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Learning from Penzance Citizens Panel

Author: Gavin Barker

This article sets out the main learning lessons from a recent citizens panel convened in Penzance from 15th October to 21st November 2019. The findings should encourage both voluntary organisations and community groups who may want to explore the benefits of convening their own citizens panel.1

Main finding

Citizens assemblies, juries and panels are forms of ‘deliberative democracy’ that focus on a clear and specific question in order to arrive at an informed judgement. The Penzance Citizens Panel deviated from the norm by replacing a specific and narrow question with an open-ended question. The unintended consequence of this was a community manifesto that drew together different policy proposals submitted by different NGOs and panel members themselves. The role of the panel changed from one of delving deeply into a particular issue and coming up with a recommendation, to a clearing house for policy ideas i.e. to endorse, reject and amend what they read, heard and discussed among themselves.

While a citizens panel at parish level may seem a very modest enterprise, it has engaged with both its town council, Cornwall Council and its MP. It has also submitted its report to all the main political parties in the St Ives Constituency, asking for a response.

This suggests that despite the very clear limitations in small scale democratic activism, it is possible to influence and engage well beyond parish boundaries, and to give an independent voice to local people and communities outside polarised, party political discourse.

Introductory overview

Penzance has a population of just under 21,000 people and is one 213 civil parishes in Cornwall, each with its own governance body. These include a city council, 28 town councils (of which Penzance is one), 168 parish councils, a community council and 15 parish meetings.

Penzance Citizens Panel was convened by Cornwall Independent Poverty Forum, a network of church based charities, to address the following question:

“High housing costs, low paid insecure work, eviction and homelessness are all issues that blight local communities in Cornwall, including Penzance. How can we as a community come together to address these issues?”

The 15-member panel was randomly chosen from a pool of 40 applicants, using an online form promoted via social media. Leaflets were also distributed in the town centre. The pool of 40 applicants was first segmented into different strata based on age, gender and housing tenure (social housing, private rental and home ownership) and then random selection was conducted on each stratum. This is an imperfect system and random selection had to be balanced with the need to ensure a diverse citizens panel that roughly reflected the population profile of Penzance. For example, there were only four people aged between 20 to 34. The quota for this stratum was three (20 percent of Penzance’s population is composed of people aged 20 to 34) - which meant there was severely limited scope for applying random selection!

The citizens panel met for 5 two-hour evening sessions over a six-week period. They first learned about the issues by listening to 9 presentations. Six of the speakers were from NGOs including the CEO of a housing association, a trade union rep and an advice worker from Citizens Advice. Three were elected representatives. 

The panel discussed, voted and endorsed 21 policy recommendations in all. 

These include seven recommendations that the panel considered to be a priority.

Learning lessons for community groups

You don’t need permission from a decision-making body. 

Normally citizens assemblies, panels and other forms of ‘mini-publics’ are commissioned by a decision-making body such as local or central government. They ensure these are properly funded and usually give an undertaking to fully respond to the citizen assembly/panel recommendations, while stressing they are not obliged to implement these.

Cornwall Council would not back this and the whole issue of citizens assemblies has drawn a mixed reaction from elected councillors and senior management. By contrast we found much more enthusiasm from frontline staff.

This uncertainty could have ended the initiative from the outset since without the backing of a decision making body, any citizens panel or assembly risks becoming a talking shop. In the end we went ahead with the citizens panel and found that once it was set up, elected councillors were more than happy to come and speak. This suggests that ‘facts on the ground’ are more important than arguments over the principle of citizens assemblies.

Deliberative democracy doesn’t have to cost the earth

Anyone who has looked into running a citizens assembly knows that the price tag can be high - anywhere between £25,000 to £60,000. Ours cost just under £1,500 mainly because this was almost entirely volunteer driven. The main costs were a £50 honorarium for each of the 15 members of the panel, the cost of the website (£50) and a geo-located Facebook Ad promoting the panel within a 10-mile radius of Penzance town centre (£50) and also printed leaflets (£60) for distribution.

