The York Revolution 1989–1991 (and beyond!): a key chapter in the history of deliberative & participative democracy (“the engagement & empowerment project”).

My favourite York photo — Credit to David Oxtoby (at Disc_light on Twitter) — which David published on Twitter on 15 November 2019 as I was settling back in to my former home city; now my home city once again.

Here’s an important story in our development as a democracy, a society, a humanity. I’m writing the story of the evolution of deliberative & participative democracy that has not yet been told, including a key chapter that has not yet appeared in any of the many books that have been written by academics and practitioners. That is ‘The York Story’.

The revolution that took place in York, in the period of rapid innovation, 1989–1991, when I was City of York Council’s first ‘Research & Engagement Manager’, created a model and set of initiatives that influenced many councils around the UK (I subsequently worked as a consultant for 65 of them), directly influenced national government policy (I was a consultant to many government departments and agencies such as the Audit Commission, and sat on four national taskforces), and shaped much practice in public sector research and engagement in the UK and around the world.

The responsibility of telling that ‘missing story’ appears to have been left to me, and I’ve finally found time to write it down for posterity.

After loving this city, visiting as a child, I had the privilege to live in York for 16 years, from January 1989 to February 2005, before moving to Australia. With family still here (including 3 granddaughters now), and many great memories, we re-located back to York in August 2019, and are now settled with our ‘green home’ project.

Revolution in York, Jan 1989–May 1991

At certain moments in history, there’s a unique confluence of events that make transformational change possible, although transformational change is also a process that can be facilitated (and I lecture at Business Schools and run workshops on this process, so I know it can be taught/facilitated).

City of York Council had an innovative leader (Rod Hills) with real vision, drive and determination, and some innovative ‘Chief Officers’, including the Director of Housing, Bob Towner, who’d come to his local government career via an unusual route including being a paint salesman for ICI. Bob was a politician-turned-local-government-ChiefOfficer.

Rod and Bob had a vision for the Council to be ‘customer-focused’ (supported by an excellent Chair of the Housing Committee, Steve Whitehead) but weren’t precisely sure how to achieve this. They were also facing numerous challenges, including a housing modernisation scheme that had ‘gone wrong’ with the Council hammered in the media for having elderly people ending up living in Council houses with no windows!

They thought one solution might be to recruit some ‘fresh blood’ from ‘the private sector’ (it always amuses me how people generalise about ‘the private sector’ and ‘the public sector’ when they are, in fact, so diverse; and the ongoing prejudice from those who don’t seek to understand ‘the other’).

I happened to be in London, working with MORI (and in my ‘spare time’ running a project training local activists on how to be more effective in their advocacy work using ground-up empowerment approaches, combined with research and data analytics), wanting to move ‘back up north’.

I saw the role advertised at City of York Council, applied, was shortlisted, and attended for interview. I was interviewed, then put into a room for a couple of hours and asked to write a paper on ‘how to make the Council customer-focused’. I wrote the paper, explaining that the entire Council needed to be ‘citizen-focused’ in its planning, policy formulation, and ‘policy delivery’, and then — building on this essential base, and only with this foundation — all the services could be (re)designed to be ‘customer-focused’.

I detailed how this could be achieved — pointing out that to have effective EXTERNAL engagement, it also needs effective INTERNAL engagement; PUBLIC involvement and STAFF involvement being two structures and cultures that are mutually supporting — and how practical research and engagement could assist with the transformation.

I got back to London, and got a call to offer me the role, I accepted, and I agreed to start immediately after Christmas 1988 (I moved from London to York on Boxing Day), starting a New Year, new role, new chapter, in January 1989. I turned up for work on my first day. Bob Towner handed me the paper I’d written as part of the selection process and said “Can you implement this?”. I spent the next 28 months doing just that.

Credit should also go to Peter Berry (Director of Communications), who was part of the ‘brains trust’ behind a lot of the initiatives I had the pleasure to be involved in; Matthew Knight (HR Director), who was totally on board with the initiatives to involve staff; Councillor Dave Merrett (Chair of the Traffic and Transport Committee); and John Rigby (Director of Development) who had that rare combination of vision, strategic thinking, energy, practical innovation, and leadership by example (eg advocating for a cycle-friendly city and cycling to work every day) that ‘makes things happen’ — and quickly.

And there are many other staff and community partners, too numerous to mention, who were part of the York Revolution. Transformational change is always a ‘team effort’. I’m just telling my personal story here, with an emphasis on how research, engagement, consultation, public involvement, staff involvement, and community empowerment provided the foundation, and the right mix of ingredients for transformational change.

Revolution in Housing and Community Regeneration

The Revolution started in Housing as I was initially based in the Housing Service, partly because the biggest problems were here and it was here that change was most needed and most urgently, and partly because the Director of Housing had the drive, passion and vision to lead the change, demonstrating to the rest of the Council what could be achieved.

It’s worth noting that not all ‘Chief Officers’ were on board. The Treasurer famously said “I don’t have customers. Residents are simply raw materials in the production of payments process”! He changed his tune though when the introduction of the unpopular ‘Poll Tax’ threatened to overwhelm the service and I helped him use research and engagement to plot a path through the crisis. Like many, he became an enthusiastic supporter after this.

The first challenge was to completely overhaul the way the Council approached housing modernisation. As with most councils in the UK at this time, the culture and structure was totally top-down and paternalistic. ‘Tenants’ were expected to be grateful to have a council house, live in it, occasionally move out for ‘whole house modernisation’ (a process known as ‘decanting’), then move back into their allocated house (house not ‘home’) and be grateful for the Council modernising it and letting them back in

It was a de-humanising process. When it appeared to ‘work’, the Council was oblivious to the fact that its tenants were being treated with disrespect, and disempowered. When it ‘went wrong’, as it had in York, the fury of tenants and a hungry media always seeking ‘bad news stories’ about the Council would damage the Council’s reputation, be a vote loser, and demoralise staff.

So, we set about turning the situation around completely. Some fairly basic research quickly set out the agenda. Tenants had no say, and no choice, despite knowing more about their own home than any ‘expert’. The Thatcher Government had introduced the policy of selling off Council houses to tenants (those who could afford to buy, and wanted to buy, at heavily discounted prices) and those York tenants who had exercised their ‘Right to Buy’ almost always did one thing straight away — they changed their front door.

In some cases, the front door wasn’t in good condition and needed changing for ‘technical’ reasons. However, it was mainly a statement. ‘Free citizens’ were saying ‘this is my house now, and I’ll put my own stamp on it, and display it to the world, with a shiny, new front door’. People who’d previously been Council tenants living in streets where every house had the exact same front door and no choice in the matter, now said ‘I’m going to be different and I’m going to choose my front door’.

The transformative experience of being able to choose your own front door!

We later responded by giving remaining Council tenants choice in which front door they had when a replacement was needed or due, selecting from a brochure with 6 options in terms of design and colour. The additional cost was negligible, but the value to the community was immeasurable.

Back to the ‘whole house modernisation’ transformation. We introduced an entirely new process, designed with tenants at the centre, and we called it ‘Tenants’ Choice”. When an area was designated for modernisation, we had community meetings to explain and discuss the planned work, and then triangular meetings between tenants, surveyors, and Council staff (eg estate managers, community advisers). These initial meetings discussed both the appropriate macro engagement and monitoring framework and the micro engagement and communications framework for each tenant and house.

