Multi-stakeholder partnerships are failing to effectively address complex social issues: citizen deliberation holds the key to true communities of action

Democratise It
Mar 4 · 13 min read

Executive summary

· Trust in business and government’s ability to address issues in line with citizens’ needs is at an all-time low.

· Trade associations and multi-stakeholder global partnerships are so far largely unable to make meaningful progress on the issues they aim to address.

· Citizen deliberation can create insight and movement that traditional methods of opinion gathering fail to generate.

· Bringing citizens to the centre of and shifting from trade to “issue associations” can transform multi-stakeholder partnerships into communities of action that tackle the real issues.

Trust in business and government’s ability to address issues in line with citizens’ needs is at an all-time low

The complex issues global society faces are not being resolved. The world is dealing with ever increasing issues and our ability as a society to address them seems to be insufficient. More and more ‘crises’ can be observed and government, business and civil society responses to these are failing to make a sufficient impact and are often mismatched to popular priorities and will.

As a result, trust in government, business, and institutions more generally is in decline[1]. For the past decade, there has been an increasing sentiment by people that governments and businesses do not represents their views anymore. There is a general feeling of disenfranchisement by citizens, who feel that the outcomes of the political and social system and technological innovation does not match their priorities or aspirations and are, instead, defined by a few in a non-transparent way.

Our reading of the evidence points to the conclusion that ‘the social contract is broken’ and that the current social, governance and economic system is no longer attuned to the needs of individuals or society as a whole. With movements like the Extinction Rebellion, people are made present to the increasing urgency to change ‘the system’ to have it produce more sustainable outcomes for society and the environment. Yet, the majority of people feel powerless in their ability to define these outcomes.

In order to move forward, government, business, and civil society are in need of a renewed social contract. What people want is to be heard and for their voice to have a real impact on the outcomes which the system produces. They want to feel like they matter and to be able to hold institutions (government, businesses) accountable to delivering on their priorities as citizens and consumers.

Multi-stakeholder global partnerships are so far largely unable to make meaningful progress on the issues they are created to solve

In light of the growing urgency around global issues such as plastic waste, proliferating use of consumer data to misinform and manipulate, and the dual issue of malnutrition and obesity, to name a few, global stakeholders have increasingly begun to form partnerships to find and implement effective solutions to these issues.

High-level global partnerships do serve a useful purpose by combining resources, creating and distributing knowledge, and focusing attention on the urgency and importance of the issues at stake. Unfortunately, the one thing these partnerships rarely do is actually solve these problems. Instead, these initiatives tend to collapse under their own weight as partners fail to align on solutions progressive enough to make an impact or become discouraged by the lack of meaningful progress for society or economic benefit to the companies involved.

Arguably, what seems to be missing in most of these partnerships is the voice of the people who are affected by the issues at hand and have a unique understanding of them. These people hold valuable information and ideas about how the issue has unfolded and what their individual needs are when it comes to its solutions. They also want to have a say in defining the problem and its solutions, as opposed to having them ‘imposed’ on them by the members of the global partnership. Bringing citizens to the centre can shift multi-stakeholder partnerships into communities of action that effectively tackle the real issues.

The need to switch gears — from using citizens to gather information to actively engaging them in deliberating on solutions

The Ladder of participation. Source: RSA

With the ongoing lack of meaningful progress, a new, more transformational approach is needed. Addressing complex issues effectively requires facing into unexplored areas and developing new approaches to solutions. In such cases, traditional methods of insight-gathering, consultation and opinion research are likely to give false-positives, as they are not suited for creating new approaches but to testing existing ways of doing things. To explore unknown areas and deliver transformative visions, co-creation with affected people and stakeholders is far more effective and necessary.

As the RSA points out in their discussion of the need to involve citizens in defining ethical approaches to the use of AI: “Public dialogue is useful when a topic is controversial or complex. It is especially valuable when it raises important ethical and social questions that cannot be resolved with facts alone.”[2]

Moreover, evidence shows that engaging a diverse group of people, which is ideally representative, not only leads to a more complete understanding of an issue, but also a more accurate one. Such groups are also better able to solve complex challenges than are homogeneous groups of experts or stakeholders[3].

Overall, having citizens and stakeholders affected by issues involved in defining the problem and its potential solutions carries multiple benefits:

• Results in inherently more legitimate, inclusive, and, ultimately, effective outcomes,

• Focuses engagement on the common goal of finding a solution, not defending narrow (often conflicting) interests,

• Is able to overcome stalemates and ‘lowest common denominator’ approaches,

• Delivers buy-in by all stakeholders on solution areas from the beginning — making implementation easier, and

• Builds trust among critical stakeholders by giving them a decisive voice.

