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Participatory and Deliberative Democracy and Citizens’ Assemblies

Interview with Paul Vittles, Lead Facilitator, Suicide Prevention Transformation Projects, The Jordan Legacy CIC, and Board Trustee, Age UK York

(This interview assumes the reader has some knowledge of citizens’ assemblies, so if you aren’t familiar with them, but would like to learn more, you can watch our short video here.)

Roslyn Fuller: Hi Paul, we’ve run into each other a lot on Twitter, mainly on debates about citizens’ assemblies, but don’t often get a chance to have a longer talk. I know that you are someone who has been involved in community engagement from a variety of angles, both in the UK and Australia. Can you give me an idea of the work you have been doing in both mental health and participatory democracy to date?

Paul: I started off working briefly as an economist, but it was all blackboard economics and metric models at the time. I’ve always preferred to work with people. I was working for a research firm in London and I seemed to become a specialist in riots. Whenever there was a riot and complete breakdown in law and order and petrol bombs in the streets I would be sent out into these areas to try and help sort it out. And since I had no idea how to sort it out, I just listened to people, which worked out amazingly well.
People would ask me ‘What’s your technique? What’s your model?’

I don’t know. I just listened to people. That was it.

Later, when I worked in local government and they wanted to open up the council to be customer-focused, citizen-oriented, with greater public participation, etc. I also just listened to people and tailored everything to their needs.

We went into each area that we worked in without a prescribed model. It was really important not to have a particular method because otherwise you’d be imposing on people. So in big housing modernizations for example, we’d go into one area and say ‘we’re going to do this big modernization programme and estate regeneration. What involvement do you want? Here’s some options, here’s some things that other areas have done, but what do you want?’

We’d go into one area and they’d say, ‘We want to have an election and an elected body that oversees the work and have elected representatives’. So we’d facilitate that and set that up. But we’d go to the next estate and they’d say, ‘Well, we don’t want any of that. We want to just have a few of us getting together or maybe an advisory board, maybe something like that’. In other areas, they’d say, ‘why can’t we just get together every month, have a cup of tea and a chat?’

We’d just try to facilitate whatever they wanted, but sometimes also take them around to other areas to talk to other residents and see ‘what did you do?’ and they all learned from each other. This ground-up approach and lateral sharing, and no top-down, was what made it work. And they all got heavily engaged. We had some projects where we got 75-80% of people in the area involved.

I then moved on from there into other participatory democracy projects and mental health. When I started getting involved in that I knew we needed to take this ground-up and lateral sharing approach into the field of mental health and, later, suicide prevention. There was also an opportunity to do so because I was dealing with more people who admitted they didn’t know what to do.

In a lot of policy areas, you’ve got experts and, as soon as you start discussing the issue, the experts come in and tell you what the answers are. And that creates an enormous problem. You’re not trying to find solutions, because you have so many people who think they already know what the answers are.

In contrast, in mental health, particularly in suicide prevention, most people accept they don’t have ‘the answer’. A few professors will tell you they’ve been researching this for thirty years, but they still don’t know what to do because the numbers of suicides keep going up. So, it’s not working out. Government, politicians, ministers don’t know much about it. There’s a famous section in Alastair Campbell’s autobiography where he talks about how when the health minister heard that Campbell had depression, said ‘How can Alastair Campbell have depression, a former advisor to Tony Blair. How could somebody like that have depression?’

It’s ridiculous. That’s the health minister saying things like that!

When we start listening to people, we find it’s usually people who’ve lost somebody to suicide or somebody who’s had mental illness who have ‘the answers’. It’s somebody who’s been accessing the system and finding it doesn’t work, that it breaks down. It actually kills people, the system is so bad. We find people setting up smaller charities usually after they’ve had a suicide loss or mental health experience. We find these people have got the answers, but they don’t have the power to advocate those answers to the people who have the power and influence to do something.

And we’ve discovered an amazing thing which has transferable lessons to the rest of the world and every other issue. When we do what we think is the instinctive thing to do, ‘let’s bring all the government people together, let’s bring all the big charities together, let’s get the academics together, let’s get everybody in a room and thrash this out’, which is what everybody thinks is the right approach, you end up with institutionalised low ambition.

