Citizen & community empowerment, deliberative & participative democracy — the human right to be involved in decisions that affect our lives.

Paul Vittles
44 min readJul 12, 2020
The beautiful, historic City of York — so many phases of evolution from the Romans, the Vikings, the Merchant Adventurers…through the deliberative and participative democracy revolution, 1989–1991…and now another revolution underway 2020–2021 with the goal of 100% Digital City.

In response to many requests from my government clients and partners, this piece focuses on the history and evolution of deliberative & participative democracy, with key references for further reading or listening (as we go and at the end of the piece). The primary focus is on the UK, where I’m now residing (again) but most of the points, and all of the lessons, are transferable to any country, society or community that aspires to be a democracy.

There are a lot of other ‘histories’ around these days but many are partial, either because they’re pushing a particular barrow (so only include ‘convenient evidence’!) or because the authors, in good faith, are simply not yet aware of key historical evidence because it hasn’t previously been published (many engagement practitioners are busy practising, not writing papers!), or because the scope of inquiry has been (very) narrow.

One of the most common questions I get asked at the moment is “where has the current interest in deliberative & participative democracy come from?”. It’s a good question but it’s a limiting question.

From my experience of discussion, deliberation, and debate on deliberative & participative democracy, a better question is “Why do we involve people in decisions?” coupled with “Why are we increasingly involving people in decisions that affect their lives — what are the trends, influences, and drivers?”, then moving through the ‘why’, the ‘what’ and, finally, the ‘how’.

Starting with the ‘how’, as many have done recently, leads to a method-led narrative (and approach) of course, when it’s actually accepted good practice strategic review to be focused on the ‘ends’ and issues rather than the ‘means to the ends’, or the models and tools out-of-context.

If you’re thinking ONLY in terms of the current heightened interest in some specific deliberative processes like Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Juries, then your search for the origins will inevitably be more limited. In the worst case scenario, as many of us have witnessed, some people go out to find the evidence that fits their narrative or practice: ‘policy-based evidence-making’!

If your thinking is broader, interested in both the breadth of participation as well as the depth of deliberation that exists in a healthy democracy (#WideAndDeep as it’s been recently abbreviated for the digital age) — your search will automatically broaden to seek out the origins of the participative democracy component (the width) as well as the deliberative democracy component (the depth), including where mass participation has been the goal and, in some cases, where that goal has been achieved.

If your scope is broader still, covering key ‘big picture’ societal trends and breakthroughs (or breakwiths) in the way we see our world, it will lead to a series of inter-related or mutually-reinforcing parallel tracks, such as:

  1. the shift among professional and academic researchers from referring to ‘research subjects’ or ‘research respondents’ to ‘research participants’;
  2. emergence and growth of community engagement as a practice and, nowadays in several countries, as a professional discipline;
  3. emergence and growth of new academic and professional disciplines specifically in the fields of deliberative and participative democracy;
  4. advocacy and campaigns to reform our political system (some ongoing, some periodic, occasionally a new angle, very occasionally a genuinely new idea), eg proportional representation, capping donations to political parties, transparency registers, devolved decision-making, a written constitution, moving government departments or agencies to the regions (I had first hand experience of this making absolutely no difference whatsoever!), reforming second chambers, moving the House of Lords to York (this proposal made me chuckle as I’ve just re-located back to York), Qualified Voting (a great concept to address ‘the mandate problem’ but never seems to get traction; opposed by local officials due to ‘extra work’!);
  5. breakdown of trust in institutions and ‘experts’ (this one probably the most written about in the past 2–3 years);
  6. the shift from ‘expert-led’ Freudian psychotherapy to Rogerian human-centred therapy, and personal & group empowerment counselling, alongside a similar shift within other professions at varying paces and degrees (architects, doctors, engineers, town planners, etc) from thinking ‘I have the answers’ to ‘you have the answers’ or a shared solution;
  7. the breakdown of ‘command and control’ leadership styles in our organisations, businesses, charities, and government agencies (this one very much a ‘work in progress’ with COVID19 being the latest test);
  8. our understanding of multiple intelligences, with Howard Gardner & Daniel Goleman broadening the perspective away from the intellectual straitjacket that was another convenient ‘control’ mechanism used by those with power and influence (and still prevalent today, including by many of those designing ‘democracy processes’ as a purely IQ-based exercise!);
  9. our understanding of different communications styles and the structural and cultural revisions that have taken place in many sectors as a result;
  10. the rise of non-directive coaching, and coaching styles of leadership;
  11. shifts in the world of business from ‘corporate top down’ to ground-up business planning and performance improvement; from greed-and-growth-focused ‘shareholder value’ models to ‘stakeholder value’ models; from ‘need to know’ cultures to transparency and accountability; from paternalistic philanthropy and charity through the era of corporate social responsibility and corporate citizenship to (Michael Porter-formalised-and-endorsed) ‘shared value’ and social enterprise models, embedded from the day a business starts trading not ‘post profit’ or ‘buy out’;
  12. gradual realisation of sustainability in all its forms (economic/financial, environmental, human, social) being critical to our quality of life and needing to be central to our planning and delivery processes (increasingly including mental health and wellbeing for human sustainability, and inter-generational ethical practice);
  13. the (sadly, too gradual) shift from ‘Climate Change’ as an intellectual field of study, to a source of deep community concern for those who were well informed, to pitched battles in the media and in parliamentary politics, to a broader acceptance of ‘Climate Emergency’, to more confident and broad-based environmental activism juxtaposed with ‘conservative institutional solutions’ and attempts to ‘solve the problem’ via Citizens’ Assemblies;
  14. very gradual but nonetheless fundamental shifts taking place in schools and education systems, transitioning from the ineffective and, at times, unworkable ‘command and control’ and ‘expert’ models to more fit-for-modern-environment ‘collaborative learning’ and ‘teacher as coach’ models;
  15. the growth of ‘rights based activism’, eg in ethnic minority groups from the 1960s and people living with disabilities and the rights of gay and lesbian people from the 1970s, then becoming broad-based movements from the 1980s, and now with ‘human rights’ at the centre of most community engagement and empowerment initiatives today;
  16. the rise of democracy in workplaces and some professions (with some transformational change, much transitional change, but also many old habits they find hard to leave behind, like treating junior doctors and lawyers as slave labour before graduating to untouchable king-like status — another relic of ‘the public school system’);
  17. the democratisation of the arts and music (from an exclusive club, tightly-controlled by a powerful few to a post-punk generation and digital creative age where ‘anyone can do anything and probably will!’);
  18. acknowledgement by many institutions and cause-related advocacy organisations, most recently in mental health and suicide prevention, that solutions are to be found in involving people with ‘lived experience’ and the development of (SP) Lived Experience Networks in countries like Australia and the UK (I’m a member of both);
  19. growing and more widespread acknowledgement that to empower one group of disempowered people it needs another group of people to ‘give up’ some of their power or ‘share their power’…perhaps the biggest barrier to change that remains (and it’s often powerful individuals, corporations and media groups that are the biggest threat to democracy, not governments);
  20. the rise of the digital age of democracy…perhaps the biggest opportunity we have although there are many critics and resisters, often due to lack of experience and understanding of its possibilities and, of course, those whose power and day-to-day practice is threatened by digital democracy;
  21. the very recent shift, fuelled by the COVID19 Lockdown, from a negative, inert focus on talking about ‘digital exclusion’ to a positive, dynamic, action-oriented, focus on doing something about ‘digital inclusion’!

