Catching the UK’s “Deliberative Wave”

It’s a pretty cold time of year to surf real waves in the North Atlantic, so it’s a good thing this one is metaphorical. Healthy Democracy’s colleagues in Europe are calling it a “Deliberative Wave,” and that’s no exaggeration. Across the continent, from Poland to Spain, randomly selected citizens’ assemblies are breaking new ground in collaborative, citizen-led governance. And nowhere in Europe are citizens’ assemblies more in vogue than in Britain. Why? Perhaps it’s a response to the pain of Brexit divisiveness. Perhaps it’s the fact that old civil society organizations have thrown their weight behind lottery-based democracy. Perhaps it’s thanks to pressure from the streets — the climate movement “Extinction Rebellion” has called for independent citizens’ assemblies on climate as one of its top-three demands (an unusually process-based demand for a protest movement to make). Perhaps it’s the prominence of the national citizens’ assemblies held in Ireland since 2016. Or perhaps it’s a perfect storm that has rolled out this wave.

I was recently in the UK on “vacation.” But who was I kidding? My tour around the UK turned into so much more than Roman baths and cozy pubs (though there were those). I visited four different citizens’ assemblies around the country! I mean, c’mon, what else would I do on vacation? I saw a Jefferson Center-led citizens’ jury on local health policy in Gloucester, two citizens’ juries on climate in Lancaster and East London, and a little bit of the nationwide, Parliament-sponsored citizens’ assembly on climate policy being held over four weekends in Birmingham.

In addition to observing the citizens’ assemblies, I also attended two conferences: the Democracy R&D (DR&D) annual meeting, and a conference on democratic innovation in local government. Both were immensely useful.

DR&D is an international network of lottery-deliberation practitioners and researchers. The DR&D meeting is the most concentrated two days of learning and networking I’ve ever experienced. It’s not a conference, really, but more like an international summit of brilliant democracy inventors. Healthy Democracy is one of a handful of founding members, and – even as the network has grown to 100+ folks – we remain one of its more active. As David Attenborough would say, this is our natural habitat.

Through DR&D, we had a significant role in refining the first-ever international principles for lottery-based deliberation (via the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)). We are also leading a collaborative international effort to create open-source methodological materials, which will aid us (and everyone else) in creating processes that utilize the full breadth of global knowledge in the field. We are also involved in transnational projects related to cross-comparability of process evaluation and packaged solutions for local government.

But the DR&D meeting was the anchor of an entire “International Week of Democracy Innovation” in Manchester, organized by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), among others. I also attended the RSA’s Innovating Local Democracy Conference earlier in the week, where 100+ public officials from across the UK gathered to compare notes (primarily) on the many aforementioned citizens’ assemblies happening across the country. In the UK, citizens’ juries and assemblies have taken off like Mo Farah at the London Olympics.

All in all, even as we still have much to learn, every citizens’ assembly I see makes me that much prouder of the process designs Healthy Democracy has collaboratively developed over the years.

This field is still in its relative infancy, and organizations doing this work have but barely scratched the surface. I am convinced more than ever that more international cooperation and more openness of methodology is the best way forward. Each organization involved is too small to make the quick progress our democracies so desperately need. To bring lottery-deliberation into the political mainstream, we cannot just be inventive individuals; we must be brilliant together. Just like citizens juries do!