As a long-time student of politics I have often found myself assessing various kinds of attempts to create new democratic processes or arenas. From citizens’ juries through to mini-publics and from area panels to lottery-based procedures the scope of these experiments with ‘new’ ways of doing politics has taken me from the local ward level right up to the international level. In undertaking these studies the work of leading scholars, such as John Dryzek and Frank Fischer and John Parkinson — all, I should note, Oxford University Press authors — has been invaluable in terms of helping me understand the challenges and complexity of engaging with multiple publics in multiple ways.
And yet my knowledge had always been remote; garnered as it was through books and articles rather than being forged in the heat of running a deliberative process myself. I had, of course, observed the odd event and had even acted as an academic advisor to one or two ‘experiments’ but my role was always somehow peripheral and distant. Put slightly differently, as an academic I had never stepped into the political arena myself to lead and manage a deliberative event around a specific political challenge. Why soil my hands in the rough-and-tumble of real politics when so many others appear to relish the challenge?
But academic life is changing. Academics are increasingly expected to put their heads above the parapet in terms of engaging with public debates and media controversies. They are also expected to demonstrate the basic value and role of the social and political sciences in increasingly visible and demonstrable ways. The point I am rambling myself (and therefore the reader) towards is that last weekend I actually did it!
I actually did it!
With a fabulous group of colleagues and researchers from the University of Sheffield, Southampton University, Westminster University, University College London and the Electoral Reform Society I actually helped to design, manage and deliver a large citizens assembly. It’s focus was the Government’s current plans for ‘devo deals’, ‘metro mayors’ and all that sort of thing but the learning process was far more complex and enriching.
This was raw politics in the sense that forty-five members of the public gave up their whole weekend to learn about, discuss and deliberate the pros and cons of various forms of localism and devolution. It was ‘raw’ in all sorts of ways but not least because the citizens were new to the process, a good cross-section of society had been selected and – most of all – because it was up to the project team to look after and support these good men and women of South Yorkshire not just over the next two days but also for the whole six week assembly process with its constituent phases.
So what did I learn, not about devolution or localism in England, but about the politics and management of deliberative projects?
The first and most basic insight was that the planning of the event is critical in the sense that many of the participants are understandably nervous, this is a new experience for them, and therefore a smiling face and lots of help with the simple issues of finding rooms, leaving bags, registering and knowing where food and drink is available is crucial to the success of the initiative. In many ways all this underpinning work should take place in an efficient manner ‘off stage’ so that the participants feel valued and supported and can therefore focus on contributing to the assembly.
The second insight became really clear to me as the weekend progressed – we were not simply facilitating an assembly in order to fulfill a very clear academic methodology (although we were doing that), we were creating a new community. This is critical because what became more and more evident as the sessions and stages progressed was that a form of social capital was emerging between the assembly members. This took the form of mutual understanding, trust, shared values, an emphasis on listening as well as talking …right through to body language and the sound of laughter as well as speech. What was fascinating to me as a political scientist was that it was possible to almost sense or smell the assembly maturing and developing together as time went on. I’m not saying that there were not challenges or that the project team got everything right all of the time but there was something quite inspirational about bringing a group of people together, who had previously never met each other and came from a broad geographical landscape, to explore a specific political issue. As the bonds created within the assembly grew and tightened so the role of the project team slipped back to a more supporting function. The assembly had almost developed a personality and life of its own.
The third and final insight was more personal and revolved around my own academic experience. Indeed, it would not be over-egging the pudding to suggest that I learnt more about the nature of politics in that one weekend than I had as an academic during the previous two decades. There was a raw energy, a passion and a social learning element that is simply impossible to perceive from the pages of a book. I should, however, note that running a deliberative assembly can be stressful, tiring, demanding, etc. but in this case I was very lucky to be part of a large and well-organised team. So maybe the experience was not quite as ‘raw’ as I’d like to think but it certainly opened my eyes to the difference between ‘the theory of politics’ and ‘the practice of politics’ in ways that I will never forget.
Featured image: “Political Assembly 22-23 January 2015” by European People’s Party CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.