Before covering the relatively narrower focus of ‘the origins of deliberative and participative democracy’, let’s give some thought to the broader context in which it sits: the origins of the very concept of democracy (which is to some extent an ‘end’ and to some extent ‘a means to an end’) and the core purpose of democracy — citizen and community empowerment.

The Origins of Democracy and Our Evolution towards Empowerment

Most scholars tell us that the origins of our modern democracy are to be found in Ancient Athens. The Athenians had what was considered in those days an idealistic notion of involving every citizen in every decision. They had the ‘will’ but not the ‘way’

[A big qualification needed here of course because, as in so many countries, even in the 21st Century, there’s a tendency to refer to an ideal of ‘all’ when, institutionally, they meant ‘all men who own property and attended the right schools, with appropriate social status’ — and the Ancient Athenians who are often held up as a utopian example of inclusivity were as exclusive as most other so-called ‘educated and civilised’ societies].

Recently much has been made of the Ancient Athenian practice of ‘sortition’ or random selection of citizens — a useful method for involving small groups of citizens but clearly a second best solution for democratic involvement, developed because it was not thought possible to involve all citizens, so the next best solution was small cross-sectional groups discussing, deliberating and debating for better ideas and a better society.

It’s an approach which can provide depth of deliberation, much like slow yarns in ancient Aboriginal communities (going back much longer than the Ancient Greeks!) but without the breadth of participation, unless there are hundreds of small groups collating their reflections, which the Athenians tried to do in spoken word and scrolls, and the Aboriginal people in artwork and cave paintings, as equally important means of expression.

The recent French Convention on Climate Emergency made a recommendation to change the Constitution to prioritise protection of the planet over human freedom (which, of course, could include freedom to destroy the planet!). The recommendation was rejected. In Aboriginal communities, the natural environment, ‘sustainability’ and ‘net zero’ concepts, etc deliberated in Paris, have always been sacred principles and an integral way of life — until white settlers arrived! The yarn traditionally takes place in the open air under a tree for practical purposes (shade) and the spiritual qualities of the tree which is also a cultural symbol of healing.

These days, with the technology now available, and modern participative tools, developed in pioneering countries like Iceland (and I’m currently working on a development for a new community in Scotland where all citizen stakeholders will be part of an online community), we have the ability to involve all citizens in all decisions, it’s just that this notion frightens certain self-interests — elected politicians; powerful lobby groups; still-powerful media barons like Murdoch; corrupt officials; those still hanging on to the delusional notion that they have authority purely because of their status (eg priests & professionals); those with business models depending on particular methods of limited involvement; academics & pressure groups pushing their particular form of democratic engagement at the expense of other forms.

We seem to have evolved to a position where we now have the ‘way’ but not the ‘will’. The fundamental design of what we call democracy in the modern era, usually focused on parliamentary representation, and often more narrowly on ‘self-selected-within-elected’ government, is far removed from the Athenian ideal of mass participation or total involvement.

In the UK, we have an ‘elective dictatorship’ much of the time, a destructive binary bunfight, with a parliamentary chamber designed for theatre not democracy. It’s an extension of the debating societies at Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, where most Prime Ministers ‘learn their trade’.

We call parliamentary constituencies “seats” but don’t even provide every MP with a physical seat in the House of Commons (650 MPs, c 430 physical seats) because the Commons Chamber is designed for argument and division in a pressure cooker, sink or swim environment (and the Oxbridge debaters have more chance of swimming of course) not discussion, listening, deliberation, collaboration, innovation, generating win-win solutions.

Awwwwwdur! Or, alternatively, re-design for orderly democracy!

Outside of the Chamber, there are some better, more mature, more productive mechanisms for government, parliamentary representation, and more positive, practical democracy — from constituency surgeries to cross-party taskforces to Select Committees to recent trials with mixed face-to-face and online interaction which improved listening (although Government MPs then voted it down!)— but they all need to seek continuous improvement and periodic reform; to learn from the past and not live in the past.

Outside of the Westminster-centred ‘representation democracy system’, we have some excellent forms of democratic participation — from diverse elected councils (with some of the failings of the national system, including plenty of destructive binaries, but many added value benefits from being close to their communities), to activism (which should be praised more in my view, not demonised as it often is — it usually takes many years before current activism is lauded for its positive contribution, eg the Suffragettes), community research (evolving since the 1920s and 30s), community engagement (evolving since the 1960s and 70s), deliberative & participative democracy (evolving from the 1970s, 80s & 90s), and the latest epoch we’re only just starting to properly understand: citizen & community empowerment.

Much current practice in deliberative & participative democracy is based on academic, intellectual, IQ-centred designs, more for the convenience of the designers than the citizens participating; not designed around the real world citizens live in; disconnected, rather than working with natural connections; exclusive not inclusive, eg if Citizens’ Assembly ONLY; and whilst they can have a high degree of empowerment (eg participants shape the agenda, citizens decide who they want to hear from, participants follow-through on their recommendations, holding government to account) they are sometimes disempowering!

In learning from the past (not living in the past), we need to be more appreciative of those on whose shoulders we now stand. I’ll just mention a few here, who rarely get a mention in the ‘democracy literature’, especially those with a narrow focus on ‘deliberative democracy’, even more so those who have gone even narrower in their focus to specific methods like Citizens’ Assemblies (and narrower still into prescriptive, branded, forms of Citizens’ Assemblies).

One person I like to shine a spotlight on is one of the founding fathers of democracy and transparency, William Tyndale, who tried to challenge the power of the church in the 16th Century, by translating The Bible into English, publishing it and distributing it to ‘the people’ who were being brainwashed by the ‘pulpit dictators’.

[Also a big shout out to West Indian cricketer Michael Holding who this week highlighted systemic ‘whitewashing’ by our un-Christian faiths with state-sponsored, evidence-free history, to maintain the unequal power status quo, eg not acknowledging the achievements of black inventors like Lewis Howard Latimer on a par with white inventors like Thomas Edison, and always representing Jesus ‘of Nazareth’ with white skin, golden hair, and blue eyes).

For his ‘democracy activism’ and challenge of authority, Tyndale was banished, strangled, then burnt at the stake — making sure he was dead and made an example of — but he continues to inspire myself and other democracy and transparency advocates today as ‘the struggle’ continues:

Another person I’d like to pay tribute to is William Shipley, the artist from Northampton who, on 22 March 1754, brought together a group of people who wanted to change the world for the better, and founded the Society for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce, better known today as The RSA:

Many RSA Fellows like myself have been passionate and active advocates and campaigners for deliberative and participative democracy, and community empowerment, over its long life as a Society.

