This piece is #4 in the 'Visions for the Future of Democracy' series curated by Involve for its 15th anniversary. We have asked authors to provide their vision or take on democracy 15 years from now.

It’s early 2035, and another zoonotic virus rages largely out of control. As citizens experience fear, disruption and, in too many cases, loss of loved ones.  Memories of COVID-19 abound. But there is one major difference. This time, the public are part of creating, improving, and delivering the response.

Photo by Branimir Balogović on Unsplash

Outwardly, much looks the same as at the height of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. SAGE meets regularly to advise the Government. The Chief Medical Officer is a reliable presence on our television screens and her Jonathan Van Tam style metaphors really cut through on the news.

Institutions and policies are better rooted in consent, resulting in better ideas, more effective delivery and greater take up by citizens.

Some things are obviously different. Over 60% of the population now has some sort of wearable device that can automatically test for the presence of the virus. If you test positive, this will immediately inform close contacts that they need to self-isolate. It also warns public health teams if you fail to self-isolate. If the R number is above 1 in a specific area, it will be put into full lockdown.

Despite this heavy intrusion, compliance is high: nearly 90% of wearable users are downloading and using the relevant apps.

What is different?

At first, the most obvious difference between 2020 and 2035 appears to be  technology. However, though this has contributed to the relative success of the UK in dealing with the new virus, it is not the major factor. This time, the public are included in creating, improving and delivering the Government’s response to the virus. Institutions and policies are better rooted in consent, resulting in better ideas, more effective delivery and greater take up by citizens.

Pandemic planning

The government reviewed the National Pandemic Plan in 2032. This took 18 months. From the start, the Prime Minister was clear that the public must be meaningfully involved. She led the national media campaign and drove the multichannel approach to engaging citizens. The VR headset simulation involving 1,000s was the most eye-catching activity, but what made it the most effective was the integrated approach of on and offline engagement. This culminated in the Pandemic Planning Citizens’ Assembly (PPCA) which made a series of recommendations to improve the Plan.

This transparency has fed down to local level as most local authorities are transparent about their own pandemic response, challenges and successes.

In a move that would surprise the citizens of 2021, Newham’s standing Citizen Assembly – the first in England – volunteered the borough to run a weeklong lockdown-simulation. This selfless gesture was the direct result of the Prime Minister’s commitment to public participation. Assembly Members spotted a gap in the planning, believed that their views would be taken on board and wanted to contribute to the national effort.

The Newham test exposed significant weaknesses in the plan, specifically in the ability of the social care system to cope and the over-reliance on technology. It also reaffirmed the ability of local civil society organisations to help plug these gaps. The lessons learnt have been a significant contributing factor in the UK’s relative success since the new virus hit in 2034.

Transparency

Papers for all SAGE meetings are published beforehand and the minutes two days after. The data feeding the models is publicly accessible. This transparency has fed down to local level as most local authorities are transparent about their own pandemic response, challenges and successes.

This transparency has paid dividends. Early data, in the second half of 2034, suggested cases were rising in Newcastle. The week before SAGE made the decision to fully lockdown the city and surrounding region, the use of masks rose to over 90% and public transport use was down by 70%. After looking at the data, neighbouring health authorities reorganised rotas to send staff to support over-stretched hospitals as soon as the request was made.

A Citizens’ Jury has been set-up to shadow and advise SAGE.

Participation

The networked participation that started during the pandemic review provided the template for public engagement once the virus took hold. As with COVID-19, the early focus of civil society and community groups was to look after the most vulnerable. Much of the engagement builds on this foundation, deliberately focusing on local community capacities and plugging the gaps where necessary.  

The COVID-19 public inquiry identified a significant gap in the Government’s understanding of the virus’ impact on communities. As a result, the Health Security Agency established a Public Health Conversation Observatory[1] to help fill this gap. The purpose of the Observatory is to map and understand the conversations going on across the country about health, and to engage in community discussions, providing accurate information where needed, asking questions and connecting groups dealing with the same challenges. This helps connect the reality of how the virus has impacted communities, and how they’re responding, with the Government’s national response.

A Citizens’ Jury has been set-up to shadow and advise SAGE. The Jury has met regularly during the pandemic and its early intervention on levels of self-isolation relief is an important factor in the high levels of compliance. The Observatory helps to ensure that the Jury’s deliberations are grounded in the wider concerns of the public. As a result, the decisions taken by SAGE feel much closer to the communities most affected.

Accountability

There was a public inquiry into the Newcastle outbreak two weeks after lockdown was lifted. It found that the proactive action by citizens and neighbouring authorities was the direct result of SAGE’s transparency. These factors helped ensure lockdown only lasted 5 weeks and the number of deaths was lower than even the most optimistic predictions.

The inquiry identified confusion over some of the data and its implications. SAGE now publishes this data differently and early evidence suggests that levels of misinformation have dropped further.

It noted that transparency would be critical for any future pandemic and that the government must directly involve the public more in the decisions it takes, particularly when they have an impact on personal liberty.

Very early on, SAGE’s Jury asked to widen its scope from feeding into decisions to examining the impact of earlier decisions as well. There was resistance to this expansion of scope from some senior figures in the Government. However, the experience of the public’s involvement in the review of the Pandemic Plan experience gave the Prime Minister confidence that the Jury could be trusted to take on this role.

The Jury’s accountability function has led the government to reflect on the aim of policies and why they think they will have the effect intended. It has helped stop ill-conceived policy ideas early in development and has made the job of communicating policies much easier. The public now understands why the government is taking certain decisions and are therefore more willing to comply. 

What enabled this to happen

Newspapers are already starting write articles comparing the pandemic response in 2020 and 2035. They’re falling prey to the temptation to look for the individuals who made the difference, and one big change which flipped the UK’s response this time round.

But real-world democratic changes rarely work like that. What happened instead were incremental changes, underpinned by the shared recognition that any response to a national emergency had to be different next time.

In the mid-2020s, in the aftermath of COVID 19, there was political consensus that the country had to learn its lessons. The public inquiry showed how badly top decision-makers had understood what was happening on the ground, what public perspectives about policy choices were, and how willing the public were to contribute to the national effort to beat the virus. It noted that transparency would be critical for any future pandemic and that the government must directly involve the public more in the decisions it takes, particularly when they have an impact on personal liberty.

President Biden was re-elected as the US evaluated its own COVID response. At his inauguration he re-committed the US to the Open Government Partnership. He offered to host a 15-year anniversary summit of the partnership in 2026. This refocused the attention of the UK, a founding member of the OGP, on the core principles of the Partnership: Transparency, Participation and Accountability. The institutional and policy changes which followed were guided by these principles. The outcomes of a properly engaged pandemic response are plain to see.

 

[1] For an early sketch of an Observatory for Genome Editing, see here https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03269-3