Economics for everyone

Inclusive debate is essential if we are to heal the divisions left by Brexit and deal with the economic marginalisation that it has thrown into stark relief.

By Tony Greenham, Director of Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing at the RSA

Follow Tony and the Citizens’ Economic Council on Twitter @TonyGreenham @citizenseconomy

Six days after the UK voted to leave the EU, the RSA launched the Citizens’ Economic Council, a new initiative in democratic engagement. A year earlier, we had come to the view that the quality of political debate in the UK about the economy fails to match its importance. The debate before and after the EU referendum suggests that this analysis was right.

The referendum campaign — and to some extent, the rise of Donald Trump in the US — has led commentators to describe a ‘post-truth’ age of political debate. In the UK, not only have many people lost trust in their political leaders, but they also doubt the opinions and motives of a string of establishment figures, from assorted media celebrities to the Governor of the Bank of England.

Following the referendum, the process of political analysis has begun and will doubtless keep researchers and social commentators in business for many years. One central theme to emerge is the scale of disaffection and economic marginalisation of many communities, mostly far away from the centres of political and economic control in London. The question is, why should this have come as a surprise?

But consider a different question. How often do you engage in well-informed, respectful, deep conversation with a cross- section of society, including those with whom you profoundly disagree and have very little in common? It has always been the case that we tend to mix in social circles of people with similar lifestyles and world views, but the dynamics of social media and the ability to choose your news seems to amplify this effect. We are at risk of ever more bitter divisions — between north and south, city and rural, rich and poor, London and the rest — which our adversarial and remote system of parliamentary democracy seems ill equipped to heal.

How will the Citizens’ Economic Council help? At the core of the project is a group of 50–60 people, selected from a cross-section of the diverse communities living in the UK using well-established and statistically robust methods. We will bring these people together for five days between autumn 2016 and 2017 to deliberate key questions, such as, what are the goals of an economy? Whom should the economy serve? What are the trade-offs necessary between different priorities? What new policies might help deliver our goals?

Economics is often presented as an objective science, in which policy answers can be derived from evidence. But, fundamentally, answers to these questions will also be about values, assumptions and judgements. This deliberative process seeks to engage a group of individuals in discussions that are informed, and that promote the sharing of diverse perspectives and values. Participants consider the implications of, including the arguments for and against, decisions or policies.

Sometimes deliberation will lead to consensus, but it is equally valuable to capture points of difference and areas where individuals can hold quite contradictory views. Perhaps one of the most important qualities of this style of engagement, given the fractious fall-out from the EU referendum, is that it promotes empathy and understanding.

Spending time in conversation in a safe space, where differences of opinion can be discussed in depth, is essential to break down misunderstanding and prejudice, and to rebuild solidarity, especially when no consensus emerges. A diversity of views remain, but in an atmosphere of understanding and mutual respect.

Widening participation

The Citizens’ Economic Council meetings will culminate in the citizens presenting their preferred economic goals and policies to political leaders, but opportunities for engagement will extend way beyond our core councillors. We are planning a series of economic inclusion workshops around the UK that will focus on groups that face barriers to having their voices heard in mainstream political debate. Through specific engagement with, for example, people on low incomes, without permanent housing, minority ethnic communities or LGBTIQA groups, the Council will hear diverse policy proposals and gain insight into barriers to economic inclusion. As well as these targeted interventions, the RSA will use its digital platforms to ensure wide and open access to curated content on the economy, and to encourage the public to contribute policy ideas and engage in the debate. A toolkit will be produced to help groups host their own deliberative conversations around the country, not just on the UK’s economic policy but the specific agenda in the area. Hosting high-quality dialogues is a skill. To help us we have formed an Independent Advisory Group of 10 distinguished experts in economic journalism and education, deliberative and participatory processes and community engagement, combining both academic experts and active practitioners. This will ensure that we are able to effectively mediate exchanges of strongly held and contradictory views and beliefs, carefully facilitating and planning discussions. This expertise will ensure that materials about economics and related policy are both balanced and delivered in plain English via media that are inclusive.

We will engage with policymakers throughout the process, inviting them to the workshops and an event at the RSA where the findings of the Council will be pitched and presented.

Where next?

The Citizens’ Economic Council will provide new insights into people’s values and their aspirations for the economy. It seeks to build momentum for new economic thinking to tackle some of society’s long-standing issues, as well as the new challenges of the 21st century. It will bring the idea and practice of deliberative dialogue to new audiences, including policymakers, helping to stimulate new and more effective types of public engagement in the management of the economy. Above all, the Citizens’ Economic Council’s ambition is to demonstrate how citizens brought together from all walks of life can bring qualities of thoughtfulness, truth and respect to our national political debate at a time when our politicians have fallen woefully short.

Read ‘Engaging citizens at the heart of power — three challenges’ by Reema Patel, Programme Manager for the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council

Find out more about the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council

This article was originally published in the RSA Journal Issue 2 2016.

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