Then, moving away from the old ‘top down, standardised, no choice’ model, we asked tenants as well as the technical housing surveyors which parts of the house they thought needed work — complete replacement, or restorative maintenance, or minor repairs, or nothing at all.

In most cases, tenants pointed out that parts of the house were in good condition, they liked them as they were, and — within the constraints of their Tenancy Agreement — they’d tailored to their needs, eg a kitchen or bathroom layout. So they didn’t want their bathrooms or kitchens ripping out and replacing.

The Council staff and surveyors listened carefully. The surveyors gave their assessments on what, technically, needed replacing. The tenants listened carefully. It was an ‘adult conversation’. There was discussion, deliberation, debate, dialogue, trialogue. There was mutual respect, mutual understanding, and a growing recognition of mutual interest.

Through the ‘continuous conversation’ that followed, with ongoing review, learning loops, and formative evaluation, Tenants’ Choice developed around the empowerment principle. There were many iterative developments. Two are particularly relevant here.

Once we started having the trialogue, started listening to tenants as well as Council staff and surveyors, it became clear that we needed to both extend choice and limit choice, but through deliberation and shared decisions. Tenants were very keen to have more say over the detail of the work that was being done and who carried out the work.

One of our ‘idea generation’ sessions highlighted how if it was a private homeowner having the work done they’d have more say over the design, architects plans, etc and they’d choose the contractor, perhaps advised by an architect. We replicated this for Council tenants. There were three-way meetings to run through plans, and discuss options for contractors.

Tenants understood that they couldn’t have total freedom of choice, and this wasn’t even desirable. One tenant even complained to her social worker about suffering from stress “because of all the choices the Council’s asking us to make” — how’s that for transformation?!

We negotiated a process with an approved list of contractors. We then held ‘home improvement and modernisation’ exhibitions where tenants could meet potential contractors, asking questions, and help decide which contractors they favoured or didn’t want. Further trialogue took place.

We also returned to the conversations around the best way of involving tenants in the monitoring and governance of Tenants’ Choice. This was a real game-changer for me, it’s influenced my thinking and practice since, and it’s made me squirm every time anyone argues for “standardisation” or “institutionalisation” of frameworks or processes, rather than empowering people (from Council tenants to those designing deliberative processes) to be creative and flexible in exploring all options for achieving desired goals, not be wedded to a “one size, that’s all” solution.

What we found was that tenants in some areas wanted a small steering group informally assembled, some wanted a more formal ‘Tenants Representative Forum’ with elections in some cases, and some wanted much more loose structures, including many tenants saying “let’s just meet up once a week and discuss how things are going”.

We also found a lot of interest in tenants from one area hearing from tenants in other areas. We arranged formal meetings but more popular were informal ‘tea tours’. This is where we arranged for a group of tenants from an estate next on the list for modernisation to jump on a bus we’d chartered and go to meet with tenants from other estates at their community centres for feedback, insight and advice. We included other areas where work was just starting, in the middle of the contract, just finishing, and — eventually — where there’d been full completion of the Tenants’ Choice process.

Tenants’ Choice was phenomenally successful. It attracted the attention of other communities in York, other councils around the country, the Institute of Housing, Housing News, Inside Housing, and the UK Government Environment Department. Myself and other colleagues were invited to speak at many events and conferences, and asked to sit on national taskforces to share what we’d achieved and how.

I was subsequently contracted to the Department of Environment to co-write a good practice guide to ‘Tenant Involvement’, which I did with great enthusiasm, although I learned that you can never capture the energy in a ‘manual’ and, without total commitment to the empowerment principle, no amount of process will create transformation of the kind we had in York.

We had an independent evaluation of Tenants’ Choice. ‘Satisfaction’ levels among tenants increased from 34% in the modernisation schemes immediately prior to introducing Tenants’ Choice to 95% after full implementation. The Council staff, surveyors, contractors, and community leaders all reported that they were energised by the transformation. And, crucially for sustainability, the costs of the modernisation programme for the Council had fallen by 40%, due to being selective in what work was carried out rather than standard whole-house modernisation.

The ‘engagement and empowerment’ philosophy, framework and processes were then embedded within the mainstream housing services. It was harder for day-to-day revenue-funded services than for the big capital programmes but commitment to the approach and flexible, creative ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ implementation meant that transformational change was achieved within 18 months.

All staff were involved in workshops on how to improve services and make them customer-focused; regular feedback mechanisms and tracking surveys were established (including among a representative sample of all tenants, and a continuous survey among those contacting the housing service each quarter for any issue other than repairs, and random sampling of those reporting repairs, following through on process and outcome).

There were projects and initiatives around improving housing advisory services, tackling homelessness (including experience diaries among homeless people to have ‘impact case studies’ to support policy debates among councillors), improving estate management, and collaborative partnership working with Social Services (then the responsibility of North Yorkshire County Council), Health Services, Police, Housing Associations, Leisure Services, Employment & Training Agencies, etc.

A major component in the transformation of both structure and culture was re-design of the main reception area. Many council housing receptions were characterised by protective screens, bars on windows, security measures, even security guards, especially after violence towards staff and an incident in Blackburn where someone poured petrol over themselves and set themselves alight in the reception area. After each incident, the most common reaction was for greater protection and security measures, raised screens, etc.

Thankfully, and bravely, York decided to go in the opposite direction. Working in the belief ‘treat people with respect and they’ll treat you with respect’, carefully listening and acting on their concerns, we were able to open up the reception area, remove all screens, have comfortable seating, have eye-level contact with staff at the counters, have no security guards, and just have ‘emergency buttons’ under the desks for staff to press at any time they felt threatened. The buttons were never needed as the whole atmosphere changed for the better, and service improvements were made, especially in empathic listening and responding.

Taking Engagement & Empowerment to the National Stage

Then there was one more ‘big bang’ item — the Bell Farm estate. Bell Farm was York’s ‘problem estate’. Not on the scale of ‘problem estates’ in other cities, especially the inner city metropolitan areas which were often highly dangerous and threatening places to be, but OUR main ‘problem estate’.

Bell Farm was the least popular option when tenants were given a choice of where to live, and it was heartbreaking to have empty properties there with people on the ‘Council house waiting list’ saying “anywhere but Bell Farm”.

Incidentally, City of York Housing Service was shortlisted for an award and then made the final of the ‘Tom Peters’ Customer Service Excellence Challenge’. At the final, in a packed Bournemouth Convention Centre, everyone from other councils was stunned by the transformation we’d achieved in York, in such a short timeframe, although Tom Peters did bring everyone down-to-earth by saying in his summing up (partly tongue-in-cheek, though only partly) “So you’re listening to your customers and then responding to their needs — congratulations, you’ve now reached the stage of advanced lip service”!

By this point, we were well versed in community engagement and empowerment, so we decided to try and involve ALL tenants in developing a regeneration plan. There were meetings with community leaders, and open meetings at the Bell Farm Community Hall. It was then decided to survey all households, give all residents the opportunity for input, and it was important that it was ALL, not a sample, for technical reliability of the data, credibility of the plan, and the empowerment benefits of having breadth of participation in addition to depth of discussion and deliberation.