Part of the reason for the high cost of £60,000 approx. is the need by a decision making body such as a local council, to ensure that any panel they commission is properly resourced and run with expert facilitators, note takers along with conference facilities such as PowerPoint, Wi-Fi and break out rooms. A local council cannot afford to cut corners. Labour and resource costs are therefore a sizeable element (an expert facilitator can cost £25 per hour minimum). Our room was a cramped side chapel running off the main entrance to the church hall - cheap but not always comfortable.

It can help rebuild our democracy

We suggest four ways it can do so:

1. It can give voice to community groups who feel ignored: one of the sessions involved a joint presentation by Penzance Street Food Project and Rebuild South West. Rebuild South West, which trains homeless youngsters and the long term unemployed, has struggled to get the attention of Cornwall Council and Housing Associations in its efforts to promote its work. Their presentation raised the profile of their work and has resulted in positive communication with both elected councillors and the CEO of Coastline Housing (who was also a speaker at one of the sessions)

2. It can strengthen democratic accountability: three of the speakers were elected councillors, including the ex-Mayor of Penzance (Cllr Dick Cliffe), and Cornwall Cabinet portfolio holder for housing (Andrew Mitchell), and the chair of Cornwall Council Inquiry into the Private Rental Sector (Cllr Cornelius Olivier). Panel members were able to quiz their elected representatives in a thoughtful, informed manner having first learned about the issues during the course of panel sessions.

We have also been in regular touch with MP Derek Thomas who was due to meet the citizens panel but this was cancelled because of the election. We hope to set up a new meeting date in the next month. As part of our efforts to strengthen accountability with our MP, we have also included an online tool in the form of an automated RSS feed which tracks what he says in parliament on any issue to do with housing and second homes, via the website Theyworkforyou.com click here to view

At the time of writing, we are also submitting the final report to all local political parties in the St Ives constituency and asking for a considered response. All responses will be shared with panel members and published on the website. We see this as another way of sustained engagement that strengthens local democratic accountability and orientates political parties towards local voter concerns rather than a Westminster-centric agenda.

3. It promotes consensual understanding in place of party tribalism and polarising debate: ideally, citizens assemblies and juries offer a safe space, key information and expert facilitation where participants first learn about an issue in depth before arriving at a considered judgement. The process is one of thoughtful deliberation and listening carefully to different and even opposing points of view.

Normally expert facilitators are employed to work through differences and disagreements. We did not have the budget for this nor the skills and expertise to address strong disagreements. To counter this, we relied on a set of conversational guidelines which we discussed and agreed with participants in the very first session. We found this worked. Participants were more than capable of having adult conversations and handling disagreements without resorting to blame. This is in contrast to Facebook and other social media platforms where disagreement can quickly turn toxic, resulting in entrenched polarised positions and a refusal to listen to the other side.

4. It can also help promote better informed public debate in place of fake news and misinformation: a simple website was used to publish presentations by speakers and the presentations were also circulated widely on social media. This included the introductory background brief for panel members. The background brief seeks to be politically neutral and gives clear factual information with links to sources of information so that anyone can check these for themselves. This is standard practice but its value is doubled if it is also published on the website and shared on social media for public viewing - You can see it here. As part of the brief we also invited St Petrocs to do a blog on their experience of working with the homeless which attracted a high number of website hits - you can see it here.

The absence of a properly convened Stewarding Committee limited the impact of the citizens panel

This was one of the biggest omissions and we urge anyone seeking to create a citizens assembly/panel to take far more time in patiently bringing together a Stewarding Committee composed of key local stakeholders. Ideally, one of these should be the local town or parish council; another should be the local chamber of commerce or traders association given that small independent businesses are the lifeblood of the community. This is about building important relationships between key people and organisations who may have different and even competing viewpoints on whatever the panel is convened to discuss. 

Usually, the Stewarding Committee oversees the whole process in order to ensure fairness and balance, from recruitment of panel members to a diverse range of speakers. However, a Stewarding Committee also has an important secondary role in promoting the proceedings of the citizens panel through its different stakeholder networks. This helps maximise its impact. 

In our case, we were unable to recruit key stakeholders such as Penzance Chamber of Commerce and other key local bodies. The Stewarding Committee was composed of only two organisations: Cornwall Independent Poverty Forum and St Petrocs. Two is too small a number and greatly limits the potential to really embed a citizens assembly in the life of the community.

