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Whatever the result, it could have been so much better

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  • Institutional reform
  • Leadership

I better write this short post now. That way no one can say I merely did so because I didn’t get the outcome I wanted from today’s vote.

Yesterday on Moral Maze we debated whether the referendum had been good for Britain.  The general view, in as much as there was any consensus, being that while it is great to see so many people engaged in a conversation about policy and politics, the content and tone of much of the campaigning has been deeply depressing. The debate about the effect of the referendum and the mirror it has held up to us has been raging for a while and will continue long after today. Whoever wins, one promise the process is unlikely to deliver is that it ‘settles the issue’. Expect many among those who lose to say over the weekend that they have been cheated by the other side’s lies and machinations before retiring to prepare for referendum two.

Much of this debate is about the relative merits of representative democracy versus referenda. ‘Surely’ say the critics – their arguments bolstered by continuing high levels of public confusion and ignorance – ‘EU membership is just the kind of complex issue we should expect those we elect to resolve on our behalf?’ But little or no attention has gone to how much better things might have worked out had we opted for some form of deliberative democracy.

Around the world – as Claudia Chwalisz will show in a forthcoming book – there is growing and successful use of deliberative methods. The fundamentals are the same everywhere. A group of representative citizens is selected on the basis of robust and open procedures. These citizens then spend an extended period – a long weekend or a few days spaced over several months – assessing evidence and quizzing experts. The process is overseen by deliberation professionals acting on a strictly impartial basis and, usually, all the proceedings can be viewed or read by anyone so inclined.  The outcomes of these exercises (which the participants nearly always enjoy) can be very influential but – unlike a referendum – they are generally seen as ways of guiding and enhancing representative democracy not usurping it. If politicians want to ignore the outcomes they can but if they value public trust and their own credibility they would have to give very good reasons for so doing. 

The scope for the public to get behind deliberative democracy is not hypothetical. Unlike Parliament, Government and political parties, trial juries are one of the only traditional institutions that we continue to support and respect, even though from a distance we sometimes find their conclusions surprising. We cleave to the basic principle that these twelve people stand for us and have reached a conclusion which would be the one we would have probably reached in their shoes.

I tried ever so hard when I was in government to persuade colleagues and ministers to use citizens’ juries on difficult issues. But when I patiently explained that the process could not be controlled by them and the outcome not assumed I always lost the argument. In the end I helped create something called the Big Conversation to try to show that the Blair Government was listening to the public. It was better than nothing but it was to a proper citizens’ jury what orange squash is to fresh orange juice.

Back to the present: not only could we have held a citizens’ jury on EU membership, not only could it have been in itself a catalyst for public debate and engagement, but we could even have given the jury a referendum as one of its possible recommendations. If we are going to revivify our democracy to meet the many complex challenges the future will pose we need to find ways to combine different forms of legitimacy.

Not only is the dichotomy between policy by plebiscite and policy by Party control unattractive it’s also completely false. 

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  • Hi Matthew,

    Great to see you banging the drum for deliberative democracy.

    Funnily enough, one of the things I did post-RSA was end up at an NHS Citizens' Jury event in Stoke-on-Trent - as an expert witness (arguing that we need to find out whether the NHS Friends and Family Test usually has the infrastructure to enable improvements around it or not. In my experience, they don't usually even ask patients to suggest improvements - which pretty much makes it all just more pointless data-gathering).

    In a deliberative vein, one of the most inspiring things we ever did with our staff meetings at the RSA, and at some Fellows meetings too, was to start using the ICA's 'Technology of Participation' methods. The most invigorating cross-departmental meeting I'd ever experienced was one that used a Technology of Participation method to reach clarity and agreement. Staff were really inspired, fired up...

    Oddly enough, around the same time, some senior RSA staff were telling us staff that bringing together groups of all but the smallest number of people in a room and reaching clarity and agreement on a way forward is simply not possible to achieve.

    Maybe the winds are changing and staff/Fellows will again have opportunities to participate in more engaging meetings. Maybe they already are? I hope so...

    Offering rather more options that the Technology of Participation tools are the dozens of Liberating Structures: http://www.liberatingstructures.com/ls/ - they're fun, you should use them. (And we still need to try a few minutes of speed introductions before RSA Lectures, and a big of pair discussion before the Q+A gets going!).

    If we're entering a period of political reaction, perhaps the least we can each do is seek to open up our meetings to creativity, and to engage all those who are present!

    Maybe we don't even need to try this, yet. Instead just observe the Inclusion and Engagement levels of our own meetings with this Inclusion and Engagement Quotient (IEQ) survey: http://www.liberatingstructures.com/ieq-survey

    By the way, back to deliberative democracy - I'm a fan of Prof Jack Crittenden, who wrote 'Democracy's Midwife - An Education in Deliberation', and 'Wide as the World - Cosmopolitan Identify, Integral Politics, and Democratic Dialogue'. An unusual mix of Ken Wilber-inspired integral thinking and deliberative democracy...!

    I must drop into the RSA bit more, now I've ended up working an another think-tank in Covent Garden...! ;-)

    Matthew

  • On that basis - Scotland (almost) got ahead of everyone else.  The idea of a People's Parliament is essentially the same as proposed here.  Iceland already did this after the 2008 banking collapse (resulting in a new Constitution) and more than a year before the Scottish Referendum SoSay Scotland organised an initial event at the SECC as part of the Scottish Voluntary Sector's annual conference/exhibition.  That produced volumes of positive ideas for making Scottish society a better place and for improving governance.
    Edinburgh University Public Policy Unit - now the Academy of Government (led by Oliver Escobar) was instrumental in getting that off the ground.  It can and does work.
    RSA Scotland also supported the whole enterprise.
    So what?  Well the absence of intelligent debate in the present Referendum has been astonishing - with lack of coherent arguments even from the heaviest of heavyweights in the political arena.  It reminds me of the paucity of good ideas put forward in the referendum on changing the Voting System - and I still cannot believe that those in favour of proportional representation failed so badly with their case.
    We really do need to change how we operate if society is to move forward in the ever more complex world and increasing pressures from migration and climate (to name but two).
    I note that Paul Mason (ex-BBC Economist) recently appeared on Question Time and was fervently proposing LEAVE on the basis of it being more democratic and yet today he tweeted that he had in fact voted REMAIN and wants everyone to throw their weight behind a wholesale reworking of the European project.  I happen to agree with the latter sentiment and surely that would be a good place to start from with a more participative group of representatives to consider What? Where? and How? things might be changed.
    Is the RSA up for it to host a seed-event?

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