Working together to solve problems need not be a fantasy

One would be forgiven for thinking in these politically belligerent times that it is rather optimistic to be talking about how people can come together from across the many perceived divides to discuss some of the biggest challenges of our time and figure out how to tackle them. The UK’s 650 MPs are certainly not inspiring us, (three rejected EU Brexit deals and still no way through), and neither is the media. But our paper, Tackling Challenges Together,’ produced in partnership between CPI and the new and very timely organisation, Engage Britain, is a collection of worldwide case studies and briefings showcasing some of the most innovative ways people, policy and technology worked together and showed us it can be done.

Gone are the days when we sit back and wait for traditional power structures, processes and institutions to tell us what to do, when to discuss the pressing needs of our communities and countries and hope we get an invitation. Technology entrepreneurs and policy activists inside and outside of government are instead figuring out how digital platforms can be a force for better, more informed, larger in scale conversations, as opposed to the ones we fear, loathe and find ourselves craving and shouting at in equal measure.

Assessing citizen engagement in action – and the digital divide

In fact, as we pulled together nine of the best examples of citizen conversations and deliberations all benefiting from advances in technology, it only reinforced how far the usual public sector dialogue with citizens still needs to go. Conversations derived from governments are still largely one-way, often confined to narrowly worded consultations and limited in interaction. ‘Digital by default’ has definitely changed the way governments interact with citizens for transactional services but it still means a service is given to you, not one you can shape and discuss.  Many cannot benefit from it at all. Latest figures show over 11 million adults in the UK are digitally excluded. 

Worldwide advances in communication technology can aid conversations if deployed well and have greatly expanded opportunities for public deliberation – and it is a constantly evolving space. “Participedia”, a research network and database for public participation and democratic innovation, identifies 422 cases of online deliberation. In truth, the number of cases of governments, NGOs, and citizens adapting technology to deepen democratic processes on a regional or national scale is probably much higher. 

We found digitally driven conversations are most successful when used with the understanding of the role that offline conversations can play, especially when targeting those who may not participate online.

Though all this is new territory, we can see that a combination of offline and online conversations matter especially for very complex issues, where discussions need to go deeper or deeply divide parts of the population. The cases we have chosen to illustrate and assess were selected because together they capture some of the most promising and varied examples of conversations that go beyond the usual participants and the usual methods.

We assessed seven examples for their potential to achieve better outcomes by using CPI’s Public Impact Fundamentals. To assess the examples depended on the public availability of reliable information and this was not always easy to find. It was however encouraging that many of our case studies ranked highly on legitimacy, but policy and action matter as much for longer-term impact and were often harder to assess. 

For example, understanding precisely why some of the initiatives did not become enshrined in policy or why some deliberations were designed to be advisory, as opposed to giving the public the final say. We also found it hard to track the participants’ levels of satisfaction throughout the process. Looking ahead, it will be important to discuss expectations with the public in good time, explain the methods chosen, share what happened throughout and importantly to learn from what has been tried before. 

Alleviating the “legitimacy crisis”, not eliminating government

Within this blossoming field of innovation, levels of success vary widely in terms of the scale of engagement, sustainability and impact. We have assessed cases that have engaged tens of thousands of citizens (Better Reykjavik), brought opposing sides together (vTaiwan and U.S Corporate Tax Reform), and even helped resolve a democratic crisis with a  lasting impact on government policy (Estonia Citizens’ Assembly and Democracy Seoul). Equally, we encountered frustrations and unrealised potential, low levels of participation (as could be argued was the case in the public engagement process for the New Zealand 2018 Census), and governments stalling on or rejecting the people’s recommendations (see Estonia and vTaiwan). 

We can see that these democratic innovations are still negotiating their relationship within the established political system and are grappling with age-old institutional and cultural challenges of political engagement, such as a lack of trust.

CPI’s five ‘legitimacy behaviours’ can provide a helpful lens through which to check how well conversations are going with people. 

The behaviours relate closely to the quality of citizen engagement and today are expected as a minimum requirement from our governments and all those who work in them. They include authenticity, scrutiny, valuing voices, co-creating visions and empathy, and those qualities were voiced especially loudly by those who have thus far felt unheard or squeezed out of conversations. 

These technological innovations offer a real and sustained chance to help governments respond to citizens’ expectations in the day-to-day world of policymaking but will require follow-through to feel authentic, to be transparent and to have responsive feedback loops to show all voices matter. 

These examples do not represent, therefore, an alternative to governments or the single answer but do offer an alternative way for governments to think about working with people. All of our examples can complement and enhance existing government policy and decision-making processes and, indeed, are already doing so. 

At this stage, it is still uncertain how we should evaluate the democratic significance of scale, what levels of participation one can reasonably expect on a given topic of debate, and what level of engagement warrants government action. These are just some of the many areas worthy of further study but certainly provide some welcome positive news this year, especially when it comes to working together to solve urgent problems that are not going away.