Marvin Rees wants a citywide conversation. Here’s a way he could do it.

In today’s Guardian, Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says he wants a citywide conversation in response to the toppling of the Edward Colston statue.

I love this idea — and I’d love to think we could “stand under” (as my Bristol friend Liz Zeidler puts it), and help someone like Marvin really lead change. We’ve been working for a while on how a government might put together the various participatory processes and technologies that are out there to create stages of a conversation that would actually go somewhere. It feels like something like this could really help here.

We call it RAPID Democracy, because we’ve stolen with pride from Bain’s RAPID model for corporate decision making. The diagram they use is below, and there’s a little more on the theory of how the model applies to democracy here.

Source: Bain and Company

What it would look like in practice, though, is what matters right now… so here’s a very quick snapshot of what we reckon Marvin Rees and the City of Bristol could do…

The Question

First of all, if you want to hold a conversation, you need to define the question that people are going to be discussing — something we’d argue is perhaps the most important role of government in the future that could emerge in this time. This needs to define what’s in and out of scope, and it’ll need some serious thought — after all, Einstein once said that if he was given an hour to solve a challenge to save the world, he would spend the first 55 minutes making sure he’d got the right question. For illustration, though, our starting point would be something like…

How can the City of Bristol best face its racial history?

Phase 1: Input (experts from academia AND from experience)

In the first phase of the conversation, what the approach demands is not just one, but two sources of input. One is indeed conventional expert input, and that’s what Rees has talked about obtaining today, asking academics in Bristol “to form the nucleus of a team with other academics in Bristol to do a piece of work about our memorials, our statues, our street names and do some good history on it, some good understanding so we can be properly informed.”

But you also need — right at the beginning of the process — to tap into a complementary form of expertise, the expertise of experience. You need to hear the stories of how people have been affected, what it means in their daily lives. And crucially you need their ideas too, because these will be rooted in that expertise. You need a meaningful way for these voices to contribute directly.

That’s why we’d propose a parallel process to the academic commission, whereby all Bristolians would be invited to contribute their ideas for what could be done in the city. The open source Your Priorities software, created to power the Better Reykjavik platform, would be perfect as a convening point for this. We’d recommend a 6 to 8 week campaign stimulating these ideas from across the city, starting as soon as possible. The output would be a rich bank of experiences and commentary, and a set of prioritised ideas: the perfect analogue and complement to the output of the academic process.

Phase 2: Recommend (representative group of Citizens)

Next you need to get into the weeds of both of these input sources, digest them, and turn them into recommendations. But the citizens of the city can and should do that bit too. This is a job for which a Citizens’ Assembly process would be perfect, with the academic commission and the citizens’ platform providing the reference material.

We’d use a sortition process to bring together 60 or so randomly selected participants, representative of the city population in every way (including ethnicity but also age, gender, ward, etc), to learn, deliberate, and produce recommendations through the course of a series of facilitated sessions across a period of weeks. (The definition of representation could be up for discussion: there might be a case for increasing the proportion of non-white participants, although my personal instinct is that direct representation would be more likely to produce the most legitimate, widely endorsed outcomes.)

This could be delivered digitally, as the UK Climate Assembly has shown; it could also be supported in the process by the use of the pol.is app which has been used extensively in achieving consensus on difficult topics by the Taiwanese government, among others. And the process for this group could be supported by a set of tools for other citizens to replicate the conversations in families and communities across the city (and beyond).

Phase 3: Decide (elected representatives)

The output of the Citizens’ Assembly would be a set of recommendations, which would then go to the Mayor and the elected Council. Their role would be to Decide whether or not to enact them — with the crucial upfront commitment on their part being that they would respond in full and in public to all recommendations made, giving reasons for any that were not to be adopted. They would need to take into account any concerns of their constituents, for example, and to review the recommendations in the context of the city’s wider priorities. The point is that the elected roles remain crucial — this sort of process is about complementing, not eliminating representative democracy — but are not the beginning and end of the process.

Phase 4: Agree (all Citizens)

Once you have a set of recommendations approved in principle by the elected decision-makers, there are then two options. The basic approach is to go out to conventional consultation, in a manner that reflects what such processes are good for — a kind of “speak now or forever hold your peace” moment, rather than upfront engagement. The more advanced option is to go to citywide referendum at this point, giving everyone a direct say. We’d actually recommend this, partly for what it would do for Britain to have a properly run referendum, carried out in its appropriate role in the democratic process… but it’s not crucial.

Phase 5: Perform (officials AND Citizens)

Finally, we’d argue that there should be some capacity and resource planned in from the very beginning to support citizens’ action in response to the question — so that when all this civic energy is built up, the culmination isn’t just “OK then, leave it with us”, with Council officers the only ones taking action.

This might take the form, for example, of a matched crowdfunding pot from the City budget to support civic initiatives across the city. Spacehive’s Crowdfund London campaign is a good example of this sort of thing.

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This is a very rough outline for what a meaningful citywide conversation of the sort Marvin Rees has talked about could look like. If Bristol or any other city would like to take this on, we’d LOVE to help.

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Jon Alexander

Jon Alexander

1.5K Followers

Co-Founder, New Citizenship Project and Author, CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us