Conversations at citizens’ juries are constructive, sensible and often brilliant

citizens jury featuredThis post is by Lucy Bush, research director at BritainThinks

Deliberative research has been part of policy-making in the UK since the ’90s when BritainThinks’ founding partners, Deborah Mattinson and Viki Cooke ran the first-ever UK Citizens’ Jury. This jury, commissioned in 1994 by IPPR, explored the citizens’ take on health rationing. We’ve been using deliberative methodologies at BritainThinks since we were set up over nine years ago, helping government, businesses and not-for-profits put the citizen centre-stage to revitalise the public debate and bring fresh perspectives to complex policy challenges.

The success of any exercise in deliberative research depends on participants being given sufficient time and space to learn, debate and develop their points of view. It’s not an approach aimed at simply understanding what the public already know about an issue. And it’s not about producing stats that tell you people’s knee jerk responses. Rather, it’s about deep-diving into a topic and exploring choices, making trade-offs and establishing priorities; it’s about engaging the ‘citizens mindset’ and navigating a new way through the big problems we’re facing as a country. While an opinion poll tells you what people think, given how much or little they know, deliberative research tells you what people think when they are given access to the detail. We’ve run deliberative research on a whole range of thorny issues, such as tax reform, dealing with the deficit and intergenerational fairness.

How we found running two citizens’ juries on climate change
Most recently we’ve worked with Green Alliance to run two Citizens’ Juries with the purpose of understanding the public mandate on climate action. The UK may have committed to a net zero economy by 2050 but the pathway to that goal is far from clear and the policies in place will not be sufficient to deliver on that target. It was against this background that Green Alliance was interested to understand what the public would support in terms of the way forwards.

We began these two juries, in Cardiff and Penrith, with detailed briefings on the science of climate change before presenting a raft of policy solutions, spanning transport, industry and energy sectors. We also made sure the session was fun and engaging because deliberative events simply don’t work if people get bored (or it feels too much like school). We ran team quizzes and made sure the day was comprised of a mix of plenary sessions, presentations, table debates and individual exercises. For each policy solution we outlined whether the policy would have a ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ impact on UK emissions using simple diagrams and charts. We then had a one-pager providing information on the policy background/context before listing out the various benefits and drawbacks as they would be experienced by a member of the public. We were especially careful to avoid jargon, to keep the tone neutral and to present a balance of facts, so as not to lead participants.

We listened over the course of a day as our participants got to grips with the fundamentals of the different policy solutions and developed their points of view. Participants were more likely to argue in favour of policies when they could see a clear benefit to individuals (such as reducing energy bills by making all homes energy efficient) or to the country as a whole (such as helping ensure the UK’s self-sufficiency in energy through establishing more wind farms) or on the health and wellbeing of local communities (such as improving air quality by making the switch to EVs).

People need to know we’re living in a critical moment
What came out loud and clear was that people want something to be done on climate change and they want to see real leadership on the issue. The stories they hear in the media, the seasonal peculiarities they’ve noticed in their own backyards are all telling them something’s not right, but without hearing it from political leaders  (and not one of our participants could recall having heard a politician saying anything positive on the subject) it simply didn’t feel to them like we’re living in a critical moment.

We learned that people were reluctant to make a big change to their own lifestyle when they don’t feel the government, big business or others in society are doing the same. The deliberative process shows that the public are willing to accept change and do things differently, but before that they want to see there’s a clear strategy in place, that there’s consistency to that strategy and that everyone is playing their part.

Conversations are constructive, sensible, and often brilliant
It can feel like a leap of faith to run an exercise in deliberative democracy. Will the public be able to get to grips with a complex topic? Will they end up making recommendations that feel too timid, too conservative? Or will their recommendations be at the other end of the scale – will they be wildly unrealistic or feel too ‘extreme’?

In fact, the conversations that happen at these events and the ideas that come out at the end are invariably constructive, always sensible and often brilliant. In a time when trust in institutions and politicians is at all time low, there has never been a better time to use deliberative methodologies to engage and inspire public debate.

Green Alliance has published the results from our two citizens juries’ on climate change and made recommendations to those running the proposed national citizens’ assembly on climate change and net zero in the autumn of 2019, based on our experience. 

[Image: Green Alliance’s pilot citizens’ jury in Penrith and the Borders, conducted by BritainThinks]

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