So, all households were visited by trained interviewers from a professional research firm with a questionnaire designed to gather all of the household data required and to give all residents the opportunity to have their say. The survey results were reported back to the community at an open evening at the Community Hall which was very well attended. A draft outline plan was highlighted, and further comments invited.

The Bell Farm Community Regeneration Plan was then submitted to the UK Government Department of Environment, who said they’d “never seen anything like it…never seen such a high quality and quantity of community research and consultation”. They then released funding on a scale never previously released to a non-metropolitan council — £36 million.

It was reported that “the Government has given City of York Council £36 million for Bell Farm”. That wasn’t strictly true, as it was what was called Supplementary Credit Approvals, or permission to spend our own capital reserves but, in the straitjacket of the Thatcher Government, it was effectively a successful bid that released £36 million over 5 years to invest in Bell Farm via implementation of the Community Regeneration Plan.

And, as as bonus, separate funding was made available (proper cash funding this time) for a formal evaluation which was carried out by the highly respected Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of York.

It was vindication for the engagement and empowerment approach that we’d been embedding in the York Housing Service, now endorsed nationally and able to secure funding. I was asked to help roll out the approach across all Council Departments and services, and moved my office from the historic Red House (which is now an Antiques Centre and quirky cafe):

The Red House, close to the Minster, which was my office when I first joined City of York Council.

to the magnificent, but equally inaccessible, Guildhall. These days, City of York Council is in new modern, accessible, state-of-the-art, customer-friendly premises, completing the transformation we began 30 years ago.

Improvements to customer service and communications, built around research and engagement with citizens, communities, customers, staff and other stakeholders, continued to spread across all Council services, policy areas, and initiatives. In addition to having regular feedback mechanisms and tracking surveys in housing, we developed similar mechanisms and surveys representative of all residents and all those contacting the Council.

Re-Design of York City Centre and Deangate/York Minister Precinct

Then we had a big challenge — or series of inter-related big challenges to be more accurate — to re-design York City Centre, to create a cycle-and-pedestrian-friendly City and, specifically, to try and close Deangate, the road running past the front door of York Minster.

I was reminded of this past case study when recently being interviewed about deliberative & participative democracy and the value of different approaches, such as Citizens’ Assemblies or Citizens’ Juries.

For these projects in York, we used a range of deliberative processes but often decided there wasn’t a role for a Citizens’ Jury (which was an approach that some councils in London had used — the concept or term ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ hadn’t been mentioned up to this point).

Although there’ve been a number of Citizens’ Juries or Citizens’ Assemblies recently focused on town or city centre re-design or future town planning, I’d still question its use in those cases as there are so many other, better ways to get DEPTH of deliberation combined with much WIDER participation, with the latter having enormous benefits.

Indeed, the recent Castle Gateway engagement and consultation in York designed and facilitated by Helen & Ian Graham (now facilitating the even more substantial York Central development around the National Railway Museum) has been a model example of how to conduct such an exercise for width and depth:

Back in 1989–91, we involved the citizens of York, and those from outside York who (regularly) use the City Centre for work, shopping or leisure.

We used a range of methods, including surveys, focus groups, feedback forms, community workshops, street stalls, community hall meetings, deliberative forums, deliberative polls, exhibitions, citizens’ advisory groups, customer design teams, radio ‘phone-ins, formal consultation, design competitions, continuous feedback boards…and one rather unusual approach…

When we’d developed broad design concepts for pedestrianising the City Centre, then drawn up detailed plans for consultation, we got to the point of wanting to consult on all the detailed aspects of the plans, including paving design and materials.

One of the great benefits of the ‘continuous conversation’ or ‘ongoing open conversation’ approach is that it’s much more natural than the one-off or phased, unnatural approach often taken by researchers or those only relying on highly structured deliberative processes like Citizens’ Assemblies; and, by definition, it reflects the way views, expectations, preferences, and priorities naturally shift and evolve.

This can be witnessed over the course of 4 weekends in a Citizens’ Assembly, but even better over 3–6 months in a ‘continuous conversation’ approach, including pre-decision, through-implementation, and post-execution.

At a concept level, it was agreed that to shift the ‘balance of power’ from cars and car drivers to pedestrians, the road and pavements should be designed in such a way that pavements and crossings were all on a level so pedestrians moved around easily whilst cars had to drive up or down raised or lowered surfaces (previously, the opposite had applied, with pedestrians often having to step down into the road to cross it). Many conceptual conversations and detailed exchanges went into considerable depth around speed limits, traffic signs and instructions, junctions, entry and exit points, etc.

At one point, York had the largest pedestrianised area in Europe and, proportionately, still has one of the highest degrees of pedestrian-friendly spaces.

Citizens often complain that they’re asked lots of irrelevant and boring questions, often in tedious surveys, and then when they complain out loud it’s reported as “citizens are suffering from consultation fatigue”. But I’ve never heard a citizen complain about ‘fatigue’ when they’re asked good, relevant questions, involved in natural and meaningful ways, feel listened to, and see evidence of their involvement making a difference. It’s energising, and they want more of it!.

When we got to the point of consulting around the paving materials, all the contractors on the approved list who’d expressed interest were allocated a section of the main street, Parliament Street, and asked to lay down a sample of their paving design and materials so we could engage with citizens in as real a situation as possible.

When we set aside a Friday to Sunday to consult with workers, shoppers, residents, leisure users, market traders, shopkeepers, etc it was glorious sunny weather and we had a high level of participation and engagement.

But one problem. Some of the citizens said “ah, but what will it be like when it rains or snows?”. So we arranged for buckets of soapy water to be periodically thrown over the paving displays so they could be tested in different conditions. Some local workers even tried it with two different sets of shoes, as they came to work in trainers and then put on smart leather shoes for work. We even tried to replicate snow conditions with a gooe-y foam substance!

York today — yes, it rains! So if you want to test paving materials in ‘real conditions’, you need to test on wet days, or find creative ways to replicate these conditions, not just ‘ask people about it’ conceptually.

Throughout the entire community engagement process, there was broad agreement with the principle of making the City Centre more pedestrian-friendly, whilst still easily accessible by car with sufficient parking, along with the plans to develop ‘Park & Ride’ sites on the four main entry points to Greater York (which are all now fully operational after much research, engagement, development, refining, and more research).

There were concerns about the scale and timing of the changes, and pockets of opposition or concern about specific issues which the research pinpointed well and put into perspective.

The most contentious issue was the proposal to close Deangate, the road in front of the cathedral, York Minster, as it was a main arterial road, and there was vehement opposition from the very powerful taxi drivers’ lobby.

Now we could potentially have argued here for a Citizens’ Jury on the closure of Deangate, and I’m confident such a Jury would have supported a closure, but I’m equally confident the taxi drivers’ lobby would have used their power to try and block the Jury.

Anyway, that’s all hypothetical. We came up with another solution. We knew that we couldn’t have a PERMANENT closure without the approval of Full Council after a recommendation from the Planning & Transport Committees. However, we could go ahead with a TEMPORARY closure under ‘Standing Orders’ without needing to go to either Full Council or the Committees, although we did decide to put up an ‘advisory paper’.