Fellows have continued to meet in small groups in coffeehouses, meeting on the Margaret Mead principle (“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”) and changing the world in a way parliament is incapable of doing — from finding ways to end the inhuman practice of children being sent up chimneys to sweep them (George Smart FRSA was awarded the RSA Gold Medal in 1805 for facilitating this) to the ‘Big Ideas for Breakfast’ meetings in coffeehouses and online ‘breakthrough ideas’ forums that have helped radically shift our thinking of what’s possible in suicide prevention (making zero suicide a practical reality while governments still reluctantly sign up to low ambition goals like “10% reduction in the suicide rate in the next 5 years”).

Although the current leadership of The RSA has got sucked in to the narrow deliberative democracy narrative (CEO Matthew Taylor announcing, in good faith, in his 2018 Annual Lecture, that it might help to make progress to take a narrow focus on Citizens’ Assemblies/Citizens’ Juries — has it helped?), the wider RSA Fellowship continues to have a much broader perspective on deliberative and participative democracy, more flexibly applying and adapting principles to diverse approaches around the country — where it’s easier to find examples of progress and impact than at national level where the track record of Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Juries remains poor.

I became a Fellow of The RSA in 1996, invited to join after my pioneering deliberative & participative democracy initiatives in the UK, and I was Chairman of The RSA in Australia and New Zealand, 2008–2015. One of the highlights for me was the RSA Coffeehouse Challenge which was part of the 250th Anniversary celebrations in 2004 (far more exciting for me than meeting The Queen at the Buckingham Palace Garden Party).

We encouraged Fellows to honour the tradition of meeting in coffeehouses in small groups (Fellows and guests) to discuss how to change society for the better…and we had 8,000 people meeting around the country and around the globe, with hundreds of ‘big ideas’ collated. We should do it again! We should combine mass participation with deliberative depth to have greater impact.

Carl Rogers is another key force in our shift as a society away from top-down dependency to citizen empowerment. Rogers challenged the era of expert-led, psychotherapy-dominated, counselling support for people and communities facing personal and collective challenges and seeking help to move forward.

Rogers published his ground-breaking theories and frameworks — Client-Centered Therapy, in 1951; On Becoming a Person, in 1956; Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become, in 1969; and On Personal Power: Inner Strength and Its Revolutionary Impact, in 1977 — but, like many breakthroughs or (as Covey calls transformational changes) breakwiths, it took many years for his new ideas to become widely adopted in practice.

Rogers issued the biggest challenge to date to the ‘command and control’ and ‘expert-led’ models that dominated society until the 1960s.

It was after his death in 1987 that Client-Centered Therapy (or Person-Centred Therapy or Human-Centred Therapy, as it also became known) became a permanent and widespread mainstream shift.

As community researchers, community engagement professionals, and practitioners of deliberative & participative democracy, we have much to learn from Rogers and his legacy.

Our work and the outcomes we achieve are influenced by who we are, and what we bring to our work. “Are we being congruent?” as Rogers would say. Or, in the modern context of our discussions, deliberations, and debates “Why are we wanting to involve people in decisions?” which is where this piece began.

A second main plank of Rogerian philosophy, very effectively translated into practice, was to “listen without prejudice, listen without judgement”. This was a radical notion when Rogers started publishing his work in the 1940s and 50s. It’s still a radical notion for some in 2020 — and a difficult practice for most!

And a third plank was to approach each person, and listen to each person, with “unconditional positive regard” — another challenging concept 60 years ago and still challenging today.

Taking these core principles together, Rogers’ framework opened minds in every sense. Governments, institutions, professionals, experts, did not have ‘the answer’. People, citizens, human beings, and their communities had all the answers they needed and wanted, through their inherent ability to ‘find the answers within’.

It was time to stop seeing people as ‘broken’ or ‘needing to be mended’ and, instead, draw out the intrinsic self-empowerment that was so often previously being consciously suppressed or sub-consciously denied.

Whenever I re-read Rogers, I also think of the Marianne Williamson line, popularised by Nelson Mandela, “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”.

Tim Gallwey is one of the founding fathers of non-directive coaching. Many scholars and coaching training institutes trace back the ‘non-directive coaching revolution’ to Gallwey’s 1974 publication The Inner Game of Tennis.

Gallwey was providing tennis coaching for his clients and realised, once they reached a certain level of competence, they not only didn’t need training or mentoring or directive coaching, but their performance improved when they themselves reflected on their own performance and chose what to work on to achieve a higher or more consistent performance level or to achieve their self-set goals. The ‘coach as facilitator’ model in essence, far removed from old-style school sports ‘coaches’ shouting instructions alongside their ‘big stick, no carrot’ approach or the ‘do this, do that, don’t do that’ disempowering guru.

Gallwey applied the same philosophy and framework to other sports like golf, working with people who were technically much more skilled than himself but able to help by not trying to be an ‘expert’ or give ‘advice’ or ‘direction’, as would be the case with a consultant, trainer or teacher, and most mentors at that time (mentoring has evolved enormously in recent years).

He then applied the same philosophy and framework to working with CEOs and senior leaders in businesses and government organisations, often with transformative impact on performance and achievement.

The Inner Game series became bestsellers, culminating in the most popular, practical guide for applying non-directive coaching in the workplace, The Inner Game of Work, published in 1999:

which has also played a key role in democratising many workplaces around the world, involving employees in decisions in a way, which when done well, true to the non-directive philosophy, empowers communities at work and has a ripple effect within communities of interest and geographic communities.

A quick mention here for my first non-directive coach Tim Anderson who I started working with in 1997 and, partly through Tim’s encouragement and inspired by people like Tim Gallwey, Myles Downey, and John Whitmore, I trained as a non-directive coach, which helped transform my thinking and practice in community research, community engagement, deliberative & participative democracy, and citizen/community empowerment.

Anyone wanting to study (abuse of) power and to tackle the problem of abuse of power in our society must study and acknowledge the brave few who’ve stood up to the abusive authorities (from governments to the churches to the media barons to the architects and maintainers of institutionalised racism to the co-conspirators of institutionalised child abuse), challenged injustice, called out discrimination, highlighted corruption, etc.

We’re talking about ‘whistleblowers’ (or, if we stop using the pejorative language of the abusers, ‘ethical champions’) like Jeff Morris who exposed unethical practices in one of Australia’s big four banks, only to be ignored by his employer, Commonwealth Bank, the financial sector regulators, the government, even a Senate Inquiry, as well as being demonised and harassed in the way most ‘ethical champions’ are when they are simply saying “this is wrong…can you not see that this is wrong?”!

The Australian Government rejected calls for a Royal Commission into misconduct in the banking & finance sectors on 26 separate occasions — saying ‘nothing to see here’ and ‘we’re working with the banks to make necessary reforms, no need for a Royal Commission’.

