“There is a real need to reset how we make decisions

Joanna George is a writer, consultant and Steering Committee member of the Constitution Reform Group, a cross-party organization which seeks a new constitutional settlement for the UK. She has an enthusiastic interest in constitutional law and reform, the communication of constitutional and political ideas in the digital age, and how technology can be used to inform, build trust and increase citizen participation in the political process. She is also a regular writer for publications including The Times and Prospect Magazine. Today she draws a parallel between her work with the Constitution Reform Group and citizen engagement and participation.

Can you tell us about your work and how you’ve taken on board the voices of ordinary citizens across the UK?

The Constitution Reform Group is a UK-focused project which seeks a new constitutional settlement for the country. Its’ Steering Committee came together in 2015 to think about what is and what is not working with the UK’s current constitutional arrangements. By 2016 we had condensed our thoughts and ideas into a draft new Act of Union Bill which reflects our discussions and ongoing work. The Bill was drafted with the idea that we would leave alone constitutional issues that we thought were working well, but that if there was a constitutional crisis, this would offer a ready-made “Plan B” with a framework to improve our current constitutional arrangements.

The Bill directly tackles the question that few people can confidently or willingly answer – what does the future governance of the UK look like, and how will power be distributed? An updated version of the Bill will be introduced in a matter of months within the current Parliament which is very exciting! 

The project is very incredibly timely right now as the UK is experiencing a constitutional moment and our work has been at the forefront of new constitutional thinking. Having been involved with the project and being fascinated with our work for almost five years, it will be intriguing to watch what happens with our new Act of Union Bill and our proposals in the years and decades ahead.

After the last UK general election in December 2020 the Government announced that it would be holding a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission and our work has since influenced their agenda thanks to the stakeholders’ deliberation we implemented.

The Constitution Reform Group has taken on board the voices of ordinary citizens across the UK through our university seminar series where we have held interactive sessions with students, academics and the general public. It gave us the opportunity to explain our proposals on a face-to-face level and we have been greatly encouraged by this approach as well as the diversity of feedback we have received. Not only have we considered this feedback, but we also integrated it into the most recent version of the Bill. We welcome feedback and ideas via our website and have been in touch with people across the UK as well as internationally who have provided useful constitutional comparisons with their own countries.

This comparative study based on collective intelligence has given us the possibility to draw parallels between our own governance issues in the UK and citizens’ and stakeholders’ issues elsewhere. Depending on how the Bill progresses, it would be great to develop our citizen participative work on a larger and more consistent scale in the future.

 

It has become clear that the amplifying voice of social media has played a major role in fuelling the many political protests of the last decade. How can the energy and ideas behind these movements be converted into long-lasting and effective action?

 One of the benefits of the internet age we live in is that it has given a voice and identity to people who were previously outside the traditional power structures of the 20th century (such as government, media, business) and so weren’t heard or even acknowledged. Social media has expanded influence to significantly more people and has made traditional power more accountable on a wide scale, on a 24/7 basis, and it has been positive in terms of connecting likeminded individuals to come together on both a national and international scale to form political protests. Converting the energy and ideas within these movements, ranging from climate change, to gender equality to racial equality, into effective action going forward can be achieved in a number of ways.

  It must be acknowledged that political protestors tend to be directly and detrimentally impacted the most to the extent that they will dedicate their own time, energy and resources to making their collective voices heard by governments and policy makers. Engaging with political protestors on a human level – and by human level I mean intentionally listening to what they are saying, what they truly mean, and what actively needs to be done to resolve the issue they are protesting about – is the only way to start and continue making effective and long-term progress. Policymakers must also ask themselves why they should care about the issue – is it reducing the protestors quality of life? Is there injustice? What will happen in both the short and long-term if the protestors aren’t being listened to? Why does it feel important to the protestors? Policymakers must fully understand and appreciate the straightforward and nuanced perspectives of the protestors to start shaping good quality policy.

“Citizen assemblies’ offer a framework to restore trust in the political process and our ability to understand one another in the 21st century.

Joanna George

Consultant and Steering Committee member
of the Constitution Reform Group

So do you think the way we make decisions should be re-evaluated? Do you think youth is likely to embrace citizen assemblies as a way to express their concerns?

In the current political climate, it sometimes seems as if details aren’t convenient and important to governments and that decisions need to be “seen” to be happening, even if they are of very poor quality. This is where citizens’ assemblies can work wonders by initiating high quality engagement and discussion between ordinary citizens and experts. Citizen assemblies’ offer a framework to restore trust in the political process and our ability to understand one another in the 21st century. Over the years political culture has created a machine geared towards media cycles where saying something with a couple of hours’ worth of “impact” is prioritised over action that could improve people’s lives and the country with a decade long impact. This has changed how citizens view democracy, and so there is a real need to reset how we make decisions that enables citizens to have an invested interest in the political process. Overall, I’m excited by citizens’ assemblies as a forum for deliberative democracy, education and participation in the political process although I think further work needs to be done in terms of the cost and administration of them.
I think that Millennials and Generation Z are likely to embrace citizens’ assemblies much more than older generations in the years ahead as we have less trust in traditional political institutions. Citizens’ assemblies, if done well, have the potential to restore trust in the political process in the 21st century. I believe that if ordinary citizens are respected and treated as equals to experts and politicians, they can be trusted to make informed judgements and add valuable contributions to assist policymakers with their work. It is then up to policymakers to make the right choices.

 

You were shortlisted for a Frank Knox Fellowship at Harvard University based on your “Strength of character, keen mind, a balanced judgement and devotion to the democratic ideal.” Where does this passion for a “democratic ideal” come from?

 My passion for a “democratic ideal” comes from an eclectic variety of sources; witnessing injustice, ideals expressed in philosophy, literature, religion, media, people I have met and read about, knowing and being aware that not everyone (including animals and the environment) is treated equally with the respect and attention they deserve. My consciousness of the importance of a democratic ideal comes from my ability to connect and empathise with others on a human level – how does a person feel when they are suffering from the effects of a democratic deficit, and how can systems work better for them so that they live a fulfilling, well-lived life? Undervaluing or undermining the importance of a democratic ideal ignores the fundamental essence of the human spirit which is to strive, thrive and make a positive impact on the world with our own individual talents.

One of the key takeaways of the COVID-19 pandemic is that everything and everyone is interconnected, and this expression has resonated with so many more people now that we have all had to live our lives in a much more restrictive and mindful way. I’m hopeful that the pandemic has energised more people to strive for a democratic ideal that encourages greater kindness, empathy and listening so that we can all forge more meaningful connections with one another.

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