People become inherently conservative, and this is what happens when you get representative samples together in citizens’ assemblies, people become naturally conservative. You have the discussions, you open it up, you deliberate, you do everything you think is the right thing to do and you say ‘OK, what are we going to do?’ And you all say, ‘well, we’ve only got limited resources, there’s only so much we can do. And I only have so much control over this.’

So they end up agreeing to set a target of a 10% reduction in suicides in the next 5 years, for example, which is the main target most organizations and governments around the world have. When the World Health Organization issued a directive in 2015 to say ‘set a target of at least 10% reduction in 5 years’, everybody bar two countries – Japan and Scotland – made the target exactly 10%. That’s like condemning thousands of people to death every year, when you know you can get the reduction down much, much lower than that.

When we start talking to people at a micro level, we go out and listen to people at hospitals, listen to people in individual schools, listen to people in individual employers, people in individual associations, individual construction businesses, individual RAF bases, we say to them quite deliberately and quite provocatively ‘what is your target for suicide deaths in the next 12 months?’ and they say, ‘Zero. It’s got to be zero.’

So then we have a conversation on how we get to zero and practical ideas on how to get to zero, and stay at zero. We, in what we call ‘the zero-suicide community’ around the world, work on the basis that lots and lots of micro-zeros adds up to a macro-zero, and that we can transform the world by taking this ground-up, lateral-sharing approach. Top-down you can occasionally get a big-bang approach, just like in road safety, in drink-driving legislation or compulsory seatbelts, but in between those moments of big-bang impacts very little happens top-down and much of the top-down machinery gets in the way of people trying to take action and doing the things they think are the right things to do.

So that has transferable lessons for anybody working in participatory democracy, community empowerment, any issue, but it’s particularly pertinent to suicide prevention, where we have this benefit, if you like, this one benefit, that the people at the top admit that they don’t have the answers.

Roslyn: I know we are both critics of some aspects of citizens’ assemblies. Something that gets me about them is that I feel that if you don’t allow people to participate, you are putting them in a helpless situation and I can see how that could have a very negative impact on mental health. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Paul: I started doing public participation and participatory democracy work and so on before I started dealing with mental health and suicide prevention, but you learn from each and you take that learning into each. In my participatory democracy work, clients would talk about mental health issues, because they are talking about factors they can control or factors they can’t control, about feeling you have options, that you can influence things around you. That kind of comes across from the participatory democracy world into mental health. When I started working on mental health and particularly on suicide prevention you’re dealing with people who feel they’ve got no control over their lives, they’ve got no options and so you become very sensitive to this.

When I look at things like citizens’ assemblies, it is one thing if you say citizens’ assemblies are just a tool and you have a range of methods, you have wide participation and you try to maximize opportunities for people. That is fine. No problem with that at all. But when people narrow the agenda right down to ‘only these people are going to be involved’ there’s going to be one citizens’ assembly and nobody else is going to have an opportunity to participate, it starts getting into difficult territory, both in terms of participatory rights, but also in terms of mental health issues.

Recently we’ve had a few very high-profile examples like Climate Assembly UK, which is a very technocratic process. It doesn’t seem to be very related to democracy. In fact, as you know, they selectively pick and choose from Ancient Athenian democracy.

But, to get back to the point, they’ll say it’s got to be this process. So 30 000 invites go out, and 1700 people reply saying, ‘Yes, I want to be involved’. And no matter how carefully you word the invite you start to create an expectation with people – ‘I’m getting to be involved in something interesting here!’
And then the organizers select 100 people out of those 1700 respondents to be a demographically representative sample or whatever they want. I understand the reasons why they do that, but then what they’ve done is turn around to 1600 people – who’ve been invited and said they want to be involved – and say ‘OK, you haven’t been picked’ and that’s it. End of it.

So 100 people get to go on this exciting journey and feel they’re making some kind of difference and get the transformative impacts of being a part of the citizens’ assembly, and the rest are rejected. It’s like the impact of applying for a job and not hearing anything. I get this all the time with people in the charity sector who say ‘I was very committed to doing something, I wanted to help in this particular cause and so I did a bit of volunteering work and then I saw a job advertised and I thought ‘oh this is wonderful, I could really help if I had a job.’’ So they apply for the job and they’re treated very badly by the mental health charity. They don’t hear anything else from them or they get a standard rejection email, and they’re completely deflated. It’s more than not getting the job. It’s questioning your relationship with that organization. Questioning your faith, your purpose, your meaning in life.

