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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 visit thersa.org/coronavirus to explore the RSA’s ideas for ‘Building Bridges to the Future’.

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