The pool of applicants to the citizens panel is a potential community resource

This possibility only emerged after the process of random stratified sortition was conducted. Once the 15-member member panel was chosen from the pool of 40 applicants, the remaining 35 were contacted, thanked for their interest and told they had been unsuccessful.

This was a missed opportunity. Future citizens assemblies and panels should consider capitalising on the interest shown by unsuccessful applicants and offer them a second role as ‘companions’: an outer ring of community activists who support the core 15-member panel and act as a communication bridge between the panel and the wider public. They would help raise the profile as well as embed the citizens panel in the life of the community.

Ideally, all 40 applicants - both panel members and companions - should meet together several weeks before the start of the first panel session. This helps engender a sense of community and at the same time builds up a sense of anticipation. While not everyone will sign up to this second role, even if 10 or 12 did so, that would be a significant resource. Some might also be recruited on to the Stewarding Committee (see above).

Citizens panels can have the potential to come up with their own community manifesto

Normally, an election manifesto is a top down party-political process written at Westminster. Ours was a bottom up process that drew policy ideas and recommendations from NGOs and panel members themselves.

This was deliberate; we asked each speaker to come up with at least one policy recommendation which would act as a focal point for discussions by panel members. Panel members were then free to either endorse or reject any recommendation as well as come up with their own. The three elected councillors also came up with recommendations but in doing so, they spoke as individuals not as party members touting a particular party line (indeed they were briefed not do so but to address issues on the ground).

The result was a set of policy recommendations that had the look and feel of a manifesto with policy proposals largely drawn from NGOs who understood their communities. It also included recommendations by panel members themselves, some of whom had experienced eviction and homelessness. There were twenty-one recommendations in all, covering housing, homelessness, low pay, employment and welfare. See report

This evolution into a community manifesto was an unintended consequence and had less to do with the election and more to do with the open-ended nature of the question. It is important to stress that open ended questions breaks with citizen assembly good practice, which encourages a narrow, clearly defined question that a citizens panel must address such as: “should there be a wind farm on the outskirts of X-----town?”. The answer invites a yes or no with clear well argued reasons why.

Our approach was risky and could have resulted in panel discussions losing their way, given the complex, inter-related issues involved. However, we feel it is worth the risk provided expert speakers come with clear and specific policy recommendations which acts as a hook and focal point for panel discussions. 

More sessions, less speakers per session

Of all the feedback by panel members, the most oft repeated point was to reduce the number of speakers in any one session and/or give each speaker more time to speak.

As stated already, we had three speakers per session, each speaker speaking for 10 minutes. While this was followed by a 20-minute Q&A, this still left panel members feeling that this was not enough. Some wanted more time for individual speakers to elaborate on the points they made. 

Typical comments included:

“…perhaps one or two more sessions so that we could have spread the speakers over more time and been able to question them in more detail.”

“Maybe the same number of speakers but over a longer time-frame, to enable more interaction with the speakers and the time to ask more questions and better more deeply understand their policy statements.”

“I thought there was a lot pushed into the 2 hours that we were allocated and with three speakers and time to reflect this was hard to do!”

Another observation was the amount of background reading required which was harder on those with full time jobs “…there was a lot of background reading to do which wasn't always explained at the start”.

Another suggestion was for more small-group work to allow panel members more time to talk with each other.

In conclusion, what became clear to us is that any community group or association can initiate a citizens panel or jury. They don’t have to seek permission from a local authority but can move under their own steam. However, critical to success is the need to build an alliance of grassroots organisations and the creation of a properly convened Stewarding Committee. If you make the time to do this, the pay-off may extend far beyond the citizens panel itself. Ideally, one of the committee members should be the local town or parish council as a first step towards strengthening local democracy. However, their absence is not an impediment to success; ultimately individual councillors and your MP will likely respond positively if they see that every effort has been made to ensure a fair and balanced process.

Read the report in full at: https://penzance-citizen.org

Note:

1. Citizens Assemblies are generally defined as having 40 or more participants, citizens juries and panels usually have between 12 and 20 participants. Citizens Juries and Panels are easier to manage, especially for small scale initiatives with a focus on a town, a city or local parish.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Learning from Penzance Citizens Panel © Gavin Barker 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.