliberation and participation in response to Covid-19 and the above next steps must start happening now.  

Watch this space...

If you would like to get in touch about anything raised in this blog post, do email lizzie@involve.org.uk