It can’t be that everything changes except how we practise politics

This might seem a strange time to be promoting deliberation. A crisis requires speed and heightened attention, a laser-like focus on the problem. We need powerful, centralised institutions, authoritative networks and expert advice. These are clearly not tasks for a group of randomly selected participants with a few months to deliberate. 

Yet this current emergency demands both speed and slowness. Many of us are confined to our homes, forced to drop our pace in a manner few have ever experienced. It’s disorientating and confusing. Important questions cannot and should not be answered immediately. Now is no time for lazy analysis or hot takes; we are all uncertain. But for those not on the front line, however powerless we feel, being responsible means simply staying put. 

Yet this can be of service in a slower, more deliberative way. In a crisis we attend to the immediate – but we must also look to the future. Most organisations and individuals will be doing both. When we crash, we need an immediate sugar hit to get us back on our feet, but we’ll also need a slow-cooked, nutritious meal to eat afterwards. 

Right now, we can borrow the practices and processes of citizens’ assemblies, which can be transformative. If we can understand the conditions for deliberation, could we practise it right now?

Citizens’ assemblies elevate the role of the citizen to that of guardian of the common good. In a crisis, we accept that the government must be directive and decisive. But citizens’ networks have already proved their unique value, providing personalised care and a sense of normality at a time of insecurity. Similarly, an ‘assembly’ is a gathering together both of people and solutions. Citizens are drawn together, bringing their experience, capacity and energy. In a time like this, when people’s fear is heightened, deliberation can prove to citizens their own collective firepower. 

A citizens’ assembly requires two things: perimeters and purpose. The perimeters set the framework: tight structure and design of the process, attentive facilitation, time and information to come to a decision. These perimeters focus the attention of participants, encouraging what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2 thinking: focused, clear and reflective. (System 1 thinking is fast, automatic and unreliable). With enough time – but not too much – participants enter a different cognitive state, processing complex information, marshalling logic and integrating experience to reach decisions. The practice is taxing but can yield great results. It’s not just about the outcome, but also about the impact on participants, building confidence in themselves and in others. As one participant said in the Irish Citizens’ Assembly “we’re probably the best-informed amateurs on this subject in the country at the moment.”

Secondly, an assembly must have a clear and compelling purpose to be worthy of participants’ time and efforts. And, most importantly, the process must have a direct relationship to political authority, so that its decisions are taken seriously. Without the formal establishment of such an assembly these conditions can’t be assured – but they can inform our thinking.

The current crisis provides both perimeters and purpose, even without the physical, well-designed forum. Constraints on our movements and actions makes us focus on necessities and spend time simply thinking things through without the normal cacophony of busy lives. 

And there is real clarity of purpose. The nation’s energies, normally diffuse, are concentrated. For frontline workers, this is direct and urgent. For others, our collective focus on the crisis is less direct, but no less significant. We’re all trying to work out what it might mean for ourselves, but also for wider society, for the economy, for democracy itself. This is precisely what happens in the setting of a citizens’ assembly – and it can be a potent force for innovation. 

What do citizens’ assemblies offer so uniquely? Two potential outcomes are relevant now: recognition and realignment. 

Recognition means taking stock, deciding what limits we impose on ourselves, what values underpin our social norms. Today, this means asking whether the costs to liberty outweigh the increased security. People’s views differ widely on such issues. Yet paradoxically, this strengthens the bonds forged in the process: if you trust me not to be offended by your honest views, our relationship prospers. Recognition also means identifying cognitive biases and rebutting received wisdom. People’s views on the definition of ‘key work’ have shifted radically in the last few weeks. 

The experience liberates the scope of political ideas, too. During the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on abortion, politicians and the public were surprised by the boldness of its final recommendations. The ingenuity of citizens in today’s crisis is everywhere evident, from finding creative ways to connect, to pushing for radical routes out of the crisis. This energy is always there. Citizens are not passively experiencing change, but helping shape it. 

We are experiencing the crisis both as a society and as a global community. Values and ideologies are laid bare, the vulnerability of many is exposed, and many are thrust into the same precarity. It may be a shocking but necessary pre-condition to the work of changing course. Commentators have often spoken of the fragmentation of society, yet this pandemic has subjected people across the world to very similar conditions, bewildering but also levelling. Both the panic and the monotony of confinement are shared and in the digital age citizens from Beijing to Bordeaux are aware they’re experiencing it together. And unlike in a war, we all face a common enemy. 

With these enforced parameters and a common sense of purpose, we can undertake slower, more nuanced work as well. Assemblies rarely decide to stick with the status quo. After the lockdown, we could all go back to business as normal. But if we do the deliberative work, we won’t. The crisis has pushed us all dramatically onto the same page. The question now is what we do while we’re here.

Frances Foley was previously Project Director of the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy and will soon be (re)-joining Compass as Deputy Director.

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