Our latest instalment of the Practical Democracy Project took place on 7 March in the vibrant city of Leeds. It may have been our rainiest host city so far (compared with previous events we’ve held around the UK, in Dublin & in Hamilton, New Zealand) but thankfully the weather didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of our speakers & attendees. It helped that the venue, kindly provided by the good folk of ODI Leeds, was a bright, open space with sunny yellow daffodils on each table and plenty of tea & coffee to boost energy levels.

Photo of venue with people sat chatting ahead of event starting
Yay daffodils!

The event took place over a weekday lunchtime in the hopes of tempting busy public sector folks away from their desks for a quick injection of inspiring discussion & chat around the theme of involving citizens in decision-making, and you bet we threw in a free lunch to sweeten the deal. We were pleased to be joined by attendees from a range of public sector organisations including DWP, MoJ, NHS Digital, NHS England, Derby City Council and Leeds City Council, as well as some other smaller organisations.

Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira, University of Leeds

Ben Fowkes from Delib kicked off the event and introduced our first speaker, Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira from the University of Leeds’ School of Politics and International Studies. Cristina has studied parliaments for over 20 years, with a particular focus on the relationship between institution and citizens. She told us that parliaments around the world are working hard to engage citizens (see the 2004 report Connecting Parliament with the Public produced by the House of Commons). However trust in parliaments remains low – notably in the UK since the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal – and the situation isn’t helped by the word “Parliament” often being used as a catch-all term for politics or government. As a result the important role of scrutiny that these institutions provide is often overlooked.

She presented some recent examples of good and not-so-good engagement activity by UK Parliament, including a Select Committee Inquiry into Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) assessments in late 2017, which she described as a successful experiment in reaching out to the public & asking them to share their stories. Over 3000 submissions to the inquiry were received via a web forum, providing a variety of evidence & personal stories. From this information two reports were produced & published in early 2018, one of them focusing on all the stories sourced from the public engagement activity and integrating that information into ordinary parliamentary business.

She also shared the example of television personality Katie Price giving evidence about her son Harvey at a Petitions Committee inquiry into online abuse and the experience of disabled people in summer 2018, after a petition started by Katie achieved more than 220,000 signatures. This was a valuable opportunity for Parliament to gain awareness with a wider audience, especially as Katie talked about the inquiry on daytime television and even explained the difference between parliament and government; “a small thing but a powerful form of communication”.

At the less successful end of the scale Cristina talked about the risks of Parliament inviting input from the public when a decision has already been made & there is no real opportunity to influence a bill. She described an instance when the engagement process was not integrated but happened in parallel with the standard parliamentary process, and people weren’t told about the outcome (one of Delib’s own consultation bugbears!) She summed up her talk by concluding that parliamentary engagement needs to focus on being more issues-led than process-led, and that the key is for parliaments to be in broadcast mode less & a deliberative, listening mode more.

Huw Spencer, Northern Policy Forum

The next speaker on the agenda was Huw Spencer, a local government official by trade as well as co-founder of the Northern Policy Forum (NPF), a network for young people across the north interested in discussing key policy issues that shapes the places they live. Huw recommended three guiding principles for the art of public engagement: “make it relevant”, “make it accessible”, and “make it yourselves”.

To illustrate his point around making things relevant, he mentioned a recent NPF event where an NHS worker talked about her work to make policies around accessing services in the north-west of England more inclusive towards women of colour, and how she’d used her own experience to help improve policy. Huw described this as a really concrete example of how you can draw on your own experiences but also your own listening capabilities in order to understand policy issues, & told us how a young maths teacher who was just starting out in her career and had never thought about policy before had said she was fired up by listening to the speakers at the event and now wanted to go out and campaign to improve education policy across the north.

Huw talked about the importance of making spaces as inclusive as possible and considering factors such as accessibility for people with physical disabilities, choosing venues that are appropriate for people from different religious backgrounds (e.g. perhaps not meeting in a pub), and trying to keep events free to cater towards a millennial generation with less disposable income. He commented that there have been several northern policy or “Northern Powerhouse” themed conferences advertised lately with tickets upwards of £250 to attend, which sends a message to young people that this event is not for them.