Some people might say that is overdramatizing it, but I did a study in Australia on the jury system there which obviously has particular relevance here. And one of the things we found was that it’s not the randomized thing that people think it is, because people get letters calling them to jury service and lots of people try to get out of it.

So you end up with this kind of self-selecting group of people who turn up on the first day that they’re called. And then they’re sitting in a large room and somebody comes in and says, ‘There’s a case going on at the criminal court that is probably going to take six weeks. Which of you could actually be available for six weeks?’ So again, people are self-selecting.

Then they go through a process of briefing and are literally marched from the Downing Street Centre reception to the courts on Oxford Street which is about a 15-20 minute walk with police guard. So it’s quite an interesting experience for people.

Then when they got to the court they’re sat in the jury box and the defence team and prosecution team can reject people. So the jurors come up there and the lawyers say ‘no’. That’s all they do. They just say ‘no’. They don’t give an explanation. Just ‘no’. So the prospective juror is out.

I interviewed some of these people who have been rejected and they had serious adverse mental health impacts, because they’d got their initial letter, and they’d started on this journey of ‘oh this is going to be interesting, challenging, maybe daunting and difficult.’ They’re starting to prepare themselves, in this case, for a six week trial. And when they’re walked into the courtroom, they find it a bit daunting and they actually get to see the defendant, the person who is going to be tried, and it can be quite terrifying for them. And then after all that, they get ‘No, you’re not wanted’ and they walk out the door.

Roslyn: Yes, my mother was actually called for jury service several years ago, but the prosecutor rejected her, and I think it was a bit of a let-down. Some people would hate to be called for jury service, but she had actually gotten to the point of looking forward to it.

Paul: Their reactions could be anything from relief to disappointment to serious adverse mental health impacts and we need to be sensitive to all of those things.

Roslyn: I want to come back to something you touched on earlier, which is the issue of expertise. This is a bit of a double-edged sword for me. I spent ten years at university and I really hope it was for something. However, at the same time, I’m from a more rural area, my parents didn’t go to university, yet are highly skilled and knowledgeable people.

I think there is a place for formal education, but to me ‘being an expert’ is basically just doing a job. I feel like that is a different understanding to what tends to happen a lot in the democracy space which is the ‘lording it over you expert’ and the ‘shut up, I’m an expert, expert’ which I feel is really counterproductive. You were talking a bit about how experts got in the way of solutions at times. How do you feel that is going when it comes to democracy and what do you think would be a constructive way for people to be able to take advantage of expertise, where it is useful, without that kind of conversation-ending attitude?

Paul: Those are really important points, and you and I have often joked that you can’t discuss these kinds of things on Twitter. They’re too complex to discuss on a Twitter stream. Somebody who has knowledge which is regarded as valuable knowledge and somebody who has an attitude which is helpful and is regarded as an expert in their field, that’s all the beneficial side of it. On the other side of the balance sheet are the people who unhelpfully regard themselves as experts and talk down to people and all the downsides of that. So we do have to distinguish between these.

The first and foremost thing for me is that anybody who is regarded as an expert has to be regarded as an expert by the people. If they think of themselves as an expert they’re usually part of the problem. That’s really fundamental. We often have these quotes and misquotes from Ancient Athens and Greek democracy, but Socrates was said to be the wisest man of all because he knew that he knew nothing. And that’s why he urged us to ask all the questions and to keep asking questions.

Some of these experts, some of the professors I deal with, some of them are gorgeous people. They’re really open-minded and constantly asking questions. But some of them have stopped learning, because they have such a fixed idea of what they believe the evidence and the theories and everything shows that they close themselves down to learning new topics. It’s often said that those kinds of experts are people who know more and more about less and less and become more and more specialized.

Ken Robinson parodied them in his TEDTalk where he said that as kids we express ourselves through every aspect of our body, our personality, we use every sense to communicate and then as somebody goes through education they get creativity knocked out of them. They’re put into systems and structures of thinking that become very intellectual in everything they approach. They stop using their creative senses and artistic senses and artistic forms of expression. His punchline was that by the time you become a professor in any particular discipline you’re only using a tiny little part of your brain and the only purpose of your body is to get your head to meetings. That was the way he summed it up. That you stop expressing yourself in other ways. Technocratic citizens’ assemblies suffer from this problem too – over-intellectualising public conversation and learning, with a hierarchy where one form of input, ‘rational discussion around experts’, ‘scientific evidence’, is valued more than other forms of expression.

