How can deliberative democracy solve pressing policy issues?

The use of deliberative democracy methods to engage the public in answering challenging questions is gaining momentum – as seen with the impact of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on Abortion that prompted a referendum. They offer a fresh approach for members of the public to help solve important policy issues.

In Spring 2018, the UK’s leading public participation charity Involve ran the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care which explored how to solve a seemingly intractable problem. In our latest blog post Dominic Ward, a Project Officer at Involve, has provided the following description of the event; its context, its facilitation, and its impact.


Conventional forms of policy making mechanisms have failed to find a long-term solution to how social care should be funded in England, leaving many people with insufficient care and a system at breaking point. The Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care offered an effective alternative by engaging a representative sample of the public, addressing the question using a deliberative approach to take a fresh look at the issue.


What is a citizens’ assembly?

A Citizens’ Assembly is a fairly large body of citizens that come together to deliberate on an issue – or set of issues – of local, regional or national importance.


What was the problem?

How to fund social care in England has been a question which has remained unsolved for successive parliaments. During this time the problem has continued to grow and is reaching a breaking point. Therefore, in the spring of 2018, the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care made a little piece of history as the first ever citizens’ assembly to be commissioned by Parliament. The joint committees on Health and Housing, Communities and Local Government commissioned it with the intention of influencing the Government’s Green Paper on the issue.


How it worked

The Select Committees on Health, and Housing, Communities and Local Government co-commissioned Involve, the UK’s leading public participation charity, to design and run the process.

As social care is a devolved issue, the Citizens’ Assembly was made up of 47 randomly-selected people who made up a broadly representative sample of the English population. They were assisted throughout the process by two experts on social care – Professor Martin Knapp and Professor Gerald Wistow – two lead facilitators, and a team of table facilitators who helped structure the discussion and ensure everyone was heard.

The Citizens’ Assembly occurred over two weekends consisting of three stages: learning, deliberation and decision-making. During the first weekend, the learning stage entailed the Assembly Members hearing from a range of experts on both public and private models of social care funding. They were also able to factor in people’s lived experience into their deliberation, as they heard directly from people who access social care.

Combining the expert insight, lived experience and their own perspectives, they worked towards agreeing on the values which should underpin how decisions about social care funding should be made. Establishing what they believed social care provisions should achieve effectively laid the groundwork to then discuss how this could be achieved. To unpack this further, the Assembly Members responded to a few key provocative questions to prompt exploration of the trade-offs which might be needed when developing policy. Finally, the decision-making stage saw Assembly Members vote on how they thought social care should be funded and made recommendations on how that could be achieved.



As the first Citizens’ Assembly to be commissioned by Parliament, this undertaking was significant both because of the question it was answering and the method it used. The joint committees’ report drew heavily on the recommendations made by this Citizens’ Assembly. For example, one of the key outputs was the importance of the social care system being free at the point of use, which is reflected in the report.

The two committee chairs were enthusiastic about the impact of the Citizens’ Assembly, praising both the outputs and the method:

“the views of those that took part in our citizens’ assembly have been vital in informing our thinking and the model also provides a possible route for further public engagement and building the support that any reforms will need.”
– Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

“it was extremely encouraging to see such a mix of different people – of different ages, backgrounds and from different parts of England – coming together to deliberate on these big issues so thoughtfully. the way the event was organised maximised participation and those attended clearly felt able to question, challenge and debate the issues freely.”
– Sarah Wollaston MP, Chair of Health and Social Care Select Committee

Involve are currently running a similar Citizens’ Assembly on social care in Northern Ireland. The increasing use of these methods to overcome complex and difficult issues is an exciting development in deliberative decision-making, and we look forward to seeing this trend continue.


Dominic Ward is a Project Officer at Involve. If you are interested in hearing more about their work, please contact them directly.

The Centre for Democratic Engagement (CDE) has a key interest in deliberative modes of participation. A great deal of our research is based on democratic innovations, and new forms of including and utilising citizen voices. Stay up-to-date with our activities through our Blog and our Events page, and via Twitter.