I then designed a programme of research and evaluation with the Director of Development, to carefully monitor all aspects of the temporary closure, both ‘hard data’ on traffic movements plus citizens’ experiences and perceptions. We announced the temporary closure with recommended alternative routes. We monitored where the traffic was dispersed to — which routes taken, where parked — and traffic levels, including the extent to which alternative modes were used, with cycling heavily encouraged.

Within just 6 weeks, we were starting to get comments from citizens, shoppers, workers, etc “it seems to be ok” and then “you surely can’t re-open it again”. Within 8 weeks, there was 65% support for a permanent closure, with a hard core of opposition now very clearly the taxi drivers, heavy goods vehicle operators, and a few shops worried about access, with a few disabled people still not totally convinced. Further consultation and negotiation continued until after 3 months it was almost universally the view that Deangate should be a permanent closure.

We then shifted into a new phase of designs for a new pedestrian precinct around York Minister, with consultation around concepts and details, and a leaflet with the proposed design being sent to every household in York requesting comments. The return rate was almost 10% specifically on the Deangate proposals, having already had responses in the consultation around Parliament Street design and the wide and deep engagement for all of the plans for the City Centre strategy and design.

In total, we calculated that 22% of ALL York citizens had participated in some part of the research, engagement and consultation process, a phenomenal effort. This included — remember the ‘Jigsaw Picture’ model highlighted earlier — above-the-line opportunities to comment, both qualitative and quantitative, and below-the-line research, including representative samples of residents and other key stakeholder groups.

The photo below shows what the pedestrian precinct in front-of-and-around York Minster is like today, a beautiful quiet place to wander around, sit down, have a tea, coffee or snack, with bustling ‘pedestrian traffic’ at peak tourist times or for celebrity weddings (like Ellie Goulding recently). Most people cannot imagine that, in 1989, it was a main road with 100,000 vehicles a day roaring past the front door of the Minister, damaging the historic building (it’s a bit like not being able to imagine what it was like when we used to be able to smoke in cinemas and theatres, on tube trains, and on planes!).

Deangate used to have more than 100,000 cars going through every day, right past the front door of York Minister. A mix of research, community engagement, deliberative democracy, and public consultation transformed it into the peaceful pedestrian precinct it is today.

It’s without doubt the most extensive and intensive community engagement and empowerment exercise I’ve been involved in, and it’s one of my proudest achievements. Now I’ve re-located back to York, I can enjoy it again, and I do.

It’s also another reason why I baulk at those pushing particular methodologies or ‘deliberative democracy products’ as a solution for almost every issue these days, despite their models and methods often being time-limited, participation-limited, overclaiming on deliberation capability, and creating unnatural environments with everyone locked away in a hotel for a weekend, rather than working with citizens over extended periods of ‘action-learning-and-dynamic-deliberation’ in their own natural environments.

Citizens’ Panel

In the period 1990–97, many councils developed Citizens’ Panels. They were highly cost-effective, successful ways of regularly researching, consulting with, and engaging with a cross-section of citizens.

When the Blair Government took charge in 1997, they commissioned MORI to set up and run a national version, ‘The People’s Panel’, with a large sample size (5000 I think it was) but it was never so successful at a national level, like so many engagement and empowerment approaches that work so well at a local level (just as, in reverse, Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Conventions tend to be more appropriate at a NATIONAL rather than LOCAL level, although they should be considered on their merits, weighed up against ALL available options, given the objectives, desired outcomes, and circumstances).

I started setting one up in York, liaising with other councils that had them — I recall Redditch and Arun, and then Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire (with the highly talented, quality-assured, engagement and empowerment committed, Deborah Wilson moving from Arun to Kirklees and taking her good practice with her. My RBA Team later helped set up and run Citizens’ Panels for Bristol City Council, Cambridge City Council, Lancashire County Council, the London Boroughs of Brent and Bromley, and Warwickshire County Council.

The basic concept was very simple. It was effectively a longitudinal panel design but with greater flexibility, and not just for measurement, with ‘omnibus’ style capability. Councils sent out postal invitations to randomly-selected households, recruited by random telephone calls, openly advertised for Panel Members or recruited via other research and engagement sources (eg via a question at the end of residents or tenants’ surveys, asking “Would you be prepared to take part in our Citizens’ Panel, which is…?”) — or a combination of these recruitment methods.

From the pool of available participants, Panel Members (usually 1000 to 1500) would be selected to be broadly representative of the population on core demographics, perhaps with other quota controls, eg mode of travel to work if there was going to be lots of projects around developing traffic and transport policy, or household composition/lifestage if there was going to be lots of engagement around education, childcare, or aged care.

The Citizens’ Panel then became a database that could be used for a variety of purposes, including often having quarterly surveys of citizens on a range of issues (with core, repeated questions for trends and longitudinal analysis, and topical issues), quick ‘pulse’ surveys or opinion polls, recruitment for focus groups or workshops, and recruitment for deliberative democracy exercises.

In this period, 1990–97, Citizens’ Panel surveys were largely carried out via postal surveys with some conducting telephone surveys. There was no online survey capability in those days, although in 2020 it’s much easier and much more cost-effective to run online surveys of course, and councils do this now.

The response rates in those early days were very high, often getting in excess of 50% response to postal surveys. However, that was partly because the Citizens’ Panel Members had opted-in after the random postal invitations. Panel Surveys were limited in their reliability in representing the population — fresh independent sample surveys were still needed for that — but, in every other respect, they were a highly flexible, cost-effective engagement tool.

The more research-savvy councils, or those with high quality support from professional research agencies, had ‘control’ samples and ‘reserve lists’; they rotated the Panel Membership (eg one-third rotated each year) to keep them fresh, to avoid or minimise ‘conditioning’ and counter ‘attrition’; they carried out empirical tests on representativeness (eg occasionally asking a set of questions on an independent sample survey and a Panel Survey to see if there were differences, and commonly there weren’t unless the questions were about the topic of engagement itself); and they actually made good use of the ‘conditioning’ effects (eg by taking the better-informed Panel Members who’d served for 2 years and inviting them to take part in deliberations around more complex topics where they could start ‘warmed up’).

Reflecting on this, and the 3 streams I outlined earlier, it’s clear that those in the community engagement stream or the deliberative & participative democracy stream who are research-savvy will tend to approach their task somewhat differently and often appropriately and effectively use research tools that others perhaps wouldn’t even think of.

One of the key distinguishing characteristics of professional researchers is that they’re used to evaluating communications impact and ‘scaling’ to the general population to be able to advise their clients on scaleability. I’ve noticed many of those writing about #DelibWave saying they don’t use deliberative polls or evaluate communications impact because they simply focus on the final set of conclusions and recommendations the group arrives at, not how they arrived at those conclusions or recommendations.

Designing-in communications impact evaluation, ie evaluating which particular pieces of information or which specific presenters had most impact on participants, would increase the potential for greater impact on the wider population beyond the small sample of participants in a Jury or Assembly. However, many Deliberative Democracy advocates and practitioners simply don’t see this as the role or purpose of their process, which I think is a big missed opportunity to learn and widen impact.