We must respect people who genuinely have knowledge. That means the person who’s next door to us, that means the person who is sitting next to us in the class, not just the teacher, that means the person who has left school and has no qualifications. Respect everybody’s knowledge. That’s important. Within a system like a deliberative democracy process or a citizens’ assembly we should respect everybody’s contribution. Not just the person who’s wheeled out as an expert.

And if somebody is wheeled out as an expert and it’s clear they’ve got a closed mind, because they have worked in an area for thirty years and they think they know all the answers, then we’ve got to be skeptical, we’ve got to try and see it from a different perspective, as well as encourage other creative and artistic forms of expression.

And if you’ve actually got somebody who is in government like a government advisor who is actually a blockage to the system that’s where it really gets dangerous. We certainly have this in mental health and suicide prevention. The government doesn’t know a great deal about this and doesn’t know the answers, so they go to a particular advisor or professor or somebody who is recognized as the expert in their field among their peers, and they say ‘What do you think?’ All they get really is that person’s opinion with some evidence to back it up, based on the research they’ve done. If they go to talk to people who have lived experience of suicide they get a completely different perspective. There’s no right or wrong. They’re just different perspectives. But one of them has massive power and influence in shaping government policy. The other people have very little power and influence because they’re just another person out there in the world who has sadly lost a loved one to suicide.

When I set up a Global Breakthrough Ideas for Suicide Prevention Forum in 2013, we got people who were regarded as experts. We got ‘mental health experts’, we got ‘suicide prevention experts’. And then we pulled in people who had never thought about the issue before. We had bankers, we had lawyers, we had people who had started tech firms.

The experts came into the forum and said to us and kept saying to us, ‘All we need is more money and we can solve all the problems. We know what needs to be done, we just haven’t got the resources, so just give us more money and we’ll sort it out’.

Everyone else challenged them and said, ‘You don’t seem to have the answers here’. And the technology people, in particular, said to these experts, ‘Well, where are the technology solutions to suicide prevention?’ And they said, ‘We don’t think it is about technology. We think it is about hospital services and psychiatric services and A&E and it is about human services, nothing to do with technology’. Obviously, the technology people said, ‘We spend our lives finding breakthrough technology solutions to all of these different problems that people give us, so there must be solutions in the suicide prevention field’.

And one of the challenges they issued in that forum was to ask, ‘When was the last major technological breakthrough in the field of suicide prevention?’ So the mental health experts went very quiet as they do when people don’t know the answer. Then they came back sheepishly and said, ‘It was probably the telephone helpline in 1953’. So that was the last major technological breakthrough. That led to a subgroup of people being set up called ‘The Digital Lifesaving Team’ and I launched it at TEDx Sydney in 2014 and we pointed out some very simple things. For instance, issues with early manifestations of virtual assistants like Siri. If you went into Siri and you said, ‘I’m thinking of killing myself by jumping off a bridge,’ Siri would reply, ‘Here’s a list of bridges in your area’.

A lot of stuff took place in making online environments safe without governments being involved, because governments weren’t up to speed on this.

It has just been announced today that various changes are going to be made in regulations after the death of Molly Russell and online harms and so forth. There will be requirements on tech firms, but this has taken years and years and years of discussions to get often marginal improvements. The ground-up approach, because people don’t have the blockages that the experts, have can be transforming every day of the week.

Roslyn: That’s very interesting. To change the subject slightly, I know that we both often get the pushback on Twitter to ‘stop being so aggressive’. Often people put something out on Twitter, but then become very offended at someone else calling them to task on it. That does have a bit to do with expertise, because as an expert you should be willing to defend your position. It’s just 101 that people are going to question it. But apart from that there seems to be this idea among deliberative democrats that has existed for as long as I have known about them that conflict is bad and that it should be avoided.

You made an interesting comment to me one day on Twitter. You said, ‘my view coming from a mental health perspective would be to try to steer towards that conflict, to try to deal with the conflict, rather than just perpetually avoid it’. What do you think that has to do with our idea of democracy today? We always hear that everything is very polarized. We know, as you alluded to, that people bully other people on the internet, which of course does happen. What does our relationship with conflict have to do with democracy? Are we avoiding that conflict too much or is there really a big problem with people being absolute jerks?

