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We need a citizens’ convention for the transition

Blog 8 Comments

  • Deliberative democracy
  • Leadership

Deliberative democracy can help end the lockdown.

In one of my first posts on the crisis, I suggested that it is most likely to lead to long term, intentional change when three conditions apply:

  • There is demand and capacity for change which pre-exists the crisis
  • The crisis strengthens and widens this demand and sees the emergence of practices and attitudes which prefigure longer term change
  • As the crisis ends there are political alliances ready to be mobilised and practical proposals and innovations ready to be acted upon

We are likely soon to enter a protracted period when complete lockdown is over but we still have to take extensive social distancing measures. In my last post I argued that we need rules and principles to govern that period.

One of these principles should be public engagement.

Governing the transition will require decisions to be made and to be acted upon more quickly and with less scrutiny than in normal times.

The decisions will range from the relatively technical (for example, the rules governing the proximity to others in which non-essential employees can reasonably be required to work) to very tricky ethical issues (for example, on contact tracing or the priority distribution of a vaccine).

Beyond this, we may want to start considering which transitional arrangements we might want to continue, and also how we might go about setting the terms of reference for an inquiry on the crisis and how it has been managed.

It is important to have an Opposition that is credible in providing scrutiny. But sustaining and enhancing public trust requires more.

What a citizens’ convention on the transition would look like

This is why the Government should establish a Citizens’ Convention to interrogate and shape policy during the transition. Based on successful practice around the world, the panel should have the following characteristics:

  • It should be a randomly selected representative panel of around 100 people. They should reflect the demographic, geographic and social make-up of the UK, as well as the balance of views on key issues like Brexit.
  • It should meet for two or three days every month to consider key issues agreed between its members and Government. The panel should be paid a daily allowance or reimbursed for lost income.
  • It should have an independent secretariat, the job of which is to develop materials and brief balanced panels of experts to inform the citizens
  • Government should commit to respond in a timely and authentic way to all questions and recommendations generated by the Convention. (It doesn’t have to follow every recommendation, but should at least offer reasons why not.)
  • All the Convention’s proceeding and all the materials developed for them should be open and available to the public

A citizens’ convention could help deliver long-term change

The panel could be a powerful way of hearing the voice of citizens, scrutinising Government and maintaining public confidence. It could also fit the criteria for long term change.

Before the crisis there was growing global movement behind deliberative forms for democracy and an expanding bank of evidence and good practice.

The RSA has been working with local authorities experimenting with deliberative democracy. We will soon see the outcome of a major deliberative process on climate change organised by several Parliamentary Select Committees.

The crisis has underlined the importance of public trust and public behaviour in getting our response right, and the limitations of normal political processes at a time like this. A successful Convention could be the start of new democratic methods.

The Government is committed to establishing a commission on UK democracy. This offers a great opportunity to develop a far-reaching programme of democratic renewal with the mainstreaming of deliberative methods at its heart.

The idea of a ‘Citizens’ Convention for the Transition’ provides a major but entirely practical opportunity to signal a willingness to use the momentum of the crisis to address some of the deep problems we had going into it.


If you want to support the call for a Citizens’ Convention, you can share this post on social media @thersaorg, find out more about the RSA Campaign for Deliberative Democracy, and explore the RSA’s ideas for ‘Building Bridges to the Future’.

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8 Comments

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  • A citizens convention is a good idea but insufficient in itself. To overcome various institutional resistances and scepticism in the general population there needs to be a more comprehensive approach. Plus a positive vision, I don't think citing scepticism about MPs response is any way to begin.. we should begin with a design which neutralises resistance and engages the wider community. Starting from the point of the assembly; there should be a a number of networked assemblies drawing for a cross section (geographic, ethnicity, career/role etc.). Each individual assembly constructs and debates their own proposals as well as reviewing those from the Westminster bubble. The outcome for each should then be reviewed by the others. A much wider population poll should then be conducted to 'rank' the outcomes. The assembly process should be an ongoing one , assemblies held regularly and members retired after fixed periods. 

    Those of you who have been involved in company strategy reviews where workshops are held, participants encouraged to speak openly, proposals made and received together with promises of action will often have noted that there is no action - so some binding commitment for Westminster to act on the outcomes is essential to encourage truely wide community engagement gain beyond 'activists'. 

    The party system we have today served well in eras where communications systems were poor, knowledge and information poorly distrisbuted, but this is no longer the case. Furthermore ALL INSTITUTIONS COME TO SERVE THEMSELVES rather than the purpose for which they were created - they all need radical shake-ups and this is true of our own democratic system. Today the parties rarely represent the totality of views of those who vote for them.. we voted for the best fit. People are well informed these days and have non-part oriented views on different topics. So we need a system which allows the poplulation to vote on issues rather than for parties. Not withstanding the need to ensure inclusion (young, old, digitally literate and stoically off-line etc.), ti is not difficult to create a system where the population can vote on issues and the results combined with the votes for MPs to determine the way forward - this would create a truly representative democracy built upon meaningful consultation through assemblies and expression of will on individual issues.

    To summarise; we need a a process of networked citizens assemblies combined with polls to rank their outcome linked to Westminster commitment to implementing the outcomes controlled by an issue-by-issue voting system. 

    Of course even one citizens' assembly is a good start but ideally it needs to be doe the the context of a wider vision.

  • My concern is that our elected politicians will at best play lip service to any inputs from "2nd tier" democratic instruments. Their perception expressed by many MPs/the media during the Brexit fiasco is that their democratic legitimacy far outweighs utterances made by x100 random folk pulled off the street for a couple of weekends.

    I am at draft No 10 of my book "Game-Over - time to Re-invent Democracy" now including possible impacts of current crisis but primarily concerning designing a democracy that works for everybody. 

  • Our MPs have been elected using the same ineffective process for about 500 years-the Citizens Convention could provide a 21st century solution to the problem we continually face of unrepresentative Government causing an HUGE INEQUALITIES in health wellbeing and life chances


  • This is an idea that can be applied nationally but also at local, community level.  The current crisis and the lockdown has, in some places at least, unleashed a communal response that is acting beyond government or state, creating its own networks and support.  I am conscious that this may not be happening evenly or in every community/place, but there has to be an opportunity to use the experiences to help reshape the new normal


    As someone who worked in local government for 26 years I am only too aware that alternate seats of power with a community can be unwelcome but equally there are excellent examples of places where engagement with citizens and the 'pooling' of institutional authority with the power of the community can create much better, locally shaped solutions.

  • I think there needs to be a parallel activity targeting everyone else - prepping them for not only the need to change, but the benefits therein. One of the biggest frictions to moving forward will be found in those who keep striving to get back to what was because there is no longer the normal we knew that we can "get back to". With the fracture of everything that we've lived prior to this planetary pandemic comes tremendous opportunity - we ALL need to be open to the forms in which they can possibly be achieved. If that parallel work is not done to prep the general public for the positive possibilities and bolster open-mindedness or mindfulness, there's no way the larger society will follow the directions prescribed by a group of 100, 1K, 10K, or even 100K (regardless of their diversity or representation). 

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