Eventually the Royal Commission went ahead. At the public hearings (broadcast live — and I watched/listened every day), we heard horrific stories of people being abused by these powerful institutions, with a culture so rotten that “good people acted badly” in this system, desperately trying to implement management directives and being driven by a reward system that was “ethically and morally wrong…and, in some cases, clearly illegal”.

Banks and insurance companies charged fees for services they never provided and never intended to provide. Staff set up accounts in fake names, or without informed consent, to get bonuses. Life insurance premiums were charged to the accounts of clients known to have already died “because it helped get us off to a good start to the year in hitting our financial targets and KPIs”!

Regulators had little or no authority. Individual managers moved jobs between banks and financial services firms and the regulators, so were ‘captured by the system’ and often personal friends with all the poachers and gamekeepers (and politicians) who rorted the system.

When Commissioner Hayne published his report, the Australian Government desperately tried to spin it as ‘their success’ but the evidence was too damning.

They said they would seek to implement all the recommendations but back-tracked quickly on some key proposals until, they said, it could have ‘further consultation with the sector’; and then, when COVID19 hit, it further delayed implementation, no doubt hoping ‘it will go away’.

Sadly, those ‘ethical champions’ and victims of child sexual abuse from priests who are still waiting for some of the recommendations of their Royal Commission to be implemented, notably by the Catholic Church, will have found it all too easy to relate to the experiences of those subject to abuse by the banks, insurance companies, superannuation firms, financial planners, financial regulators, and governments who should have a duty of care.

Incidentally, that news feature above highlighting Jeff’s strength in exposing Commonwealth Bank and playing a key role in getting the Banking Royal Commission also features investigative journalist Adele Ferguson. Adele has very modern methods but is an ‘old school’ investigative journalist who digs deep into a story and reports on it with forensic detail. She also won awards for her investigation of the ‘Aveo & retirement villages scandal’ where older people were being exploited for financial gain, being poorly cared for and badly treated despite paying vast sums of money to corporates like Aveo:

Adele uncovered cases of elderly people dying in retirement villages where the evidence suggested the deaths were preventable, and there was also systemic abuse.

Older people, thinking they would live out the rest of their independent lives in a retirement village, would pick up the glossy brochure from Aveo, and give them all their life savings and receipts from the sale of their family home to have a nice residence and quality of life with appropriate services provided. On moving in to the village, they discovered clauses in their long, complex contracts that restricted what they could do, punished them for breaches, and even effectively ‘expelled’ them from the village.

On leaving the village, residents discovered that not only did Aveo run the village but they had sole authority over buying and selling properties and determining the price properties were sold at. Huge fees were charged and those leaving the villages (alive) were severely financially disadvantaged.

And families whose loved ones had died were told it would take some time before they could sell they property (despite the promotional literature saying properties were ‘in high demand and snapped up quickly’) so they were charged ‘management fees’ and ‘service fees’ for 12 months after their (usually) mother or father had died.

There has now been reform of the sector, from within and without, partly due to the investigative work by Adele Ferguson and the always excellent ABC 4 Corners team, and partly due to independent inquiries, notably by Kathryn Greiner in NSW. But, worringly, prior to the journalistic inquiry, there had been several parliamentary inquiries that had found no cause to act!

Having lived and worked in Australia for 14 years, I had my consciousness awakened around the institutionalised racism that characterised Australia for many years, and the continuing racism to this day, despite Australia often being held up as a successful model of ‘multi-culturalism’.

I already knew some of the history — or did I?! I knew about the ‘White Australia’ policy for immigration, and the fact Indigenous communities had their lands appropriated, and Aboriginal people were forced to live on ‘reservations’, and the inhuman practice of forced separation of families and The Stolen Generations, with Aboriginal children being taken away from their families and given to ‘nice white, Christian families for a better life’.

As I lived and worked in Australia, including reading, watching educational programmes, carrying out research, meeting with Aboriginal people, attending cultural awareness/education/safety courses (which several of my employers ran or encouraged attendance at), I learned more. I learned about ‘The Gap’ and the ‘Closing The Gap’ initiative, with the horrendous statistics on disadvantage, including life expectancy being 10 years lower on average.

I learned how, contrary to a popular misconception, Aboriginal people weren’t ‘emancipated’ after the 1967 Referendum, much discrimination and injustice remained, and they were actually now only being counted in the Census…so, pre-1967, had been treated as if they didn’t exist, despite having lived on the land the British named Australia for 40–50,000 years, based on evidence available at that time (since revised upwards to 60,000 years — the oldest continuing civilisation on the planet).

Before I moved to Australia, I’d read that Australia was the second country in the world, behind New Zealand, to ‘give women the vote’, long before the UK. What I didn’t know was that the deal struck to ‘emancipate’ women also included eliminating existing voting rights for Indigenous people.

I already knew that black sports teams often existed before white sports teams became held up as international representatives of Australia with no black representation. And I knew that black people had served in the Australian armed forces in the World Wars without getting the same recognition as white soldiers. What I didn’t know was that the families of white soldiers were paid allowances and war pensions but families of black soldiers got no payment.

My education and understanding deepened via attending two events. One was an RSA ANZ event on the history (again buried by imperialists and their successors in government) of ‘Aboriginal Engineering’:

The other was seeing Bruce Pascoe at TEDxSydney 2018, then reading his (now) bestselling book Dark Emu:

A superbly researched and beautifully written book that tells the truth about Aboriginal History, rather than the imperialist narrative that was a fundamental part of the institutionalised racism of ‘White Australia’.

I learned, via superbly-researched and professionally written and presented academic work and highly professional community engagement initiatives to gather oral history, written documentary evidence, drawings, paintings, etc that when the British landed in 1788, Indigenous communities had developed what were then sophisticated agricultural technologies for wheat farming and fish farming.

Some of the fish traps could gather hundreds of fish although, true to the Aboriginal tradition, they never fished more than was absolutely necessary for food, and always made sure practices were ‘sustainable’.

But the notion of Aboriginal people being farmers, engineers, or developers of sophisticated fish farming technology didn’t fit the picture the British wanted to paint — of primitive savages they would be able to civilise and ‘save’ through Christian teaching — so the fish farms were destroyed and Aboriginal people told to effectively ‘go back to spear fishing’ to fit the narrative.

Bruce Pascoe has bravely challenged authority and ‘institutionalised, embedded, false, wisdom’ based on meticulously researched evidence but his work is criticised, usually without any accompanying evidence, on a daily basis, and he has become a new target for racists. His ‘rewards’ for speaking the truth include peer acclaim…and dog shit through his letter box.

As I prepared for one of my recent webinars, which included a summary of the big picture history of democracy and empowerment, I found myself quoting John Corrigan of Group 8 Education (John left the corporate world to devote himself to working with schools and improving the education system).

John gave me many great insights into underlying societal trends, including “the age of blind obedience ended in 1918” (although some say in the US it took until the Vietnam War before military authority was finally challenged) and the shifts within the education system, including from a static world where teachers imparted information to ‘sponge kids’ to a dynamic world where internet-informed kids expected teachers to be facilitators and, increasingly, co-learners in a fast-changing world.