Examples of citizen engagement in defining complex issue solutions

Fortunately, there is a global trend gaining traction of meaningfully engaging citizens in not only helping to clarify the issues they are facing but also defining the solution areas for these issues. Institutions interested in making an impact are realising the need and benefits of tapping into people’s collective creativity and the more legitimate, effective and sustainable results citizen-defined solutions deliver. Fundamentally, when people affected by issues are involved in defining their solutions, these are likely to be seen as a lot more legitimate and widely accepted than if defined through non-transparent negotiations.

The following case studies show that:

· Citizens can understand, deliberate on and create consensus-based solutions to complex issues.

· It is important to engage citizens in problems that don’t necessarily have objective solutions, but rather solutions that are informed by values and ethics in order to build legitimacy.

· Open conversations within a community can shine a light on why certain policies are ineffective and how to address hidden barriers in order to make them better.

I. UK Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change[4]

Source: The Guardian

Climate Assembly UK has brought together people from all walks of life to discuss how the UK can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

Who commissioned it and why:

· In June 2019, six Select Committees of the House of Commons called a citizens’ assembly to understand public preferences on how the UK should tackle climate change because of the impact these decisions will have on people’s lives. The House of Commons has partnered with three organisations (who are also acting as co-funders of the initiative) to run Climate Assembly UK on its behalf — The Involve Foundation (‘Involve’), Sortition Foundation, and mySociety.

The process:

· The assembly was selected to be a representative sample of the population after a mailout to 30,000 people chosen at random. About 2,000 people responded saying they wanted to be considered for the assembly, and the 110 members were picked by a computer. Their selection reflects different levels of concern for the issue.

· The assembly will meet for four weekends, where they will hear balanced evidence on the choices the UK faces, discuss them, and make recommendations. The speaker presentations, including by David Attenborough among a variety of stkaeholders, as well as some Q&A sessions with assembly members have been live streamed so the wider public can tune in to understand what happens in the assembly room. Conversations between assembly members are never live streamed to ensure they feel able to have full and frank discussions.

· The questions on which assembly members are asked to give their views, were developed with the help of four experts, a panel of advisers including representatives from the Confederation of British Industry, Trades Union Congress, National Farmers’ Union, environmental NGOs and renewable energy companies.

· For each topic (such as transport, agriculture, domestic energy), there are three sets of decisions the assembly members must reach:

o First, the assembly will draft, discuss and prioritise considerations they believe Government and Parliament should bear in mind when cutting emissions in different areas of life.

o Then, the members will discuss and vote on various future scenarios which respond to the range of evidence the assembly heard on reducing emissions in four areas of life, as well as the members own initial preferences discussed at weekend two.

o Finally, the assembly members will discuss and vote on policy options for achieving those changes and rank them in order of preference.

The outcome:

· The recommendations that come out of the discussions will result in a report in the spring, which will be considered by the select committees, however, without a guarantee that the proposals will be taken up by government.

· Polls have shown that the public is ready for much more ambitious measures than government has considered so far, and experts believe that the assembly will confirm these findings.

II. RSA citizen’s jury on AI Ethics[5]

The Ada Lovelace Institute in London emphasises that the issues of AI and data require public legitimacy. These complex problems don’t necessarily have objective solutions, but rather solutions that are informed by values and ethics. In such situations, we must move towards better answers by drawing on a diversity of expertise and experience and by embedding the citizen voice in how we think through design, implementation and governance of tech.[6] [7]

Who commissioned it and why:

· The RSA and DeepMind partnered on the Forum for Ethical AI in order to facilitate meaningful public engagement on the real-world impacts of AI.

· The questions RSA sought to answer were: When do citizens think it is appropriate to use automated decision systems (ADS)? What is the most effective way of engaging citizens with questions on new technologies? How can we ensure information around technology is clear, accessible and actionable?

The process:

· The citizens’ jury took place over four days, recruiting between 25–29 citizens, representative of a range of ages, abilities, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. There was also a more or less equal split between participants in terms of their attitudes towards technology, accounting for positive, negative and neutral perspectives.

· Jurors heard from 24 expert witnesses across the course of the sessions. The expert witnesses and the subjects they covered were selected by the RSA with support from an independent advisory group. This group was selected by the RSA and included experts in the deliberative process and in the content of the issues discussed. Scenarios and personae were adopted to help immerse participants in the issues. Case studies were also a significant part of the engagement in the sectors of recruitment, healthcare and criminal justice.

· Citizens were then asked to enter into an open dialogue, commit to listening to others, and provide responses with consideration for the wider community (in contrast to focus groups and most consultations where individuals are asked for their own opinion). This encouraged citizens to strive towards a consensus and/or a compromise in the best interests of society.

· The RSA also partnered with YouGov to carry out a survey on public attitudes to AI and ADS and so the citizens’ jury was an opportunity to further explore the issues surfaced by the survey.