Citizens’ Charter (and Customer Contracts)

Of all our initiatives in the period 1989–91, the one which had the greatest media coverage was the Citizen’s Charter. It made the national news. ALL the mainstream media sent journalists to York to find out more about it, including interviewing the Council Leader, Directors, and community representatives.

We had interest from ALL political parties. Labour, still in Opposition wilderness, took a keen interest in everything we did, visiting York on several occasions, and developing some of the national policy of what became the Blair Government around what had proven to be a success in York.

When John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as PM, he made the Citizens’ Charter a key policy initiative for UK National Government, although it was different (not just in positioning of the apostrophe!), and a watered down, top-down version which was not in the spirit of the ground-up engagement and empowerment philosophy that had been our foundation in York.

The ground-breaking Citizen’s Charter (process, as well as the publication — John Major & others who said they were committed to the concept didn’t put the hard work in!) which received local and national acclaim.

What we did in York was launch a wide and deep ‘listening exercise’ (or series of listening exercises in fact) to examine and evaluate the needs, expectations, preferences and priorities of citizens to guide the Council’s activities and budget allocation for the year ahead.

Note, importantly, that we didn’t ask about ‘wants’ because City of York Council is a publicly-funded authority not a high street fashion chain. Even today, I hear people saying “let’s ask citizens what they want” which appears a laudable question on-the-surface but it’s not the right question in this context.

We did spend a fair bit of time asking about ‘needs’ but this often turned into a ‘professional’ assessment of need, and the professionals (Architects, Engineers, Environmental Health, Housing, Planning, Public Health, Transport, etc) started to take over and tell people what they needed.

We found it much more empowering to have a conversation around ‘expectations’. If we focus on what citizens ‘expect’, it puts citizens in the driving seat, they’re the only ‘experts’ when we discuss ‘citizens’ experiences’ and ‘citizens’ expectations’.

We also found it to be a very productive and practical conversation. We found expectations to differ widely by service and by citizen but with some commonality, patterns and trends.

There were a few cases of unreasonably high expectations, or expectations that couldn’t be met within existing resources, but many citizens had very low expectations, and we actually saw it as our role as ‘empowerment facilitators’ to raise those expectations.

I later worked in many ‘disadvantaged communities’, including the ten most ‘deprived’ communities in the UK according to Government data and the ten with the lowest educational attainment levels, and all the regeneration plans we developed there were based around raising the expectations of citizens and communities, particularly children and parents.

Council housing tenants and elderly people in particular had chronically low expectations, but most citizens clustered around the average and were very reasonably open to a conversation about what could be delivered in the next 12 months as long as there were plans in place for improvement over the next 3 years if current standards didn’t meet current expectations.

Meanwhile, the minority with very high expectations often turned out to have specific areas of dissatisfaction to address and, if their issues were addressed, they tempered their expectations in our ongoing conversations.

I’ve never seen a council since York undertake and implement this process better, and I think this is for two main reasons (other than the unique confluence and team we had in York, 1989–91). One is that they are often reactive, waiting for a budget crisis, before undertaking a ‘deep listening exercise’ (and sometimes it’s the absence of ‘deep listening’ that’s the problem of course) rather than proactively and positively engaging without a crisis driving it. Lack of money is NOT a good place to start engaging. Engaging constructively in the good times gives you lots of goodwill for the bad times.

The other reason is that many if not most councils and public bodies are too quick to be top-down and to want to ‘manage expectations’ (and when they say ‘manage expectations’, they mean DOWN not UP!) rather than have a ground-up focus, wanting to empower their citizens and communities.

We had surveys, focus groups, community meetings, community workshops, deliberative forums, and a range of deep listening exercises with one-to-one, group, and community-wide conversations. Again, there was no Citizens’ Jury or Citizens’ Assembly style process because it wasn’t necessary; there was no conflict or complex issue that needed to be tackled and resolved.

There was much deliberation though and I developed what became known as ‘the Diamond Model’ because we found that to engage effectively with creative divergence and practical convergence to an agreed set of priorities, it naturally took the shape of a Diamond.

Here’s a later example from one of my facilitation projects in Australia (which helped to develop national strategies and plans for suicide prevention):

The Vittles ‘Diamond Model’ for opening out all the issues to the point where people naturally want to deliberate, evaluate, then naturally start to converge to agreed priorities.

The ‘Diamond Model’ was another framework and process that I developed and used instinctively for many years before later academic study led me to better understand some of the theoretical underpinnings.

I also had many years of experience in using the ‘natural engagement conversation’ process of what I called ‘Past, Present, Future’ (people need to discuss the past, respect the past, build on the past — learn from the past, not live in the past — before moving on to discuss their present, and then be prepared to fully explore their potential future) before I discovered Cooperrider’s ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ and ‘the change psychology literature’.

Studying different academic and professional disciplines, including evidence-based or evidence-informed coaching and counselling (as I have, adding professional counsellor to my ‘toolkit’ in January 2019), and especially different learning and human development theories, has helped to develop my thinking, but I remain rooted in practice and always value ‘ground-up experience-informed’ as much as if not more so than ‘top-down evidence-based’.

I discovered early in my career that people have a fundamental psychological need to feel they’ve explored all the options before naturally deliberating, evaluating, converging and prioritising — hence the ‘Diamond Model’.

If you try to converge too quickly, which often happens in badly designed and badly conducted public consultation, citizens naturally want to open out agendas rather than close them down, so the Diamond becomes more like an egg-timer shape. Then poor facilitators, to use another analogy, are left pushing air round in a balloon.

There’s also a danger of ‘egg-timer’ in a structured deliberative process like a Citizens’ Jury or Citizens’ Assembly which doesn’t empower participants (eg no opportunity to set or influence the agenda and/or process) and tries to too tightly restrict the scope, limit evidence, not leave enough time, or push too early (even after 4 weekends if circumstances are changing) for conclusions and recommendations.

But back to the York Citizen’s Charter. In our extensive and intensive conversations with citizens, we established citizens’ priorities across the whole spectrum of Council responsibilities from broad leadership and policies to specific departmental responsibilities and services — engaging with people as citizens, residents, customers, workers, etc.

We then tried to convert all of their key expectations into SMART goals, making sure they were all specific and measurable, so we could publish a Charter that was not just a broad set of aspirational statements or policy principles but a list of specific goals that we could monitor and evaluate throughout the year and be held accountable for, with full transparency:

Amusingly after all these years, I’m immediately transported back to 1989, especially when I see my photo on the front of the first Citizen’s Charter — with (non-greying) hair!

The Citizen’s Charter was sent to every household (with the predictable noise about it being ‘political’ and ‘a waste of taxpayers’ money’ from a few activists) and we reported quarterly (to Committees and Full Council as well as to citizens) before the end-of-year evaluation showed that we’d delivered on 85% of the goals set for the year, with explanations provided on what was happening on the other 15%.

The annual plan was set in the context of a strategic plan for 3–5 years ahead, including where capital investment was needed to meet citizens’ expectations or where it needed a longer-term cultural or structural change programme.

