Reprinted with permission from the RSA.

In his 2018 annual lecture, Matthew Taylor called for at least three national citizens’ assemblies to be held each year on key current challenges facing the UK. Perry Walker FRSA explores how to make that a success.

Government – legislature and executive – resists change. This means that a step change in deliberative democratic approaches cannot just be bolted onto our present system. Rather, we need to understand that resistance and devise ways to overcome it.

House of Lords reform is just one example where parliament has dug in its heels. In 2003, the House of Commons considered five options on the reform of the House of Lords: a fully elected House; a fully appointed one; and various hybrids. The obvious solution was to ask MPs to put these in order of preference. But, no, MPs were asked to vote yes/no on each one, and there was a majority against every proposal. The late Robin Cook MP, at that point Leader of the House, tried to introduce preference voting, but in vain. He later explained that his reform “would have involved the technological development of a pencil and piece of paper, which was far too big a step for our parliament and its medieval procedures”.

Today there is likely to be continued resistance to the greater use of deliberative democracy. In 2008, the Australian Citizens’ Parliament, which consisted of 150 citizens, met several times to consider one question: How can Australia’s political system be strengthened to serve us better? Despite the enormous skill, goodwill, and no small budget behind it, the Australia Citizens’ Parliament received a cursory written response to its work from the Office of the Prime Minister, which simply said that it was a “constructive contribution to the ongoing debate about our system of government”.

The first thing we can do to counter this kind of complacency is to encourage the revamp of the Electoral Commission into the Democracy Commission, as proposed by Henry Tam in the current RSA Journal. The Democracy Commission could then play two major roles.

First, in relation to choosing the topic of each assembly, it would advise on the criteria for so doing. One criterion should be to seek out areas where politicians want to know more about what citizens think. Where are they in the same position as Lord Graham of Edmonton in relation to the Common Market? In a 2014 debate in the House of Lords on assisted dying, he remarked: “Over another big issue I was able to say to the House of Commons that my constituents, by two to one, were asking me to support the retention of membership of the Common Market. There was a ‘hear, hear’, and I said, ‘Yes, I received three letters, two of them in favour and one against’.” More recently, Peter Kellner, the political commentator, remarked that during the 2015 Parliamentary debate on whether to intervene militarily in Syria, many MPs cited one rather small and unsatisfactory opinion poll. It was all they had to go on.

Once the topic was chosen, the Commission would work with the government to specify the ‘decision space’ within which the assembly’s conclusions could have most influence. For example, in its 1997 White Paper on Freedom of Information, the Labour Government signalled areas where it especially welcomed public comment. This would complement the suggestion Matthew Taylor made in his annual lecture; after the assembly, “ministers should be required to respond in full to the citizens’ deliberation, outlining to Parliament the Government’s response to its recommendations”.

Second, there is a major role for the wider campaign for deliberative democracy. It could start by identifying people – politicians, officials, journalists and other influencers – who see the value of such assemblies, and by encouraging more to do so.

People in that position usually share a particular attitude. They understand that power and influence is not a zero-sum game. What this means was laid out by a Chinese official, Mr Jiang Zhaohua, who in 2005 was the Party Secretary in the town of Zeguo, Wenling City, Zhejiang Province. Commenting on China’s first Deliberative Poll that year, he explained that, “Although I gave up some final decision-making power, we gain more power back because the process has increased the legitimacy for the choice of priority projects and created public transparency in the public policy decision-making process. Public policy is therefore more easily implemented.”

A zero-sum mindset can be hard to change. Easier is to help people appreciate the quality of debate in citizens’ assemblies. The best-known of these assemblies is the British Columbia Citizens Assembly on electoral reform in Canada in 2004. Reflecting on the Assembly, Rafe Mair, one of British Columbia’s best known political commentators, said: “we should start with the thought that 160 of our fellow citizens, in an overwhelming favourable vote, and after the most careful of examination of plenty of evidence, have made a recommendation. While that doesn’t mean we must agree with them, it does tell us that since none of us have gone through that exercise, we should give considerable weight to the recommendations made”.

Another role for the campaign is to encourage the broadcasting of the assembly and its conclusions. James Fishkin, inventor of the deliberative poll, who is talking at the RSA in December, has said that he sees the televising of proceedings as the bridge between the informed participants and the uninformed audience. But there are dangers here, which the campaign could help to avoid. In 1998 Channel 4 televised a deliberative poll on the NHS, held in Manchester and attended by 228 people. In their coverage, two elements took a much higher proportion of the time than they had in reality. The first was the whole group sessions and the second was the question and answer sessions with politicians. What these two elements shared was their potential for conflict, realised in a spat between Sheena Macdonald, the presenter, and Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative spokesperson, over whether the latter believed in the NHS.

The RSA’s excellent 2017 report, From Design Thinking to Systems Change, argued that “innovations often experience a ‘systems immune response’, ‘bouncing off’ the system they are intended to impact.” That could well happen here. Forewarned is forearmed.

Perry Walker designs group conversations. He is co-founder of Talk Shop, director of and a Fellow of Involve.