Here’s John speaking and facilitating a learning session for The RSA in Australia and New Zealand in 2011:

Two final mentions, to highlight the crucial role of the arts and expressive therapies, which are often undervalued or ignored completely by researchers and deliberative democracy process providers who usually design around their IQ-based, spoken word and written word preferences.

First, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (the OAE) founded in 1986 as a ‘creative democracy’. In line with other societal trends challenging traditional models of authority, organisation, and governance, the OAE rejected the age-old tradition of an orchestra needing to have a ‘conductor’ directing the work of the orchestra — in worse case scenarios, some of these conductors having an overly enthusiastic directing style, even dictatorial.

The OAE’s co-created, co-produced, musical designs, rehearsals and performances, are far removed from what is still the mainstream today, and many people think the better for it.

They also work with children and young people to help them experience the joy of musical expression, including teaching them (yes, teaching is appropriate in this case)how to play a diverse range of musical instruments, contemporary and historical, and engaging them in co-productions.

When the iconic Kings Place opened in London (disclosure: with my assistance for the community & stakeholder engagement), the OAE moved its base there, and partnered with Kings Place to take music into the local community and bring local kids and schools into Kings Place.

Evidence shows that teaching kids how to play musical instruments, including kids from disadvantaged public housing estates, helps to give them confidence and raises their educational attainment levels acros-the-board.

Btw — both the OAE and Kings Place are under threat from COVID19 and are reliant on donations at the moment, so do donate if you can and feel it’s a good cause. As well as music, poetry, sculpture, comedy, etc Kings Place has interesting political analysis, lectures and discussions, including the latest feature (as I write) on the extent to which Judges ‘Shape Our Society’:

Last but not least, a daily inspiration, my son Chris. He’s one of the very best facilitators I know for engaging with disadvantaged young people. The thought and creativity he puts in to listening, deep empathy, deep engagement, drawing out disillusioned, disempowered young people is a sight to behold — seeing the hoods come down, the heads come up, the eyes gleam, the smiles come on their faces, the energy levels rise…

He empowers young people facing disadvantage. Not just asking them to take part in a survey, or focus group, or deliberative forum, or other forms of intellectual exchange, but asking them what they want to focus on, what their agenda is, and how they would like to express themselves.

The video below is the output from a project Chris did with Kev Curran and the Inspired Youth team (Chris as producer/facilitator, Kev as filmmaker). The kids had all experienced being ‘put in care’ and the (sadly) widespread inhuman practice of being split from their siblings. They opened up and shared their experiences, and said they wanted to express themselves in the form of a music video, which was then shown at events and sent to the relevant authorities and providers of ‘residential care’ or fostering services.

There were two semi-professional artists involved, Liam and Isi, the rest are the kids themselves — with others behind-the-camera (given training and coaching on all relevant disciplines) as well as those on the screen.

Please listen right to the end, with Liam’s powerful outtro being the message the young people wanted to send to other young people who might currently be having the kind of experience they might be having:

Having taken a much broader ‘big picture’ approach to responding to the question “where has this all come from?”, below is the narrower response version, followed by the list of references for further reading or listening.

The Origins of Deliberative & Participative Democracy as a Practice and Professional Discipline

I was one of the pioneers of deliberative and participative democracy, notably in my role as the very first ‘Research & Engagement Manager’ at City of York Council in the UK.

I’ve recently published “The York Revolution, 1989–1991” which will be a chapter in my forthcoming book “The Engagement and Empowerment Project: Case Studies of Transformational Change”.

You can read this key chapter on The York Story here:

As I say in this chapter, various initiatives to enhance participation and deliberation in our local, regional/provincial/state and national/federal democracies (some of which became frameworks, tools or methodologies to be flexibly applied, some more rigidly-defined, and some which later became ‘movements’), were occurring, often independent of each other.

Origins in Professional Research

One ‘stream’ was professional research. The UK Market Research Society (MRS) — of which I’ve been a Fellow since 2001 — had been founded in 1946 and, through the 1970s and 1980s, a thriving ‘social research sector’ had developed, undertaking commissioned projects for government clients and some charity clients or foundations, sometimes working with academic researchers, sometimes independently.

In the 1980s, the research and polling firm MORI (where I worked from 1984–88) began carrying out residents’ surveys for local authorities in the UK, the first two for the London Borough of Southwark and the London Borough of Lewisham in 1984.

There was a boom in this type of survey research, with supporting qualitative exploration and insight-seeking, then a greater emphasis on strategic review and evaluation through the 1990s.

And then firms like MORI (now Ipsos-MORI), BMRB (now subsumed into Kantar TNS), SCPR (now NatCen), Opinion Leader Research (now effectively Britain Thinks), and RBA (of which I was Chief Executive) broadened their remit into what these days is known more as community engagement and deliberative & participative democracy.

The MRS has recently commissioned an independent review of the current state-of-play for deliberative & participative democracy. I’ve provided the link at the end of this piece, as it’s the most up-to-date summary as well as being an independent evaluation, but I’ll add the link here too:

Origins in Community Engagement

Running alongside the research sector, often independently of it but with occasional collaboration and periods of overlap (often when new legislative requirements ‘flooded the market’), there was a constantly evolving and spreading ‘community engagement’ stream. Many trace back the ‘birth’ of the ‘community engagement movement’ to the 1960s, with the seminal publication and popularisation of Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation in 1969:

Sadly, 50 years on, there’s still a lot of tokenism around!

When I was working in community engagement in the 1980s, there was a relatively small group of practitioners, often from diverse backgrounds — research, social work, sociology, church-based groups, town planning, youth work, the arts — and we loosely networked at times or had occasional events, but often operated independently.

In 2020, there are thousands of community engagement practitioners around the world, including ‘practitioner networks’ like Engage2Act in Australia (Australia has many excellent community engagement practitioners) and ‘professional associations’ like IAP2Australasia. IAP2, globally, drew from Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation when devising its now widely known and widely used (all around the world) IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation:

At several recent events, like the Victorian Local Government Association (VLGA) webinar on Deliberative Engagement, deliberative processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Juries were positioned in the Involve or Collaborate columns, but not Empower (partly due to the narrow interpretation of Empower).

For as long as the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation has existed, a debate has raged about precisely what ‘Empower’ means, what it means as an output or outcome from a public participation exercise, and how it’s achieved in the process of participation.

Most researchers, engagement practitioners, academic researchers, government clients, town planners, transport planners, infrastructure businesses, deliberative democracy advocates and practitioners…all tend to agree on the importance of going beyond simple provision of information or ‘just consulting’ the public.

However, as more commissioners and deliverers ‘go through the gears’ or ‘advance up the ladder of participation’ to have greater involvement and collaboration — genuinely trying to achieve this with evidence of practical implementation in projects and emerging policy frameworks — they tend to often ‘fall at the Empower hurdle’.