Although the Citizen’s Charter got all the publicity, in terms of impact on citizens, customers, and communities, an integrated initiative was as important if not more so. This was ‘Customer Contracts’ which we had for all the main Council Services, eg street cleaning and refuse collection.

I often hear well-meaning democracy advocates saying things like “we want to treat people as citizens not customers” or “we want to go beyond customer-focus and create a citizenship revolution”. However, the reality is that we’re all citizens AND customers. If we’re not listening to people as customers, we’re not listening to them as citizens, and vice versa.

We are people, human beings, that congregate in communities and societies, that are organised around formal civic structures, and each individual moves seamlessly (unless we put barriers in the way) in and out of different modes — citizen, resident, customer, worker, purchaser of products, user of private services, user of public services, patient, carer, etc.

If we facilitate ‘people-centred engagement and empowerment’, we recognise all these roles and don’t deny anyone any of these roles.

As I wrote in my submission for my role at York, we need ‘citizen-focused planning’ as a foundation for ‘customer-focused public services’. We also need ‘empowered customers’ as well to strengthen ‘citizen empowerment’.

So, as we were engaging with people in their roles as citizens and customers to develop the Citizen’s Charter, we also developed ‘Customer Contracts’ for each key service. We focused on service standards and, again, on ‘expectations’ — the standards public service customers expect of that service — and communications. We consulted with customers around what they expected, with staff around what was possible to deliver, and with councillors around what they wanted to invest in or approve, or their sense of priorities.

We identified where to meet expectations, where to ‘manage down’ expectations that couldn’t yet be met (with longer-term improvement plans in place), and where to ‘manage up’ expectations where we felt customer expectations were too low and/or where we felt raising expectations was key to improving the service standards themselves.

In our communications, we put out messages like “We have enough money to mend every broken street light but we don’t have enough money to go out and check which street lights are broken — we need you to tell us and then we’ll fix every one within 5 days”. Hence the branding ‘Customer Contract’.

So the concept was breathtakingly simple and dynamic. For each service, we published a leaflet (yes, in those days, it was a leaflet) and posted it out to every household (yes, in those days, it was posted) stating ‘the standards you should expect for this service’ and, if those standards weren’t being met, giving the number to call to let us know.

It became a very effective learning loop, performance monitoring tool, and continuous improvement system. Very much ‘customer-focused’ but, at the same time, being a key component of ‘citizen empowerment’.

Demonstrating listening to people as customers, in relation to the day-to-day services that are important to them, and their main connection with the council, with evidence of acting on their feedback, creates a confidence that they’ll be listened to as citizens — not just in a one off research, consultation or deliberative democracy exercise, but on an everyday basis. Effective citizen empowerment needs this customer confidence.

Transformational and Transitional Change

By this point, we’d created cultures and structures that supported customer empowerment and citizen empowerment, with a leadership team that understood the philosophy, believed in it, had seen it ‘work’, wanted to keep going and, in fact, were committed to going further.

There were still barriers in terms of some ‘Chief Officers’ not ‘getting it’ until we’d demonstrated its value in their service area specifically, some ‘professionals’ being culturally resistant, some ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ local government officers just being generally resistant to change, and some having the ‘will’ but not the ‘way’, so often just getting frustrated and seeing ‘engagement’ as an ‘add-on’ to their job, until they had first-hand experience of it helping them to do their job better, and solving their problems — so, in fact, it being their job!

Although I didn’t formally train and practice as an ‘executive coach’ until 1997, this was effectively my first experience of ‘coaching people through change’ as I worked with those who were resistant or struggling or over-confident or whatever intellectual, emotional or psychological state they were in, to work with research, community engagement, and public involvement to help achieve their own goals as well as benefit their colleagues and citizens.

Transport Planning & Traffic Management Schemes — Community Driven

York had the most ambitious vision and strategies of any council in the UK at this time in terms of traffic and transport policy — at one time having the largest pedestrianised city area in Europe (although overtaken now by many cities that have gone in the same direction) and having the highest % of any UK city travelling to work by bicycle.

The great York cycling tradition that has been treasured, nurtured and supported culturally and structurally
York Minister precinct during COVID19 Lockdown.

As well as myself and other colleagues being asked to speak at housing conferences and join housing and community regeneration task forces, many of us were asked to join national taskforces on traffic and transport policy, and I spoke at Chartered Institute of Transport conferences at this time.

Again, there was much interest, in particular, in the way we involved the public in developing and implementing traffic and transport policy. It was a particularly challenging field because it was so heavily ‘professionalised’ with transport planners and road & traffic engineers being used to the old-fashioned ‘top-down, expert-led, we’ve-got-the-answers, we-do-it-to-you-not-with-you’ model.

I recall when I first got involved in traffic & transport planning, it was common for citizens and community groups to refer to road & traffic engineers and transport planners as “people with solutions looking for problems”!

And, back in those early days, the engineers and planners needed a lot of coaching and support when they started to ‘buy-in’ to the ‘engagement and empowerment project’. I recall many early public meetings and exhibitions where they first tended to lecture at people, then shifted to a more two-way communications mode but felt under (professional and personal) pressure to answer every question they were asked.

I gave them feedback, eg. ‘listen to people with respect and without judgement’, ‘don’t try to pre-prepare all the answers, just be prepared generally and listen’, ‘don’t feel like you have to answer every question at the meeting…you can say you’ll get back to them’, ‘ask questions as well as giving answers’, ‘don’t stand on a stage, and avoid creating hierarchical status’.

We changed the format of meetings and layout of the room to take away status and hierarchy and create an environment more conducive to engagement and empowerment. We coached and facilitated around communications (content, tone, etc).

We moved away from classic ‘public meetings’ to more interactive ‘public exhibitions’ and then to more informal environments, especially more natural environments, eg attending existing community meetings and having displays in shopping areas.

And we shifted away from ad hoc meetings to an ‘ongoing conversation’ which is the more natural way people learn, evolve their views, think of ideas, and are able to best articulate them, rather than being expected to ‘learn and perform’ at a one-off artificial research, engagement or deliberative democracy ‘event’.

Then we carried out a strategic review of traffic and transport planning and delivery to embed the engagement and empowerment philosophy and framework into this complex and challenging field.

First, we introduced a policy that no ‘scheme’ would go ahead to ‘solve a problem’ until community research had confirmed the problem. This was a response to the review finding that the ‘schemes’ with the biggest dissatisfaction and ‘failure’ rate were those perceived to be ‘solutions looking for problems’, including one where we had ‘civil disobedience’ with local residents turning around road signs and even trying to dig up ‘road humps’!

So when a petition was received or a councillor or community group called for ‘action’, we would carry out a survey among a representative sample of the community affected, with supporting qualitative research, to ask people if they thought there was a problem to be solved; if so, what the nature of the problem was (eg volume of traffic, speed of traffic, lack of safe places to cross the road, lack of parking); and what they thought appropriate solutions might be. Only when there was a common understanding of a problem did we proceed with a solution and, then, with extended wide-and-deep engagement on the concept design and detailed plans.

Via this approach, we had fewer, better quality, more effective ‘traffic management schemes’ (which saved money and pain, and enhanced the Council’s reputation in the community).