Paul: I think the first thing to say is that Twitter gets a bad rap, really. It’s the wonderful digital democracy that anybody can comment on and then when things go pear-shaped everybody blames Twitter and blames social media. Well, it’s not Twitter that’s composing your tweets, is it? It’s not social media that determines what you put on there. So I think that people need to take responsibility first and foremost.

We get mainstream media people who put out the most awful stuff.

Yesterday, we had headlines in the papers about ‘Mutant Covid’ because this new strain of Covid had been found. So mainstream media tweet this stuff and then they criticize other people, ‘ordinary people’, ‘everyday people’, for putting stuff on social media. They’re playing the same game as everybody else with one difference and that is they’ve got power because Twitter isn’t an even playing field. It is a hierarchy. So someone who has got hundreds of thousands or millions of followers can just sit there and broadcast this rubbish out to people and they don’t engage. Other people are actually trying to engage and have discussions, so that is the first thing. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Secondly if you don’t like Twitter, don’t go on it. And don’t go on it and constantly moan and whinge about it. If you don’t like it just get off it now. That’s probably good for your mental health as well. When we go on it and we see somebody posting and we challenge them, then it is up to them how they respond to that. Sometimes they come back with ‘you’re being abusive’. Well, call them out on that, I say. If it’s abusive, report it. And we should all report it. And we should all support each other to make it as safe a place as possible. But of course, that’s often an excuse. It’s not actually abusive. It doesn’t breach the terms and conditions or anything like that, and in most objective people’s eyes it’s not abusive. It’s just that that person didn’t like what’s being said, doesn’t like being challenged, and therefore they call it abuse.

You often see people using other tactics in order to avoid being challenged. They start painting you as aggressive. I often get this comment, ‘It’s your tone’. When people say they don’t like your tone, it’s often just a tactic for deflecting away from the content. If you’re not prepared to focus on the content then let’s just not have a conversation.

Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian, tweeted that the word of 2020 is ‘woke’ which has taken over from ‘virtue signalling’ as probably the word of 2019. These are tactics that are used by people to shut down public conversation and debate. So for instance rather than actually argue the merits of the case, they will say, ‘you’re just virtue-signalling’. It is a deliberate tactic to try to shut people down. So we have to be sensitive to all those kinds of dynamics.

Specifically with regard to deliberative democracy and citizens’ assemblies within this kind of context, you’ve got people who are basically open-minded and they’re trying to learn, you’ve got people who feel very strongly that citizens’ assemblies are a solution to the problems we have with our democracy and with our current system and they are prepared to be challenged to a point, but they are still adamant that this has got a valuable role to play. And you’ve got the other extreme wing of people who’ve just got so gooey-eyed and one-eyed about citizens’ assemblies as a solution to everything they can’t possibly see anything else. I had someone tweet me the other day ‘It’s the ‘only’ way’.

When it was suggested we set up a sortition chamber as a second chamber to the Scottish Parliament and I challenged it, I had some people come back and say, ‘That’s very interesting, let’s have a conversation about it’, but I had some people come back and say, ‘Well, there’s no other option.’
There’s millions of options to scrutinize the Scottish Parliament or to involve people in different ways.

The people who don’t believe in alternatives often haven’t considered the downsides or have only briefly considered them and moved on and become very evangelical about citizens’ assemblies. When I challenged a few people on the Scottish Parliament idea they said, ‘Well it’s got to be better isn’t it? It must be better.’

I said, ‘Hang on a minute. Nothing must be better.’

There must always be upsides and downsides. We’ve just got to weigh them up. If you have a permanent citizens’ assembly then you have 100 people who you give power to for however long they stand as a permanent citizens’ assembly. That means that other people are permanently not involved in the process while that permanent group is institutionalized in the process. And if you institutionalise anything you institutionalise biases. So you need to always look at the upsides and downsides and then what happens is that – and this frustrates me, but I brush it off – they accuse me of not being open-minded.

The irony of this was pointed out last year when somebody said ‘we’re going to have a citizens’ assembly and we’re going to do it this particular way’. And I said, ‘Well what about doing it another way? Including having more people involved’. They then accused me of trying to sell a particular methodology, because I was suggesting that there might be an asynchronous online forum in there, for example. So, they picked up on that and said I’m trying to push that particular methodology. I had private exchanges with them as well as public exchanges which I often do. And I said to them, ‘Look, here’s a range of things you could do if you wanted to involve more people’ and they then said, ‘No we don’t want to do that because it will cost money.’ And I said, ‘OK, well, I could do some of these things for you for free if you want them.’