He also emphasised that to engage more young people, you need to hire young people. There aren’t many opportunities for young people to speak, but the only way to get better at public speaking is to do it, so NPF is trying to provide that platform for younger folks to gain experience & connect with one another. The Forum is still early on in its journey and Huw anticipates more hurdles ahead, but said that their ambitions include reaching out beyond university towns and into communities that are more excluded from traditional political discourse.

Photo of Huw Spencer speaking
Huw Spencer, Northern Policy Forum

Emily Redmond, Good Things Foundation

Last but by no means least we heard from Emily Redmond, a Service Designer with the Good Things Foundation (GTF) which works to engage people who feel excluded from the digital world. She set the context of the Foundation’s work by sharing the damning statistic that only 26% of people in the UK feel they’re able to influence decisions in their local area. Thanks to the Women’s Vote Centenary Grant Scheme, provided by the Government Equalities Office, the GTF was awarded funding to distribute to its online centres network in order to “educate, participate & celebrate” – the primary objectives of the scheme were to educate people about democracy, increase participation, and celebrate the centenary which many people were unaware of or its significance.

The GTF invested the grant in its #VoiceboxCafes project, which involved 34 online centres supporting 1,283 people to educate them & try to increase their democratic participation through a combination of digital & in-person learning. They tried to bust myths around voting and explain the difference between national and local politics, between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and showed people how to carry out their own research online. What went down particularly well, she said, was showing people how to look up their local MP or councillor online and find out what decisions they had made in the past.

"Feeling far from Westminster, it can sometimes be difficult for people to see and understand how to make a difference in their own communities... there's still lots to do to encourage better balance in civic participation and democratic representation both locally and nationally." Nat Thorpe, Project Manager for Voicebox Cafes

Emily also reported back on some research she conducted among the learners to try to better understand what the main barriers were that had prevented them from participating in the past. The common themes that emerged included feeling excluded by jargon they didn’t understand; a lack of confidence & experience to talk openly about how they feel; not knowing how they could have a say beyond voting; not being interested, or seeing how it was relevant to their lives; having a negative experience of democracy in another country (e.g. witnessing corruption) which had led to a lack of trust in democratic systems; and believing their voice didn’t matter or that no-one was interested in what they had to say. Emily found the #VoiceboxCafes project had been vitally important in showing how things have changed for women in the UK over the last 100 years, which gave people in attendance hope for the future and inspired them to have their say.

After the project the GTF found there was a 65% increase in the number of learners who said they feel like they understand democratic processes in the UK. Emily highlighted that 70% of the people supported through the project were from BAME communities, which the GTF is particularly proud of. She rounded up by sharing some key learnings from their work, which included simplifying the language we use (“Digital democracy sounds good but people don’t know what it means”) and echoed some of Huw’s advice about carefully selecting venues – she recommended social, informal environments where people go anyway (such as a church hall). She finished by showing a video giving a taste of one of the #VoiceboxCafes sessions, showing women having fun naming their own political parties & reading their manifestos to one another.

Photo of Emily speaking
Emily Redmond, Good Things Foundation

Ben Fowkes, Delib

After a short break to refill our mugs, Ben was back at the lectern to give a potted history of Delib. He talked about the political games we designed in our early years, and how we evolved into a provider of digital tools that make it easier to involve citizens in decision making. He also explained where we picked up our unofficial motto, “Beware of the leopard”, and how it applies to our work (in case you didn’t recognise it, it’s a Douglas Adams reference).

Photo showing Ben from Delib in front of a slide that says "beware of the leopard"
beware of the leopard

We finished up the session with a panel discussion giving one last opportunity for us to pick our speakers’ brains. One member of the audience observed that the noticeable thread running through all three talks was about the need to make information accessible & relevant to a diverse audience, and Cristina commented that she found it optimistic how most of the discussion had focused on working with & involving people in existing structures rather than trying to break everything up & start again.

Thanks again to ODI Leeds for hosting us, to our expert speakers for sharing insights their important work, and to everyone else who made time in their day to come along. We always enjoy making new friends (including the chappie in the bandana below, who we met in the foyer at ODI Leeds!) and we hope to see you again at a future event – keep an eye on our Twitter feed for news of where we’ll be heading next.

Photo of Ben from Delib stroking a small dog wearing a bandana
Practical Democracy Pooch