Evaluations of completed schemes 3 months, 6 months and 12 months after completion showed that local residents and other stakeholders were generally very happy with the outcome and ‘technically’ they’d ‘worked’ in achieving their objectives, eg slowing traffic speeds, reducing accidents.

It also became clear that one of the biggest factors behind the success of the traffic management schemes was the community engagement itself and the community commitment to sustainable success that it fostered.

In contrast to the earlier ‘failed’ scheme where there was civil disobedience, we had examples under the ‘engagement and empowerment model’ where involved communities were actively supporting and policing schemes — informing residents and visitors, warning cars to slow down, reporting vehicles breaching the agreed regulations, cleaning road signs, etc.

And we had a ‘priority parking scheme’ NOT going ahead, which was a great example of the transformation effected in culture and structure. Previously, this scheme would have caused much grief for all concerned but this one led to a peaceful outcome and strengthened community-council relationships.

Residents petitioned for a priority parking scheme for their area. The initial survey showed there was a problem and it was generally agreed that it was lack of parking places. There were calls for a solution in the form of a scheme where local residents would be able to apply for parking permits with zoned parking areas where they could park their own cars near to their homes.

Initial analysis by the traffic engineers questioned whether this would work but rather than just saying ‘no, here’s our solution’ as they might have in the past, we suggested a joint staff-residents audit of the area.

The residents themselves suggested carrying out the audit late in the evening after commuter traffic had dispersed. We actually had audit teams out at 6pm, 8pm, 10pm and midnight. We checked the registrations of all vehicles parked and found the vast majority were local residents, confirming that a priority parking scheme would NOT solve the problem.

In the old, top-down, expert-led, paternalistic world, the community would have looked to the council and said “so what are you going to do?” but in our new world, founded on the engagement and empowerment model, we had the local community proactively saying “we withdraw the petition because it’s clear that if we went ahead with a priority parking scheme, we’d still have the parking problem with the bureaucracy of parking permits on top” and they simply asked neighbours to be more understanding, patient and considerate, changing expectations about how close to their home they could park.

Area Committees

These days, I often hear about ‘participatory budgeting’ and some comments suggest it’s something new, although many now know it goes back many decades, often traced back to Brazil in 1989. We were certainly involving citizens and communities in decisions about allocating resources back in 1989–91, and the process of setting up the Area Committees started in 1986, before my appointment. Core to the concept of the Citizen’s Charter was involving citizens in agreeing priorities and allocating resources.

What we also tried was having Area Committees with devolved budgets. They were successful but almost not, as the Council almost lost its nerve, as often happens when people or organisations try something new — they don’t give it enough time to be successful.

Budgets of up to £100,000 were allocated to the Area Committees, residents came along to deliberative Area Committee meetings where they had presentations and briefings on where resources were currently allocated, what was known about ‘objective need’ in their area, the process for deciding on allocating local budgets, then — over several meetings — they would deliberate options, make bids for resource allocation, debate options, draw up a draft budget, consult, vote, and then it was ‘rubber stamped’ by Council.

The wobble came in Year One as Council met and heard that all the Area Committees had allocated most of the budget to ‘crime and safety’ measures — door locks, window locks, street lighting, alarms, even a security guard for the community centre. This wasn’t what councillors thought the money should be spent on, and some expressed concern that “other agencies, like the Police, should be doing this; we shouldn’t be spending Council money on this”.

However, the Leader of the Council and his inner circle insisted that the policy continue for 3 years to give it a chance to properly ‘bed in’ and be properly evaluated. And in Years 2 and 3, after using Year 1 to feel safer, each Area Committee allocated their budget to a wide range of services and initiatives with much diversity from one Area to another, which vindicated the decisions to launch ‘Area-Committees-with-their-own-budgets’ and to stick with them.

Yearsley Pool Community Empowerment

There are many more examples of the ‘engagement and empowerment project’ in action, but I’ll finish ‘the York Chapter’ with this one.

A key part of the York heritage is the Rowntree family, the Joseph Rowntree legacy, and the Rowntree’s Chocolate Factory. The pioneering Quaker Joseph Rowntree Jr built homes for his workers, and the Rowntree family on their own or in partnership with the other great Quakers like William Tuke tackled poverty, created world class schools, and led the world in a transformation from ‘mental illness means condemned to an horrific, degrading, de-humanising asylum for the rest of your life’ to ‘here’s The Retreat (opened in 1796) where you can have treatment for mental illness, have the best possible quality of life, and even recover and return to the community’.

In classic Quaker style, Joseph Rowntree lived his life simply and has a simple burial plot in the grounds of The Retreat, but his impact on the City and the world through his practical compassion is vast. As a Quaker myself (married in the Friends Meeting House in Friargate York, where me and Jacs also celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary in 2017), figures like Rowntree (and George Cadbury and many others), are an inspiration, and their impact continues today as their philosophies and actions can be translated into a contemporary context — I encourage people to ask the question ‘what would Joseph Rowntree have done if he were alive today?’.

So, it was with considerable distress that the Rowntree business, and famous Rowntree factory, were taken over by the Swiss corporate giant, Nestle, which was NOT a business famed for its community investment, or its ethical practices. Local residents were NOT impressed, even though the legacy Rowntree Trusts benefitted enormously from the sale, with their receipts for their shares going on to fund the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the other Trusts, securing the continuation of the Rowntree tradition.

Nestle rode out the PR storm and then, as the dust was settling, suggested offering some funds ‘to give something back to the community’. The difference in philosophy was stark. Nestle make money, then ‘give back’. Rowntree was effectively a pioneer of what Michael Porter more recently branded the ‘Shared Value’ model — sharing value more widely as the money is made.

Nestle also suggested it might be a good idea to have a ‘chocolate museum’. This was a good example of ‘top down thinking’ and, as soon as the Council heard about this proposition, it was pointed out “the last thing York needs is a chocolate museum…or another chocolate museum” and also “if you want to fund a chocolate museum, go ahead, but that’s not what the community would priortise or think of as ‘giving back to the community’…”.

Because we now had the capability to quickly ‘swing into action’ in surveying the Citizens’ Panel and meeting with local residents, we did so and were able to feed back to Nestle that what the local community clearly thought was top priority was providing funding for the local swimming pool, the historic Yearsley Pool, which had high maintenance costs and a hefty repairs bill.

Nestle managers and engineers worked with the council managers, surveyors and engineers — in consultation with the community — to come up with a solution. Initial repairs were carried out and essential maintenance. And, as I recall, a pipe was re-routed from the factory under the road, through the swimming pool, to provide cost-effective heating for the pool from the factory’s heating-and-cooling system.

The historic Yearsley Pool which has been threatened with closure many times but the community usually finds a way to keep is surviving & thriving.

So no irritating chocolate museum, and a very happy local community, both those who used Yearsley Pool, and those who didn’t (those who had fond memories of using it as a child or who simply thought Nestle had done the right thing in helping to conserve and sustain the historic ‘swimming baths’).

Deliberative & participative democracy — evolution and revolution

By this point in my life and career (May 1991), I’d transitioned from thinking of myself as an economist (why do we put ourselves in boxes and define ourselves by our jobs or careers?!) to thinking of myself as a professional researcher, to becoming a community engagement practitioner, to leading and facilitating what was becoming known around the world as ‘deliberative & participative democracy’ and in York as ‘the engagement and empowerment project’.

