Radical Governance for Divided Times - RSA

Radical Governance for Divided Times


  • Picture of Julie Mellor
    Julie Mellor
    Trustee, Involve
  • Picture of Adam Hawksbee
    Adam Hawksbee
    Research Assistant at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative
  • Deliberative democracy

The RSA and Involve held a joint workshop with participants from key organisations with an interest in deliberative democracy on October 17th 2018. They identified a number of barriers to deliberative democracy being normal in the UK. These fell roughly into four categories: leadership, policy, education and quality. In preparation for the next workshop today, we have identified some possible system changes that would help us work towards the development and embedding of deliberative democracy in the UK.

There are important innovations underway in British politics that reflect an understanding that the way we do democracy needs to change. One totemic shift has come through the Government’s Civil Society Strategy which recently introduced an ‘Innovation in Democracy’ programme, piloting approaches where ‘people are empowered to deliberate and participate in the public decisions that affect their communities’. Moreover, in response to the RSA’s Citizens Economic Council, the Bank of England recently introduced regional citizens councils to establish ‘a two-way dialogue and collaboration between the Bank and a panel of citizen representatives on the economy, financial system and policy, as a means of enhancing the understanding of both parties.’ What Works Scotland have pioneered the use of mini-publics for police-community engagement.

These and other institutional innovations can be an important piece of a broader radical approach to democratic governance. However, unless we see systemic change then these new approaches will remain as a ‘nice-to-do’ by isolated actors as opposed to a new political paradigm. Eventually, as recommended by the UCL Constitution Unit, the policy process should have citizen involvement integrated throughout - from early Assemblies on principles, to parliamentary debate, to legislative proposals from governments, to national polls. This will require a range of enabling legislation and policy, before we see a new suite of applications of citizen deliberation and advice to politicians.

It is with achieving the wide-spread adoption of citizen involvement in mind that the RSA and Involve have been reflecting on. Here, as a prompt for the next workshop on policy changes, we’ve outlined some first thoughts on key enablers and applications required for systemic change.



Providing Leadership

We need to gain the commitment of politicians at all levels to exercise both humility and boldness in engaging with the public on the most pressing challenges, including:

  • Work and welfare in the age of automation
  • Responding to climate change
  • Caring for an ageing population
  • The role and purpose of education

Changing Policy

Reforming the statutory duty to consult to a statutory duty to involve would be a significant step-change . Utilising the IAP2 spectrum this would involve a shift from a goal of ‘obtaining public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decision’ to ‘working directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.’ Changing this duty could prompt decision-makers to regularly and consistently utilise deliberative processes with the public.

We also advocate introducing Chief Deliberation Officers into local government, with responsibilities in three areas:

  • Downward - Promoting public deliberation in all areas of policy;
  • Upward - Reporting to political leadership on state and extent of deliberation;
  • Sideways - Cross-pollinating the outcomes of deliberations between departments and officials so that insights are not siloed.

We also advocate introducing legislation to provide paid leave for individuals that participate in citizen deliberation, framing it as a civic duty akin to jury service.

On top if this, facilitating citizen deliberation in training programmes for young people, such as National Citizens Service, could both reduce the cost of using these tools and building expertise among young people in brokering political discussions.

Ensuring Quality

We argue that we require a body responsible for the citizen deliberation provider market. This body could:

  • Develop a set of quality standards for the methodology, design, and value for money of citizen deliberation
  • Advise commissioners on how to best use citizen deliberation e.g. at what stage in the policy process to involve the public, and on what types of issues
  • Distribute funds and provide support to new providers, to promote and maintain a healthy market



The creation of a Citizens Assembly could build a shared vision for the future of the UK, and examine the key challenges in achieving that vision. As in the Republic of Ireland, the government could create a Citizens Assembly ‘with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period’. The Assembly could make recommendations on aims to Parliament, who would then debate before making policy recommendations to Government, who in turn could bring forward concrete proposals to deliver on the citizen agenda. 

  • Forming Citizens Councils to inform the regulation of key sectors of the economy, including financial services, energy, and the press.
  • The regular, early and routine use of Citizens Assemblies by political leaders, including national politicians, metro-mayors, and council leaders, as part of policy design.
  • Creating Citizen Committees to scrutinise and discuss Green Papers and White Papers. These could replace or augment current forums in Parliament like Bill Committees that fulfill these functions.
  • Introducing a Citizens Chamber selected by sortition to replace the House of Lords, with members of the public taking their seats for 1-2 year terms. 
  • Introducing Westminster Hall debates in which reports from mini-publics are considered, voted on, and if passed debated in the House of Commons and responded to by a member of the Government.
  • Select Committees of the UK Parliament commissioning Citizens Assemblies to make recommendations to feed into to Committee inquiries

Early applications of deliberative methods need to be highly visible, so that the public notice the change and grow confident that the values and motivations they apply to complex issues will be understood and used to inform policy design. Politicians can also gain confidence that the principles or criteria for policy design produced by public deliberative processes enhances their ability to make challenging decisions. Understanding and trust of these methods by the public, politicians, and the media would also be accelerated by a national, symbolic application - possibly in the form of a UK Citizens Assembly



The above set of ideas are, of course, ‘top-down’ - they focus on what individuals in positions of power can do to reform institutions to facilitate robust and bold decision making in a context of deep division. What is missing from this picture, and will be essential, is the ‘bottom-up’ work - a process of comprehensive civic re-engagement, built on traditions of community organizing and facilitated by an education system that promotes creativity and critical thinking. These two forces are inseparable and mutually-reinforcing, and political leaders who change structures and institutions will equally need to equip citizens and communities to take full advantage of the new opportunities they present. Eventually these two forces should meet in the middle, where the devolution of formal powers down to localities and the re-engagement of marginalized communities leads to the exercise of power by a different set of faces, bringing new sets of perspectives and approaches. 

Julie Mellor is Chair of Demos, the Young Foundation and the Federation of Sector Skills and Standards. She is also a Trustee of Involve, the UK’s leading public participation charity.

Adam Hawksbee is a Graduate Student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a Research Assistant at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

Both are writing in a personal capacity, and these views do not necessarily represent the organisations they are affiliated with.

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