We live in an era where trust in political institutions is low and declining. It has been suggested that this lack of trust extends to experts too. For too long evidence has been seen as the domain of experts – people in ivory towers – but this is changing.
The Alliance for Useful Evidence and Ansa recently published Evidence vs Democracy: what are we doing to bridge the divide?, which explores citizens applying evidence and knowledge to make decisions through mini-publics. Mini-publics have recently hit the news as politicians grasp their potential to help decide on tricky issues. Madrid has just established a permanent mini-public; President Macron has invited the French people to take part in a structured debate on the future of French democracy; and there is a proposal for citizen’s convention for democratic reform in the UK.
What are mini-publics?
Mini publics are microcosms of society. They are groups of people selected through random or stratified sampling, brought together to hear from experts and witnesses, on which they engage in facilitated debate, resulting in recommendations about a way forward. The key is that they provide a safe space for citizens to learn about an issue and discuss it with their peers. They are not new, but recently more examples have been collated and published. For example, at the start of the Alliance for Useful Evidence project we looked for case studies in the field of social policy, because at that point it appeared many of the examples were in the energy and environmental sectors and on constitutional issues. Working with Ansa we have developed eight case studies where planners and policy makers have used a variety of mini-public approaches to ask people about a range of issues – from planning how to respond to an emergency, an influenza pandemic, in Australia, educational reform in Northern Ireland to preventing re-offending in France.
How should they be used?
Often mini-publics deal with divisive topics. Ireland is recognised for having a highly centralised public administration, but it has successfully used mini-publics to instigate changes to its constitution, laws and public services. In 2012, a Convention of 100 people alongside parliamentarians, was formed to deliberate and make changes to articles of the constitution. The Government committed to respond to the Convention’s recommendations. One of the major outcomes were referendums on marriage equality and abortion.
In this example, the mini-public was closely tied to the parliament system, not least through the presence of parliamentarians in the Convention. This was key to the influence of the mini-public. A growing body of research, such as Newcastle University’s report behind Evidence vs Democracy, indicates that mini-publics only achieve policy impact when they have concrete institutional links. They need to be connected to the decision-making processes they are trying to affect, or else they run the danger of becoming academic exercises, which go unheard.
Because mini-publics increasingly are entering policy-makers’ and the public’s conscience, these linkages are likely to become more common.
Recently some MPs called for a citizen’s assembly to break the Brexit impasse. While a mini-public could have helped steer options to be included in the Brexit referendum, it will be less useful to hold one now after the vote has been cast. Mini-publics are useful when people have not yet made up their mind on an issue, and are redundant when they have. The political debate over Brexit is now too heated and polarised. Which political parties would commit to accepting the recommendation from a Brexit Citizens’ Assembly prior to hearing its outcome? The mini-public participants would be under enormous pressure and scrutiny from the public, media and politicians. In short it would no longer be a safe space for people to address an issue.
Therefore, while we need mini-publics to be connected to decision-making institutions if we are to gain the full benefits that they can bring to politics, we need to think very carefully about what these connections should be to ensure that they are not stifled by politics itself. We need rules and procedures to embed them officially with existing institutions so that they are not just invoked at the whim of any one stakeholder. Fortunately, there are many good and bad examples from round the world on how this can be done effectively, from which we can learn. Consequently, we reviewed numerous mini-publics addressing social policy issues in eight countries to learn these lessons. We do need to know more about what politicians think about mini-publics to maximise their potential to influence decision-makers. Then, there are ways that mini-publics can be employed to help with Brexit: just not before the end of March.
Views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.