In York, this was fully integrated with ‘representation democracy’ through elections for Council and other public bodies, and some formal community organisations and Boards. We recognised that it was appropriate in some circumstances to have formal representation structures, appropriate in other circumstances to keep the ‘continuous listening and acting’ process ‘informal and natural’, and to occasionally have a specific ‘engagement exercise’ for exploration, explanation, agenda-setting (key for empowerment), deliberation, participation, evaluation, strategic review, innovation, etc.

There was no great ‘tension’. It was complementary and increasingly integrated. Councillors from all political parties supported much of what we were doing. They used to divide on method (some more comfortable with below-the-line research, some more comfortable with above-the-line consultation and engagement) and scale (some wanting to do more or bigger, some less or smaller) but, in principle, everyone was ‘on board the bus’.

The York Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, dating back to 1357, where entrepreneurs and iconoclasts have gathered for centuries — as well as the family gatherings and weddings; and it’s where I had my absolutely unforgettable 40th birthday party (thanks Jacs & all who came) — and where the past, present & future can meet today.

My Return to York (from August 2019)

Having lived in York for 16 years, January 1989 to February 2005, then having had a complete lifestyle change, living and working in Australia from February 2005 to August 2019, it’s been fascinating to re-locate to York now — and see what’s changed (many things) and what’s NOT changed (also many things, especially in an historic city like York).

The centre of York has flooded for centuries but, each time it happens and appears on the national news, we get friends contacting us to ask if we’re ok. The answer is always ‘yes, we live on high ground’, and the City is used to this. The Kings Arms even trades off the floods’ stories and water level markings on the walls.

I can walk around the City (when I’m allowed to, outside of COVID19 restrictions!) and see the visible evidence of the long-lasting impact our ‘engagement and empowerment’ projects have had here. Not a ‘hit and miss’ (more often miss than hit) approach which we get from a lot of lobbying, campaigning, advocacy, and ad hoc deliberative democracy exercises, especially at a national level, but long-lasting structural and cultural change.

York is such an inspiring City with its combination of heritage and contemporary innovation and vibrancy.

Not everything ‘lasted’ of course, because some initiatives were driven by the political leadership of the day, and the community leaders of that time (in 1989–91), and the fantastic team we had to be able to strategise and deliver — and some specific policies and systems have fallen by the wayside — but the overall picture is one of lasting revolution that’s been consolidated and advanced by continuing evolution by a new generation of leaders (‘bought-in’ to the philosophy of ‘engagement and empowerment’, much more so than pre-1989) and an ‘involvement infrastructure’ including the people, knowledge, systems, and tools to be able to continue to deliver ‘the project’!

York City Centre during COVID19 Lockdown — under new ownership!

And “I’m back” — not ‘Arnie the terminator’, but ‘Paul the facilitator’!

You can read more about high impact ‘engagement & empowerment’ case studies, and lessons learned, from my later projects, via the link below, with an emphasis on inclusion, having a ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ mentality, and being creative and flexible with fit-for-purpose designs, which brings us ‘full circle’ to a radical initiative for 100% Digital City…in York!

Paul Vittles FMRS FAMI FRSA is a Research Fellow and community engagement pioneer, who has been an advocate for and practitioner of deliberative & participative democracy over the past 35 years.

Paul has worked with governments at all levels in the UK and Australia, with 80 councils as clients (after being the first Research & Engagement Manager with City of York Council). He has been a consultant to the NHS; many arms-length government agencies and regulators; community foundations, charities and not-for-profit organisations; professional societies & member organisations; regulated energy and utilities businesses; corporates and private developers wanting to engage appropriately and effectively with their communities; and many partnerships and alliances comprising combinations of these.

Paul has designed and facilitated thousands of research, consultation, engagement, and democracy projects and initiatives. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Paul led or facilitated many innovative and pioneering face-to-face approaches: including city/community regeneration; new types of school and learning facilities; building health and social care services around service users and carers; involving citizens in traffic and transport planning; and — perhaps most famously — leading the engagement exercise to decide what to do with the site of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester, the former home of the serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West (Paul met with all the victims’ families before leading the team undertaking engagement with the local community).

Paul presented ‘The Role of Research in a Democratic Framework’ to the 1991 Market Research Society (MRS) Conference, and has presented many award-winning papers to research, evaluation and engagement conferences, as well as serving on national task forces, developing and evaluating national policy (from The Patients Charter in the UK to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS, in Australia to national suicide prevention strategies).

Paul was founder and ‘Chief Facilitator’ for ‘ListenHear: The Global Campaign for Effective Listening’ which won the 2011 TEDxSydney competition for “the best idea worth spreading”.

Paul was a TEDxSydney ‘Fast Ideas’ finalist in 2014, speaking to 2,300 people at the Sydney Opera House (and many more live online) about #DigitalLifeSaving — using digital communications technology to save lives. Paul also facilitated the ‘Breakthrough Ideas for Suicide Prevention’ Forum 2013–14, and helped implement some of those ideas.

In 2013–14, Paul also pioneered online research and engagement approaches, challenging 120 clients (from the ABC to the Australian Government to funeral services providers) to identify ‘what can’t be done online’ and then doing it — online!

Paul presented some of these pioneering case studies at the 2014 Australian Market and Social Research Society (AMSRS) Conference (written up by Green Book), and subsequent conferences such as the Information & Innovation Exchange (IIeX) Asia-Pacific.

Since 2013, Paul has designed and facilitated 194 online forums, which is why he baulked at the claims by some democracy advocates, as well as democracy critics, ‘this can’t be done online’.

Paul knows from experience that it CAN all be done online (although flexibility, ‘fit for purpose’, ‘horses for courses’ is always the way it should be) — including the citizens assembly and citizens jury models — and adopts a ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ philosophy for his professional practice as well as his personal life!

These days, Paul’s focus is on transformational change projects — in community development (including a project “to design a new community around the happiness and success of its people”), improving quality of life for older people, optimising mental health and wellbeing for all segments of society, suicide prevention and the Zero Suicide Movement — and facilitating sustainable success as a consultant, coach and counsellor.

For the past 7 years, Paul has had a focus on using digital communications technology to find solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges. He is currently working on projects using data analytics, predictive & prescriptive analytics, real-time behavioural micro-targeting, and augmented intelligence for child protection, safeguarding vulnerable young people, ethical behaviour in large organisations, suicide prevention, and ending loneliness.

Paul’s keynote talks, interactive lectures, and workshop sessions on ‘Facilitating Transformational Change’ are often described as “inspirational as well as educational”, as was the case with the recent guest lecture Paul gave for the full-time MBA students at University of Durham Business School (on Friday 21 February 2020) — the last one before Lockdown!.

Paul is currently running continuous online forums — purpose-designed for ground-up COVID19 feedback, community support, and strategic planning — for a range of clients, including the NHS, the Zero Suicide Alliance, major UK charities, and a premier London arts & cultural entertainment venue which is one of many forced to close with its future threatened. The main focus of this work — for government, charities, commercial organisations, and not-for-profit organisations — is developing and implementing ‘Survive & Thrive’ strategies.

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

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