A Time for More Democracy Not Less

Graham Smith at Involve: “As part of the “A democratic response to COVID-19” project, we have been scanning print and social media to get a sense of how arguments for participation and deliberation are resonating in public debates….

Researchers from the Institute for Development Studies point to learning from previous pandemics. Drawing from their experience of working on the ebola epidemic in West Africa, they argue that pandemics are not just technical problems to be solved, but are social in character. They call for more deliberation and participation to ensure that decisions reflect not only the diversity of expert opinion, but also respond to the experiential knowledge of the most vulnerable….

A number of these proposals call for citizens’ assemblies, perhaps to the detriment of other participatory and deliberative processes. The Carnegie Trust offers a broader agenda, reminding us of the pressing contemporary significance of their pre-COVID-19 calls for co-design and co-production. 

The Nuffield Council offers some simple guidance to government about how to act:

  • Show us (the public) what it is doing and thinking across the range of issues of concern
  • Set out the ethical considerations that inform(ed) its judgements
  • Explain how it has arrived at decisions (including taking advice from e.g. SAGE, MEAG), and not that it is just ‘following the science’
  • Invite a broad range of perspectives into the room, including wider public representation 
  • Think ahead – consult and engage other civic interests

We have found only a small number of examples of specific initiatives taking a participatory or deliberative approach to bringing in a broader range of voices in response to the pandemic. Our Covid Voices is gathering written statements of the experience of COVID-19 from those with health conditions or disabilities. The thinktank Demos is running a ‘People’s Commission’, inviting stories of lockdown life. It is not only reflections or stories. The Scottish Government invited ideas on how to tackle the virus, receiving and synthesising 4,000 suggestions. The West Midlands Combined Authority has established a citizens’ panel to guide its recovery work. The UK Citizens’ Assembly (and the French Convention) produced recommendations on how commitments to reach net zero carbon emissions need to be central to a post-COVID-19 recovery. We are sure that these examples only touch the surface of activity and that there will be many more initiatives that we are yet to hear about.

Of course, in one area, citizens have already taken matters into their own hands, with the huge growth in mutual-aid groups to ensure people’s emergency needs are met. The New Local Government Network has considered how public authorities could best support and work with such groups, and Danny Kruger MP was invited by the Prime Minister to investigate how to build on this community-level response.

The call for a more participatory and deliberative approach to governance needs to be more than a niche concern. As the Financial Times recognises, we need a “new civic contract” between government and the people….(More)”.