Roslyn: Yep - been there, done that.

Paul: And they came back to me and said, ‘well we don’t think that would be inclusive’. And I said, ‘What wouldn’t be inclusive?’

They said: ‘Well, if we have people who have not been randomly selected that wouldn’t be inclusive’. And I said, ‘Right, OK, so you’re rejecting people and excluding people on the grounds of inclusion. How does that work?’

And it didn’t sound like democracy to me. It sounds like some technocratic process. But they gravitated back to the process that they’d originally said they were going to do and they refused to budge from it, so no matter how many other options I gave them, and I gave them several, they went back to it. So I had to remind them that their original criticism of me was that I was just selling a particular product and I wasn’t being flexible. And yet they’d just argued themselves into a corner by saying ‘We just want to do our process, our citizens’ assembly, recruited and managed in our way with no other options for people to participate, because we think this is the right thing to do’. So clearly they are not being flexible and open-minded about it. But they like to criticize other people. Which is partly disingenuous, it is partly delusional, it’s partly self-interested in some cases, because some of these people are making a living out of doing these citizens’ assemblies. It’s now big business for some people.

But I feel for those people who honestly, seriously, genuinely, are calling for citizens’ assemblies because they seriously, genuinely want to enhance democracy, but have got so locked into this one model being ‘the only way’, and permanent citizens’ assemblies being the only way to reform, that they’ve stopped even looking at the alternatives and the other political reforms and the other ways that we could enhance our democracy. That’s really sad for me.

Roslyn: They’re proud of it, too.

Leaving that aside, however, I’d like to drill down a little bit on the issue of conflict in general. Something that I find sometimes in dealing with other academics and researchers, is that something that I would perceive as just a discussion, even a hard-hitting one, they would perceive as a terrible conflict. I’m from a more rural, more working-class area of Canada, although our understanding of ‘class’ in North America is a bit different than in Britain. But where I am from, we have been discussing politicians and other people of public interest in terms that weren’t necessarily always flattering all this time. They just didn’t know about it.

That kind of more hard-hitting conversation, that is, however, still focused on the subject matter, can sometimes be misconstrued. Other academics and researchers, who often come from a rather different background, seem to feel that issues need to be discussed in a kind of polite, vague manner where we don’t ever really address the issue head-on because that would be embarrassing. I feel like ‘ordinary people’ or people who come from an ‘ordinary person’ background seem to come in like a bull in a china shop to all that. How do you think that fits in with the idea of democracy in general? Do we have to have a ‘radical candour’ approach, and get everything out in the open? What are your thoughts?

Paul: You’re quite right to pick me up on that, I didn’t really address the point of conflict in my previous answer. Whatever topic or issue or country we have, we’re talking about human beings interacting and when that works and when that doesn’t work, and the systems and structures we put in place for governance or communication or engagement.

Human beings do naturally tend to try to avoid conflict. It’s generally seen as a bad thing. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Conflict is an everyday part of our lives. If everybody avoided conflict completely then it wouldn’t necessarily be a better world, because the creative tensions and the frictions and the different opinions and everything is all part of the society and the world that we live in. It’s a bit like trust.

At the moment every day somebody is writing or speaking and saying that the problem we’ve got is the breakdown of trust and we’ve got to restore trust in our system. We’ve got to restore trust and faith in our politicians. Well, why? In other cultures, people say, ‘Isn’t it a good thing to be skeptical of anybody who is in power? Isn’t it a good thing not to trust politicians? Haven’t we actually reached a better place in our society now that we accept that we don’t trust these people?’

And again, I’ve learned from the mental health field where I work with people who have lost loved ones to suicide, because the mental health system had failed them, because GPs hadn’t asked the right questions, because hospital consultants hadn’t asked the right questions, etc. I’ve attended inquests where people say regularly “the problem was we trusted them”. That was actually the problem. And that led to the death of their daughter or son or brother or sister.

So let’s rethink all these concepts of conflict.

