In every part of the UK, citizens, groups, organisations and public bodies are fighting back against the depressing and divisive politics that we have endured over recent years. Austerity, the way the Brexit debate was conducted, rising levels of crime and violence, discrimination, poverty, inequality, homelessness and hopelessness, the environmental consequences of climate change, and our public health and education services reduced to the bare minimum or worse – all help to create misery and disempowerment across the country. However, we are increasingly finding ways of working together that will help us get beyond the unhappiness of current times. All political parties now recognise that structural changes to our electoral and political systems are needed.
Compass argues that a Good Society that serves all citizens demands a deeper, more participative and deliberative democracy. A vision for this is outlined in Compass Executive Director Neal Lawson’s 45° Change: Transforming Society from Below.
A flourishing democratic society needs citizens and communities to be at the centre of action and decision making to improve our shared future. How can that deep democratic change be achieved?
Our new pamphlet Participation at 45°: Techniques for Citizen-led Change builds on decades of grassroots and frontline experience to explain three ways of fostering the sorts of participation that can heal the bitterness in our communities and re-establish trust in rational and respectful debate on public issues.
- community development
- community organising and
- deliberative approaches to decision making.
These techniques improve people’s ability to influence events, take control over their shared conditions and work together to create positive futures. They create new public space where difficult issues can be tackled co-operatively, working alongside and/or feeding into the decisions of elected democratic bodies. They now need to be adopted widely and regularly to heal our divided society.
This is action to raise the long-term level of resilience, cohesion, health and wellbeing in a community. It focuses on practical issues of importance in a locality – housing, health, education, amenities, environmental quality – and helps people to take action together. Sometimes it is wholly independent action by residents, but in many places it needs to be supported by skilled workers.
With similar ultimate aims as community development, this approach emphasises that leadership should be seen as distributed amongst people. Shared power is built through multiple dialogues which identify common and divergent interests. When anger erupts, it is understood to be an expression of grief, based on love for a world as it might be rather than as it currently is. For civil society to be able to counterbalance the excesses of the state and market it has to build its own forms of power, be it by campaigning for affordable housing, cleaner air, better services, combating climate change or any number of concerns.
The best known forms of deliberation are citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries, participatory budgeting and community conferences. Deliberation aims to build on the wisdom and knowledge of citizens to overcome conflict, identify consensus and differences, and find ways forward in a spirit of openness and co-operation. It works by bringing together groups of people who are representative of the demographics of a given population to discuss an issue over a sustained period of time. It can operate at local, national, or international levels and range from consultation to joint decision making. It has been used successfully on some highly complex and controversial issues including abortion and same sex marriage in Ireland, constitutional reform in Iceland and Canada, and – in the UK – on nuclear power, Brexit and, social care. At local level it has been used to create neighbourhood plans, resolve neighbourhood disputes, and establish restorative justice.
A call to government and all public bodies
If the new government intends to heal the divisions of the past three years in good faith, it must take a lead in establishing these and other participative practices throughout society. Equally, local government, the health service, schools, and other public bodies should use these methods to foster participation at all levels of governance in order to overcome the crisis in our democratic system. We would like to see:
- the provision of resources at local and national levels to support citizen deliberation;
- a national strategy to build citizen deliberation into all major constitutional and controversial policy developments and decisions;
- a unified and effective community development presence and strategy in every local authority, linked with housing associations and the NHS;
- support for community action in terms of workers, grants, spaces to meet, learning and policy;
- legislation that requires local authorities, the NHS and housing associations to respond to demands and recommendations from local communities.
We are aware of the challenges that face participatory working. It can be manipulated by vested interests or become a talking shop for those with privileged access. Badly designed and run participatory initiatives can further erode trust and enthusiasm. So a robust participatory democratic system also needs safeguards and support. Government should:
(i) ensure that all people affected by new legislation can have a meaningful say and that the results of their participation are seriously considered;
(i) establish standards for the reporting and dissemination of information on both conventional and online media. There should be an independent mechanism to investigate and if necessary rule against claims that are harmfully misleading or unfairly presented;
(ii) set up an Office for Democratic Integrity to scrutinise public consultations, referenda and electoral practice, to ensure that they optimise the participation of all relevant groups and are prepared with sufficient fair information to enable people to come to meaningful conclusions that form part of democratic decision-making.
Please get in touch if you wish to comment or help to take these ideas further. Contact Colin at email@example.com.
Issued by the Participatory Techniques Group, each in a personal capacity: Nick Beddow, Gabriel Chanan, Brian Fisher, Jane Foot, Nick Gardham, Jez Hall, Helena Kettleborough, Colin Miller, Bob Rhodes, Matt Scott, Henry Tam, Diane Warburton.