Back in January, when Bristol City Council voted in favour of trialling two pilot citizens’ assemblies, we could not have known what 2020 had in store.
It was anticipated that at least one of the two pilots would focus on the climate emergency, in recognition of the need to grow our city with principles of sustainability and inclusivity at its heart.
But by March, we were in lockdown, dealing with a virus none of us had even heard of just weeks earlier. It became clear very quickly that there would be wide ranging and long term effects for us all, both in terms of the initial public health crisis, but also the economic hit that we knew would come later.
Recognising that the pandemic had shifted the goalposts in practically all areas of our work, the City Council began to rethink how we could use deliberative democracy to engage our citizens in the city’s recovery plan.
There is a very real risk that the economic fallout of Covid will further entrench the inequalities felt throughout Bristol.
Although Covid has affected everyone in our city, we can’t ignore that the impact has been felt more keenly by some. Job losses have hit young people hardest. Women have borne the brunt of additional childcare responsibilities, leaving them less able to juggle work. The virus itself has had a disproportionate impact on the elderly and those in Black and Asian communities.
For far too long the social, racial and economic inequalities that exist in our city have drowned out the voices of the most disadvantaged. There is a very real risk that the economic fallout of Covid will further entrench the inequalities felt throughout Bristol.
Engaging with local residents presents an opportunity for these inequalities to be confronted and addressed by the very citizens who experience them. Hearing from a range of people, many of whom are too often unheard and underrepresented in decision making, is critical as we seek to re-build a more resilient, fair and sustainable city.
There’s been a lot of interest in our cross-party approach to this work, which is being led by myself and Cllr Paula O’Rourke, a Green Party Councillor. This idea got off the ground as a result of Labour support for a Green party motion, so it makes complete sense for us to be working together on this.
Both myself and Cllr O’Rourke hold strong views on a number of issues and have healthy disagreements which you’d expect given our political alliances, but we are progressives and are both aligned when it comes to delivering participatory and deliberative democracy.
Therefore, in the spirit of collaboration, openness and compromise, Paula and I have set aside our political differences in order to drive forward this work.
Crucially, by tracking responses from different communities, we have been able to target certain groups to ensure we are hearing from the full diversity of our city.
Bringing together a core group of officers to work with Cllr O’Rourke and myself, we devised a three stage approach.
- Focus groups: We wanted to hear from a broad spectrum of people in detail about how coronavirus and lockdown had impacted them. This information was then used to shape the topics covered in the survey.
- Survey: We launched the Your City Our Future survey at the beginning of August with the aim of hearing from 5,000 citizens. The topics covered are broad and include how people feel about working from home, as well as changes in travel behaviour, income and job opportunities for example. Crucially, by tracking responses from different communities, we have been able to target certain groups to ensure we are hearing from the full diversity of our city.
- Citizens’ Assembly: Based on the work outlined above, we will identify the issues that are both important to people but which also divide opinion. This will then be brought to a citizens’ assembly of one hundred Bristolians, or up to three smaller citizens' juries depending on the breadth of issues raised through the survey. Using evidence, and through debate, the group or groups will produce recommendations for the council and other city partners to consider.
If we want to enable a truly inclusive recovery for our city, citizens must be at the heart of our work.
This work is feeding into our city's recovery plan, which is being developed alongside the assembly as part of an iterative process, allowing for the incorporation of the outputs of our engagement with citizens. The plan is a collaborative piece of work, bringing together city stakeholders from all sectors around a shared vision for Bristol post-Covid. Outputs of the engagement will also be used to inform the annual refresh of our One City Plan, laying out our vision for Bristol to 2050.
Crucially, this process represents more than just a one-off project. It signals a change in how we want to engage citizens and ensure they are a key part of decision making going forward. If we want to enable a truly inclusive recovery for our city, citizens must be at the heart of our work.
There will be no easy decisions and there will be differences in opinion, but knowing what matters most to the people in our city will be invaluable. We want our citizens to understand the process we’re going through and for them to know we are listening. It is, after all, their city and our future.
We are keen to share the progress from this work and will provide further updates through this blog series later on in the process.
This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to Covid-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.
Councillor Asher Craig is Deputy Mayor for Bristol with responsibility for Communities, Equalities and Public Health.