Governments, regulated utility businesses, regulators, infrastructure businesses, etc tend to ‘have a nose bleed’ when moving up to ‘Empower’ territory because, by definition, empowering people and organisations means giving up some of your power!

Calls for citizens’ forums, assemblies, referenda, etc to be ‘binding’ would usually have firm push-back.

Many government organisations tend to say say ‘we have elected representatives so they must have the final decision’. And regulators tend to say they don’t have such authority to ‘Empower’.

For example, I was Customer & Stakeholder Engagement Manager for an Australian energy business (Ausgrid) when the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) carried out a Strategic Review of its Stakeholder Engagement Framework.

Although many stakeholders called for greater ‘Empowerment’ and my own formal submission to the AER urged it to shift further in the direction of ‘Empowerment’, the final published document states:

Given the nature of our role as regulatory decision maker, we expect the majority of our engagement activities will occur at the levels of ‘Inform’, ‘Consult’ and ‘Involve’. In much of what we do, we cannot share or delegate decision making.

However, we have included the higher levels of ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Empower’ in the spectrum as there may be occasions or activities where engaging at these levels will help us achieve our objectives.

To many engagement, empowerment and democracy advocates, this sounds like a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire concept of ‘Empowerment’ — ‘empowerment…if it helps us achieve our objectives’! — or, at the very least, an extremely tentative dip into the water, best avoided!

The challenges of effecting true ‘Empowerment’ remain in 2020, including within the contemporary ‘Deliberative Democracy’ movement which has recently been characterised as, then branded as, the ‘Deliberative Wave’, with a particular focus on two narrowly-defined methods (despite the fact there are dozens of methods available and freedom to create new methods in tailored approaches for specific objectives and desired outcomes) — those two methods being the Citizens’ Assembly and the Citizens’ Jury.

Some advocates for, and practitioners of, Citizens’ Juries & Citizens’ Assemblies say they are, by definition, Empowering models and methods because, for example, they “give everyday people the opportunity to influence decisions” (though they have a poor record of impact so this argument is thin) and “empower people by informing them, giving them access to ‘experts’, enabling them to weigh up all of the information, and make informed decisions”.

However, in practice, a Citizens’ Assembly or Citizens’ Jury can be designed and implemented at either end of the IAP2 Spectrum or either end of Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation.

It can be truly Empowering, eg by enabling Jurors or Assembly Members (selected randomly or via a quota sampling process to be ‘a cross section of the population’ or via a merit-based selection process or purposive sample, eg of young people or older people — many options are available, and if anyone tells you these options are not available, they’re disempowering you!) to shape the topic or question to focus on; the scope of inquiry and deliberation; the process of inquiry and deliberation; who is considered to be appropriate to deliver information or give evidence (ie the public decides who the ‘experts’ are or who they want to hear from and how they want to receive their ‘evidence’); and so on through to the public participants deciding how to report, and how their recommendations are going to be followed up, eg in accountability audits to ensure implementation and impact.

At the other end of the Spectrum, however, a Citizens’ Assembly or Citizens’ Jury can be designed and implemented as very much a ‘top-down’, ‘expert-led’ process of providing information and facilitating deliberation, with very little Empowerment, eg the topic or question to consider being fixed from the start; the process already mapped out by the client commissioner and/or Assembly/Jury designers/deliverers; a process that is heavy on presentations from pre-determined ‘experts’ (self-appointed experts choosing other experts!); with little or no influence over the process; and no accountability follow-through.

At its worst, and I’ve seen a couple recently, these latter types of Citizens’ Assembly or Citizens’ Jury are not really Deliberative Democracy at all; they should be more accurately branded Deliberative Technocracy!

Sadly, they do tend to spring up because of the tendency of government clients and some of those designing and delivering these types of exercises to want to ‘control the agenda’ and ‘control the process’ to a degree that means there is never an opportunity for any real Empowerment.

It’s worth also reflecting back on that oft-quoted description of Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Juries as “giving everyday people the opportunity to influence decisions’. Which decisions is it giving them the opportunity to influence?

If it’s a tightly-defined question and process, there might be a degree of influence but no more than would be the case in a ‘Consultation’ exercise. However, if citizens are influencing ALL decisions, including what the Assembly or Jury deliberates on and how it deliberates, it then moves in to Empowerment territory.

And it’s also worth noting here that IAP2Australasia’s Strategic Plan is founded on the principle of, and stated clearly on the front page of the Plan, that:

We believe that all people have the human right to be engaged in all decisions that affect them.”

which sets out the ‘manifesto commitment’ from the start — that any design will be founded on citizens’ rights to be heard and to shape their future, not be based around organisational convenience, or risk management, or ‘stakeholder management’ by corporate communications, or even ‘because this process works’. This takes the entire process to a higher level instantly.

Origins in Community Planning and Policy Planning

Once again, often independently of the evolving and emerging professional social research and community engagement streams, a series of developments took place in a number of countries to try and better involve citizens and communities in decisions that affect their lives, especially around community planning and ‘high level policy planning’, with many of the pioneers being driven by a passion for involving and empowering citizens.

I won’t say too much on this particular part of the history because it’s been more comprehensively written up, partly because it’s been more the field of academics and think tanks in the past 20 years, and has more recently been embraced by a number of enthusiastic sponsors, notably OECD (some would say an unlikely candidate to be leading the public participation and deliberation debate!) which has produced a large body of literature recently (with a comprehensive analysis and reporting on those pieces of the deliberative and participative democracy jigsaw it has chosen to focus on, although its scope has been rather narrow — and it has been reluctant to venture into ‘Empowerment’ territory like its professional cousin, the AER).

By far the best source of knowledge, insight, and further reading is the newDemocracy Foundation podcast series:

Very good podcast series, notably the early recordings on the history with some of the key movers & shapers.

Episodes 1–9 in particular tell the history of deliberative democracy and to a lesser extent participative democracy in its broader sense — and, in essence, participative democracy is about going ‘broader’, widening participation in the democratic process, both in terms of the population context (eg how do our democratic institutions and processes create ongoing opportunities for participation?) and the individual initiative or project context (how wide are you going in your specific initiative or project in your design and delivery?)

There are excellent interviews with some of the founding parents of deliberative democracy, including the ‘inventor’ of the Citizens’ Jury, Ned Crosby, from the US, and the son of Peter Dienel, who independently (in what seems like an example of collective consciousness transmitted through the universe!) developed Planning Cells in Germany.

Then there are other excellent contributors from the US, Canada, Denmark, Australia and the UK which give you fine tutorials with the professional facilitation of Professor Carson, and reading lists (or further listening lists) in the very helpful Notes for each episode.

The more recent episodes are more of a mixed bag, and it depends on what you’re looking for. Following COVID19 Lockdown, the focus has shifted very much to online facilitation and online deliberation processes. You may be especially interested in this, or not.

Some, I think, are very good — I’d strongly recommend Australia’s Emily Jenke, talking about how her team quickly (indisputably quickly) moved the RACQ Citizens’ Jury online, how they did it (including giving everyone appropriate digital access), and lessons learned. Others — well, let’s say it just depends on what you’re interested in.