The outcome:

· The RSA published a report outlining the deliberative process and the key conditions that jurors would like to see built-in to the processes surrounding ADS in an institutional context. They also created a toolkit for organisations seeking to deploy their own ethical processes around the proliferation of AI.

· The RSA also held a follow-up event, reconvening the citizens, so that they can have the opportunity to hear, and discuss, reflections from key stakeholders on their conclusions.

III. Large-scale conversation on community health and wellbeing[8]

Open large-scale conversations within a community can shine a light on why certain policies are ineffective and how to address hidden barriers in order to make them better.

Who commissioned it and why:

· In 2016, Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership committed to seeing the greatest and fastest improvement to the health and wellbeing of the 2.8 million people who live in Greater Manchester.

· They formed the Taking Charge Together project with the aim to explore the questions of why we are not all living the healthier lifestyles we know we should and what can be done about it. The first step was to hold conversations across the whole of Greater Manchester. Clever Together was contracted to facilitate the citizen conversations.

The process:

· In the course of 2.5 months, over 6,000 people filled a snapshot survey to share their views on what helps or hinders them from taking charge of their health and wellbeing. Social media, press, radio, print and face to face engagements helped generate interest.

· Based on the insights of the first conversation, a second 3-week long on-line workshop as well as face-to-face workshops were facilitated to dig deeper into possible solutions. Residents of Greater Manchester, as well as experts and community leaders shared and discussed their views. Almost 600 participants submitted 1,374 contributions (132 ideas, 178 comments and 1064 votes).

· The profile of participation was broadly representative of Greater Manchester’s population, reaching a broad range of people from every borough of Greater Manchester, age group, gender group, ethnic group and a relevant mix of employment backgrounds.

· One of the benefits of using an online workshop was that there is a digital record of what people think and say that can be mined for themes and signals using the latest qualitative research techniques. This way avoids the risks in typical workshops of the facilitator cherry-picking the data or participants feeling too embarrassed to say what they really feel in front of their peers.

· The data also showed the digital approach is not necessarily suited only for a younger audience. In fact, 52.07% of participants were over 45 and 47.44% were under 44. This shows that the online workshop was used by people across all age groups.

The outcome:

· The findings of the citizen engagement revealed 9 core themes/issues and 6 core types with distinct motivations and specific interventions needed to improve their health and well-being.

· The insights generated by this project could be used to enhance existing and devise new health and wellbeing programmes and interventions based on targeting specific groups with particular needs.

IV. Taiwan: co-creating policy for Uber

Who commissioned it and why:

· In December 2014, the Taiwanese minister for digital affairs, Jaclyn Tsai, asked a civic tech community called g0v (a decentralised community of coders, NGO workers, civil servants, and volunteers who develop digital tools to support a more open government) to build a platform that enabled citizens to engage in rational discussion online. The g0v community developed a new public engagement process called vTaiwan. It focuses on forming public participatory policy about digital technology.

· The process was designed to support open and transparent deliberation, addressing what constitutes fair regulation of Uber in relation to competing services.

The process:

· During the initial two-week stage, g0v researched the issue to help define the policy challenge and identify and contact relevant stakeholders. The community gathered relevant facts, evidence and research on the topic and prepared material for the public.

· During the four-week reflective stage an online platform was used to crowdsource ideas and gather public opinion. Facebook adverts and social networks were used to target participants and draw them on to the platform, including reaching out to affected groups such as Uber drivers to ensure their perspective was included. The platform visually highlighted areas of consensus, as well as non-mainstream opinions. 4,500 people participated and voted on 145 comments. Participants included taxi drivers, UberX drivers, and passengers of both Ubers and traditional taxis.

· In order for an idea to progress to the next stage, it needed to achieve 80 percent approval among all participants. As a result of this, people had to compete to define moderate statements that crossed the divide between different groups.

· From the online deliberative process, 6 recommendations emerged that had 80 percent approval. There was a general consensus on the need to regulate UberX and protect established public-private transport.

The outcome:

· After the online deliberation, two-hour public meetings were hosted with academics, industry experts and representatives from different stakeholders in order to build on the initial recommendations and develop firm proposals. The meetings were live-streamed and transcribed, and the public could participate remotely through online chat rooms and digital whiteboards, which could then feed back into the meetings. Over 1,800 people watched this event or participated remotely.

· Faced with public pressure and consensus around the demands, Uber conceded to almost all the recommendations before the legislative process began.

· The administration pledged to ratify the recommendations emerging from the process and amend the Regulation on Automobile Transportation Management.

· Following the successful pilot of the platform with Uber, the vTaiwan process was applied to Airbnb regulations and internet alcohol sales. To date, 26 issues have been discussed through vTaiwan, 80 percent of which have led to decisive action from the government.


[1] As demonstrated by the Edelman Trust Barometer results over the years, among other sources.








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