You also mentioned class and that’s an interesting one. People say to me, ‘You’ve got the UK class system. We don’t have that in Australia. We don’t have that in Canada.’ You do. The British took the class system all over there. And if you go to a place called the Quarantine Station [North Head, Sydney, Australia] where the boats used to come in they created a five class system there with their own landing jetties, with their own hospitals, they even had their own morgues so they could keep people of different ‘classes’ arriving in Australia separate when they died. They had first class, second class, third class, Asiatics and steerage. And you were put into a class before you even arrived in the country. So Australia grew up with a different class system. And other countries create hierarchies all the time.

The difference I found between Australia and the UK was that it was easier to get access to senior people in Australia. There’s a snobby English thing – and it is more English than Scottish or Welsh or Irish – where it is hard to get access to senior people. In Australia, I could easily get to speak to a ‘cabinet secretary’ equivalent, and ministers were very accessible. You could just bump into them on the street sometimes. They didn’t have the same security, although that’s changing now.

So it isn’t just about class. In essence what you are saying there is how do we have those conversations with respect? How do we have more people involved in those conversations and respect their contributions? How do we set up systems and structures that encourage those conversations?

And I think things have changed. We’re on an upward trend as far as all of these things are concerned, as I’ve pointed out in my ‘magnum opus’ piece on participative democracy and community empowerment. Involving people generally is more and more being seen as a valuable thing to do, either because you’re philosophically committed to it, or because you’ve seen it work. You’ve tried to do things top down and nothing’s happened, you do something – a ground-up plan, involve all your employees, for example, and everybody’s committed to making it work and you think, ‘Wow, this involvement thing works’.

In regard to listening to more people and involving more people, again there’s an upward trend. Years ago you would not be employed by the BBC unless you had a clipped accent and you’d been at the right school and you spoke ‘the Queen’s English’. Then of course there were deliberate initiatives to get people from ‘the regions’ and you started to get regional accents appearing on TV and nowadays more people are making more efforts to be more diverse and more inclusive. Ironically, citizens’ assemblies are going against that trend by being more exclusive in some of their approaches and some of the things they’re saying.

We’re always looking for the barriers. Where do we need to do more? Where do we need diversity and inclusion initiatives? Where do we need to not just be non-racist but to be anti-racist? Where do we need to work with people who don’t have a voice? I’m doing a project at the moment working with stateless refugees. They are stateless, identity-less, technology-less, in many cases, hopeless. They can’t see anything for the future for themselves and then tragically, they kill themselves or die from Resignation Syndrome. So tragic, tragic cases, a long way removed from people with a technocratic approach to organizing a citizens’ assembly over here. These are people who have no voice, they are not on a list, they can’t be randomly selected, because they’re not on any list anywhere, so you have to make special efforts, particular efforts, determined efforts.

I think that making sure that everybody has a voice means that you have to look at wide participation. You can’t just look at narrow engagement. When I study citizens’ assemblies and I see people in the room and I see the amount of structure and facilitation and I see the experts being wheeled in to give their presentations – and often masses of these presentations – and I see the recruited citizens – whether they’re random is a moot point, whether they’re representative is a moot point – but I see these citizens who haven’t been involved in things like this before come into the room and then they take them through this process, sometimes very lightly facilitated, sometimes very heavily facilitated.

It can be a really good process.

But at its worst it is technocracy not democracy. And at its very worst, when you see the kind of people agitating for these things to be permanent and to be the only way of doing this, etc. it’s almost like they are saying, ‘We’re bringing in the great unwashed into a room and giving them the benefit of all of this wisdom and all of this experience and knowledge and they get to express their views, but we’re making sure that they’re informed’. It works on the basis that ‘if only the public were as smart and as educated as I am and had the benefit of this intellectual process then the world would be a better place, because it would be more like the world that I want it to be’. So the process is designed for the people delivering this, not for the benefit of the people receiving this and the people who need to have a voice.

Roslyn: I couldn’t agree with you more. Is there anything else you would like to add that you feel we haven’t covered?

Paul: I think that I would like to say a few things, since you’ve given me this opportunity. You and I exchange messages on Twitter and we have private exchanges and there are a number of people I do this with. There’s dozens and dozens of people I’m regularly having private conversations with and we’re speaking on Zoom and Teams and Google and then I’m doing talks, I’m doing workshops, I’m doing research projects. Others don’t, and in some cases won’t, engage privately – partly because they just want to defend a position, they are only interested in PR or lobbying for their favoured approach and don’t want to be challenged – so all we have are the ‘public spats’ sadly.