What has now become firmly branded as Deliberative Democracy– with a capital D and C (as opposed to the broader deliberative & participative democracy around the world which is very diverse and constantly emerging and evolving across the various disciplines such as research, community engagement and community youth empowerment)…

…and, also very recently, even more narrowly branded as the ‘Deliberative Wave’ (it’s important to acknowledge the narrow scope of this particular body of work)…

…has been written up in the publications produced by OECD, including its ‘launch’ publication on 10 June ‘Catching the Deliberative Wave’:

including Good Practice Principles for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision Making.

I would recommend it as an excellent read, with some terrific case studies, and many good insights and tips.

It also has contributions from a number of leading practitioners of deliberative and participative democracy around the world.

I would also issue a few warnings though:

1. Always beware ‘prescriptive manuals’, especially here as this is a field where some of the biggest impacts have come from flexible, tailored, approaches, whereas rigid Citizens’ Assembly or Citizens’ Jury models which have no broader participation opportunities have a poor track record of success in having impact, or changing anything, despite sometimes having vast budgets.

2. There’s some evidence that some of those deeply involved in the ‘Deliberative Wave’ movement might be promoting their own interests rather than the interests of citizens or the long-term interests of enhanced democracy. The Citizens Assembly boom has become big business (£520,000 for ClimateAssemblyUK and £1.4 million for the Scottish Assembly) so it now has people with business models to defend and who want to promote their methods that work for them, rather than the most appropriate or effective mix of methods for others’ best interests.

3. There are powerful political interest groups and lobby groups involved, especially in Europe and the UK, who want to promote Citizens’ Assembly models as it helps them influence the agenda, rather than empowering citizens. And some are clearly passionate about ‘empowering citizens’ but ‘the wave’ is leading calls for ‘institutionalising’ Deliberative Democracy in forms which potentially replace parliamentary chambers or “legislate for 4 Citizens’ Assemblies a year”, ie ‘legislating a method’?!

4. There are many ‘moot points’ which the ‘Deliberative Wave Movement’ doesn’t like to moot! There really should be more debate at both a level of principle and practice, including is ‘random selection’ or ‘sortition’ a key principle of democracy or simply a method of selection (others available) for an engagement and deliberation exercise?

5. The #DelibWave movement was clearly biased against ‘digital democracy’ and online deliberation prior to COVID19 Lockdown (including having several high profile Citizens’ Assemblies which were face-to-face only with no other opportunities to participate, eg via online forums, and the OECD having minimum qualifying criteria including “at least one day of face-to-face”) and has been slow to embrace online approaches, especially asynchronous methods, which are actually more ‘natural, real world’ for citizens, and are established methods — I’ve been using them since 2008).

6. More generally, the methods used by (some, not all) Deliberative Democracy practitioners are far removed from the real world that citizens live in (which community engagement practitioners tend to be much better at working around), and often highly intellectually-IQ-focused with little opportunity for other forms of expression, and not good at being inclusive to account for diversity or empowering those with a communications difficulty, disability, or simply not confident in that environment.

7. Many recent Citizens’ Assemblies have not been designs or deliveries at the ‘Empower’ end of the spectrum. They’ve been more top-down, expert-led, deliberative technocracies, and this reflects what the OECD and its contributors are probably comfortable with themselves. When the OECD Good Practice Principles were ‘put out for consultation’ (yes, ironically, a very traditional consultation method for a set of Principles of Deliberation!!), I tried to highlight the omission of the key Principle of Empowerment but it fell on deaf ears, as so often it does. I was told it was “implicit” but replied “if it’s not explicit, it doesn’t happen” (that’s been my experience).

8. Some have not only embraced digital democracy and online engagement methods (some had embraced them pre-COVID19, many since Lockdown), but now see “the genie out the bottle…no going back” which makes sense to me, especially if we’re trying to reflect the real world around us which has taken a fundamental, permanent shift to online in many respects (I had my first online funeral recently, I’m sure it won’t be my last, and I expect it to be a standard option from now on).

However, some Deliberative Democracy providers have been reluctant to ‘go online’ and are bursting to ‘get back to face-to-face’ as well as having, during COVID19, simply tried to move their face-to-face process online (usually to Zoom) so not been much ‘digital thinking’ yet, just continuing ‘face-to-face thinking’ and temporary adaptation rather than transformational change.

I wrote this piece either side of running a webinar for LGPro in Australia, for local government managers, where there is heightened interest in deliberative & participative democracy, especially in Victoria where the Local Government Act 2020 encourages movement in this direction.

A few days before my webinar — which was broad-based across all aspects of deliberative and participative democracy, community engagement and empowerment — there was a webinar run for the Victorian Local Government Association (VLGA), run by Mosaic Lab and the Sortition Foundation, which had a narrower focus on deliberative processes.

Mosaic Lab produced a guide to deliberative processes which it has (helpfully) made publicly available:

It’s a high quality guide which will be useful for those who choose to use deliberative processes.

There’s too much prescription for my liking, eg. “The key elements of a deliberation are…a deliberating group is selected using a random and stratified recruitment method”. I prefer more flexible pragmatism to assist local councils and, in fact, deliberation as a process can be applied to any group, however they are recruited, plus ‘random selection’ is often a myth when we scrutinise the method (the Sortition Foundation sends out random invites but only gets a 5% response rate so the next phase of quota sampling or stratified random selection is from a self-selecting pool).

Other sections of the guide are more helpful, in my view, eg. “(Citizens’ Juries/Citizens’ Assemblies)…can comprise any number of people, and examples around the world vary from 12 to 1,000 participants. Currently in Australia, the deliberative group often consists of 30 to 45 people”.

My main concern with these types of guides though, and the focus of webinars like this one (which I attended live), is the impression it gives to local government managers and councillors that new legislation like the Local Government Act 2020 is all about deliberative processes. It isn’t!

The Victorian Government’s own briefing document (link below) says “The Local Government Act 2020 is a principles-based Act…the aim of ensuring all Victorians have the opportunity to engage with their council on local priorities and the future of their community…enable participatory democracy…stronger voice in shaping their community…The Act does not prescribe what are deliberative engagement processes…a broad interpretation should be taken…”.

Clearly some will, for various reasons, narrow the field, advocate for particular processes, and start to prescribe, but it’s good practice to consider all options and create flexible, fit-for-purpose designs to meet local objectives and circumstances, not a method-led or branded product led approach.

For reference, here’s the Victorian Government’s briefing note (with the principles set out, to be flexibly applied):

So, there are many things to challenge. I’ve listed all of my challenging blogs and articles below. You may agree, you may disagree, that’s democracy!

But please at least read and consider the points raised, including the (non-directive) good practice checklist, published pre-Lockdown (on 16 Feb) to at least try to ensure factors such as digital were at least thought about (which they often weren’t at that time, and still limited now, eg a tendency to rush to Zoom only, or create false binaries like ‘asynchronous v synchronous’ when it’s actually good practice ‘natural’ design to have both).

