Innovating Local Democracy Conference
AUTHOR: CLLR LILLIAN BURNS, PRESTBURY PARISH COUNCIL
Citizens’ Assemblies were very much to the fore at the Innovating Local Democracy Conference which took place in Manchester in January. Earnest local authority officers and others spent much time examining different models and how to make them work most effectively and learning best practice from each other. All good stuff.
Citizens’ Assemblies have already been tried out in a number of scales and formats. Early trials have been both pan-national, such as those in Eire and Scotland, and also principal authority level. They seem to be more successful when they focus on specific subjects, such as the three test beds funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Greater Cambridge trial has addressed traffic congestion, public transport and air quality and the Dudley MBC and Test Valley trials have looked at the problems of their local town centres. However, it is important to note that these three area trials have been supported by a consortium of professional contractors including mySociety, the RSA, The Democratic Society and Involve. Meanwhile, the UK Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change, sponsored by six parliamentary committees which will consider its outcomes, has just got underway.
Citizens Assemblies are a form of deliberative democracy. Residents are randomly invited to take part or are randomly chosen from a pot of individuals who have expressed some level of interest in the concept. That said, attempts are made to ensure that participants reflect varying demographics. The biggest challenges are those of communications, the need to bring disparate members of society up to at least a basic level of understanding about a subject matter and the need to find adequate officer capacity and meeting facilities to handle the assemblies.
At first, I felt somewhat non-plussed at the Local Democracy conference when I asked in one workshop to what extent a particular local authority had involved Town and Parish Councils. I was slapped down with the reply that they were dealt with separately. Initially, this seemed puzzling to me as the same principal authority had complained earlier in the workshop that the key problems it was encountering in getting its Citizens’ Assembly functioning properly were the poor level of public understanding of not only how local government functions and what its limitations were but of the subject matters being discussed. Surely, I reasoned to myself, it would be an advantage to have, amongst any Citizens’ Assembly, a smattering of Town and Parish Councillors - who bring with them some level of understanding of local government and who have already demonstrated by becoming local councillors that they take an above-average interest in societal and governmental matters?
However, I then had to remind myself that the whole point of Citizens’ Assemblies is that they don’t start from the perspective of inviting along ‘stakeholders’. The nearest that participants need to be to be ‘stakeholders’ is that they are interested enough in the future of society generally and/or their local community to be prepared to give up some time to learn more about how it functions and to work through solutions to problems with other similarly interested members of the population. And, after all, there is nothing to stop Parish Councillors who wish to from throwing their names into the hat as individuals who are interested to serve on a particular assembly.
On reflection, I have come to the conclusion that Citizens’ Assemblies are a potential way of getting more of the population interested in local government and therefore a means of bringing more people into its first tier, Local Councils, and/or incentivising them to become active citizens in other ways in their local communities. This can only be a good thing. Of course, the success of Citizens’ Assemblies (or not) will depend on how much principal and combined authorities and national government listen to what they have to say. I will be following them with great interest.