We just got a grant to do a research project on the Covid impact on local democracy. We’re looking at what is happening in local government and what great things people are doing on digital inclusion and many other great initiatives – trying to do something not just talk about issues. We just got a Christmas bus in York going around the city and giving out presents to people who haven’t got anybody else at Christmas and who are alone at home, but we’re also finding out who hasn’t got a digital connection and getting computers to them and providing support. So all this major stuff is going on and there are some great academic works and great practical research work and there are people, there are individuals doing great work.

Then there’s these public spats on Twitter. Then there’s the advocacy groups, the lobby groups. And part of the irony of it is that citizens’ assemblies have become a lobby. It’s become almost like a political party with a one-item manifesto, a single-issue, single method pressure group. It is an extraordinary thing.

So there’s the people working in the broader field of deliberative and participatory democracy and we have conversations. And they’ll actually say to me, ‘Look, we want to push citizens’ assemblies because we think it is tactically a good thing to do. It might open up other doors. But we don’t want to put it as the only method. And we want to encourage people to reform the system, we want to encourage people to find other ways of involving people’.

We can happily co-exist. I know they’re just pushing a particular position and that it’s a tactical thing. But then there’s the other people who are very closed-minded and they’re the ones who close down the conversation. And if you’re not passionately supporting citizens’ assemblies, there must be something wrong with you. It’s real snake oil type stuff and they get high on their own drug. And the sad thing is that’s pushing out discussion of other methods, other ways of involving people. Other reforms of the system. I’ve had conversations with people who are saying, ‘Why aren’t we discussing this? Why can’t we get these conversations going? Why is it crowding out other things?’

In that sense it’s become harmful. It’s become really harmful. And even people who are doing this in good faith to enhance democracy are doing great harm by crowding everything else out of the conversation. And that’s in addition to other harms we discussed earlier, such as the potentially adverse impacts on mental health from excluding people after initially inviting them to take part in a citizens’ assembly.

So I would urge people to look at the political system as it stands, look at representative democracy, look at all the ways you can involve people and all the things that can be done and where citizens’ assemblies fit within that picture. And if you advocate tactically for them to bring other reforms in, great. But if you’ve just stopped looking at these other things, please, please, please take a look at them.

Also, I urge people to consider the upsides and downsides of everything. I think the movement for a global citizens’ assembly potentially has some big upsides, especially if it is reaching out to people in disadvantaged communities. However, it can also cause harm. You’re raising the expectations of disadvantaged people – who have no power whatsoever – that you’re going to do something. You take somebody from a refugee camp, for instance, and you say to them, ‘Look we’re going to have this citizens’ assembly and you’re going to be able to speak directly to the United Nations’. That creates a massive expectation. Are you going to be able to fulfil that? Or are you sending somebody back into their offshore detention camp after the assembly, possibly to kill themselves because they’re thinking, ‘I was feeling pretty hopeless. I was at 95% hopeless before you involved me in your process, now I’m 100% hopeless, thank you very much, because you have not changed my life one jot.’

In our Zero Suicide Community network gatherings, we always try to stay hopeful and finish on a note of hope, but not idealism, or raising hopes that can’t be fulfilled. Some of these national and global citizens’ assemblies do seem to be misguided and potentially damaging, although deep down I don’t think many of those involved seriously believe a single citizens’ assembly is going to solve complex problems like Climate Emergency, global poverty, or suicide.

The micro-level work in communities is hopeful and not idealistic, it’s practical, and people can be involved in initiatives that clearly work. We can focus on what we can change and what we can’t. Identify where top-down action is needed but don’t expect this to happen any time soon, so do what we can locally while the ‘institutions’ catch up.

‘Institutionalising’ a technocratic form of very limited citizen involvement will, by definition, not change much and it has a huge opportunity cost when it pulls resources, ideas and creativity away from other options and initiatives that we know can have much bigger and lasting impact.

Roslyn: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me today. It’s great to have your perspective on this and hopefully we can talk again in the future!

Paul Vittles has published a number of pieces on Medium, including on participative democracy and community empowerment, listening, online engagement, transparency, etc and also a summary of the Suicide Prevention Transformation Projects (SPTPs) he’s facilitating via charities and social enterprises like The Jordan Legacy CIC, and the global Zero Suicide Community:

For more on this topic see Paul's blog here.


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