The Vittles Challenge!

Transparency: it’s a key principle that’s often held up by democracy advocates — but how good are we at practising it? I had a link to this piece earlier, in reference to one of the founding fathers of democracy and transparency, William Tyndale, but didn’t want you to miss this:

Listening: it’s at the heart of all effective research, engagement, democracy, personal and professional relationships — but how good at it are we (and do our processes enhance listening or get in the way of listening?):

25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester (the ‘House of Horrors’): a model case study in listening, engagement and community empowerment:

A Good Practice Audit Checklist for Deliberative & Participative Democracy (published pre-COVID19 Lockdown on 16 Feb 2020 when there was still much bias against digital):

The OECD Good Practice Principles for Public Deliberations Consultation: Paul Vittles’ response challenging some of the content and highlighting the omission of THE Key Principle of Empowerment:

Challenging the (increasingly blinkered) Deliberative Wave movement, including its bias against digital democracy (published pre-COVID19 Lockdown on 19 March 2020):

‘Don’t stop listening to your clients and customers and blame COVID19 — there’s an online world of possibility’ (an edited version of my previous piece, published immediately post-COVID19 Lockdown, to emphasise what can be done online, with several case studies — from Australia — drawing from a series of ‘online only’ demonstration projects in 2013–15)

‘You still talking ‘digital exclusion’ or are you doing digital inclusion?’ (case studies of diversity and inclusion, including digital inclusion, and current live projects and initiatives in digital inclusion — one to give 100% digital inclusion to all those aged 50+in York — and then 100% Digital City):

MRS Impact Article

In January 2020, the UK Market Research Society (MRS) commissioned an independent journalist to review what was currently happening in deliberative & participative democracy, interview some of the key ‘authorities’ on the subject, and write up a summary article.

It was published in Research Impact magazine in the first week of July. I’ll leave the last word(s) with this independent evaluation:

Paul Vittles is a professional researcher, facilitator, consultant, coach, and counsellor who was one of the pioneers of community engagement & empowerment, and deliberative & participative democracy, in the UK as the very first ‘Research & Engagement Manager’ for City of York Council.

From his forthcoming book “The Engagement and Empowerment Project: Case Studies in Transformational Change”, Paul has recently published a chapter on “The York Revolution, 1989–1991” (see reading list above).

The public participation and deliberation strategy and framework that Paul creatively designed and applied in York shaped the way that most UK councils adopted citizen, customer and community involvement approaches.

Over the next 13 years, Paul was a consultant for 65 UK councils, as well as central government, NHS, a range of public agencies, and regulated utilities.

Paul moved to Australia in 2005 and lived in Sydney 2005–2019, holding Director-level leadership roles with Nielsen, Urbis, Kantar TNS and Instinct and Reason, also being the first Customer & Stakeholder Engagement Manager for Ausgrid, as well as being Strategic Workplace Wellbeing Adviser for Ausgrid during its major re-structure.

Whilst in Australia, Paul’s achievements included:

  1. winning the Australian Market and Social Research Society (AMSRS — now The Research Society) Best Paper Award 2005 for “Research as a Life-Changing Experience” (many transformational change case studies!);
  2. winning the AMSRS WA Best Presentation Award (twice) for “The Best Way To Predict The Future Is To Create It” and “Big Picture Thinking, Big Picture Doing”;
  3. being the only person ever to twice reach the final of the TEDxSydney competition for “the best idea worth spreading” — winner in 2011 for “Listen Hear: The Global Campaign for Effective Listening” and a finalist (on stage at the Opera House) in 2014 for “Digital Life Saving” (digital communications technology solutions for suicide prevention);
  4. helping to develop and launch the truly ground-breaking National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), being one of the keynote speakers at the NDIS Launch Event in Melbourne in June 2013;
  5. pioneering the use of long-form online engagement and deliberation (200 forums now facilitated), including dozens of ground-breaking approaches, such as online forums with homeless people (which have been written up and you can read from the list provided above);
  6. carrying out Australia’s first ever Council ‘online visioning exercise’ for City of Ryde;
  7. developing a national framework for optimal mental health in the workplace, including developing and launching ‘Heads Up’ for beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, and designing the ‘Indicators of a Thriving Workplace’ Survey for SuperFriend;
  8. designing and facilitating the stakeholder engagement that resulted in the establishment of the National Suicide Prevention Research Fund (initial $12 million from the Australian Department of Health; just received another $4.7 million) and then, ultimately, Australia’s first national strategy for suicide prevention

Now re-located back to the UK (back to York) to be closer to family (or so he thought, pre-COVID19!), Paul is a Transformational Change Consultant.

He’s currently running online forums for charities such as Age UK, arts & entertainment venues such as Kings Place, and the NHS/Zero Suicide Alliance to have a continuous flow of feedback about the COVID19 experiences of citizens, customers, communities, audience members, patients, vulnerable people, etc to help shape short-term crisis plans; develop medium-term plans such as coming out of Lockdown; study in depth what makes people feel safe and what strategies are most likely to encourage people to emerge from Lockdown to most effectively kick-start the economy; and map out long-term visions and strategies for ‘Thrive after the Survive’.

Paul is running a Global Stakeholders’ Forum on practical support for mental health & wellbeing, and suicide prevention, and partnering with individuals & organisations on three Suicide Prevention Transformation Projects (SPTPs): #DigitalLifeSaving (digital technology solutions for better identifying suicide risk/danger, early intervention and suicide prevention); Ground-Up Engagement-and-Empowerment-based Community Zero Suicide Plans (‘lots of micro zeros adds up to a macro zero’!); and a package of initiatives with highly practical actions to ‘Design Out Suicide’ (via ‘design thinking’ and ‘process engineering’ aproaches to suicide prevention).

He’s facilitating a project to convert (threatened) arts venues into an Arts-Based Community Wellbeing Hubs, with potential for national rollout.

Paul is partnering on a project “to design a new community (including 1800 new homes) around the happiness and success of its people” including enormous potential for innovative applications of digital democracy, and new wellbeing concepts such as the ‘listening cafe’ first developed in Sydney when Paul was undertaking his professional counselling training and qualifications.

And, as a Trustee of Age UK in York, he’s facilitating a year of celebration for its Anniversary Year in 2021, including a goal “to give digital access to every resident aged 50+ by December 2021” — with all partner agencies in York now wanting to sign up to 100% Digital City.

Paul has also just been appointed to the Board (as a Non-Executive Director & Mentor) of York Community Consulting (YCC), a personal and professional development organisation for undergraduates at the University of York, including seeking opportunities for inter-generational working and learning.


Since writing and publishing this piece, I’ve published this critical analysis of Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Juries, listing all the questions we should be asking ourselves and others to ensure a healthy democracy:



Paul Vittles

Researcher (FMRS), marketer (FAMI), consultant, coach & counsellor who helps people and organisations with transformational change and sustainable success.