At the start of October 2023, Birmingham City Council welcomed eight commissioners to the city who are to run the local authority for the next five years, after it effectively went bankrupt.
In this article, Lucy Reid (Chief operating officer, DemocracyNext; Chair, Moseley Road Baths CIO) argues that the scale of the problem is of such a magnitude that it “therefore needs all of us to understand what happened, to represent each other, and to find solutions together.”
Time for a Citizens’ Assembly?
Birmingham’s what I think with.
It’s not made for that job,
But it’s what they gave me.
Roy Fisher – from the poem Talking to Cameras (1991)
I’ve lived in my adopted home city of Birmingham for most of my adult life. When I moved here, just after the turn of the millennium, I told myself that I’d be here a while and then move somewhere ‘more’ – more ‘beautiful’, more ‘green’ – more close to the sea.
Beaches aside, it turns out this place is the ‘more’ I was looking for. It gets into your bones. The people are brilliant. I am proud that my kids are Brummies. And of late, the city seems to have found a bit more swagger – just enough, not too much. Other people have been noticing what a brilliant place Birmingham is too.
So the issuing of the Section 114 notice was a pretty big blow all round. Most of us who live here (including many of our local politicians) thought that the unequal pay situation had been settled years ago. The inevitable accusations and recriminations are well underway. Speculation on which of the city’s biggest cultural assets could theoretically be sold off to foot the bill has hit the headlines. The government is sending in a commissioner to ‘rescue’ Birmingham City Council. His LinkedIn profile describes his profession as ‘dormant volcano’: make of that what you will.
There has rightly been a lot of anger, sadness and confusion about what we, the people of Birmingham, are helplessly watching play out in front of us. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered. According to a poll on Birmingham Live, 95% of people don’t trust the City Council to solve its financial crisis. It’s beyond doubt that Birmingham needs some help. But here’s where I would argue there is another way to think about this. Ultimately this is all our problem – it will affect all of us living here in some way, with those already marginalised or under-served at risk of being worst affected. It therefore needs all of us to understand what happened, to represent each other, and to find solutions together.
We need a Citizens’ Assembly.
If you haven’t heard of them, a Citizens’ Assembly is a bit like jury duty for policy. The key magic elements are the way that people come together in the room, and the space that is created for deliberation.
Assembly Members are selected to be representative of their place through a two-stage lottery process, known as sortition. They meet for at least four to six days over a few months to learn about an issue and weigh trade-offs. They listen to experts, to those with lived experience of the issue, and to one another, and find common ground on shared recommendations. These Assemblies have been proven time and time again to be able to come up with meaningful solutions on the most challenging social and policy issues.
Birmingham should seize this moment to follow what some of the most innovative and forward-looking leaders around the world are doing: as of November 2021, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) counted almost 600 Citizens’ Assemblies for public decision-making around the world , addressing complex issues from drug policy reform to biodiversity loss, urban planning decisions, climate change, infrastructure investment, constitutional issues such as abortion and more.
To take a recent example, the French Citizens’ Assembly on End of Life comprised 184 members, selected by sortition, who met for 27 days over the course of four months. Their mandate was to recommend whether, and if so how, existing legislation about assisted dying, euthanasia and related end-of-life matters should be amended. They were remunerated for their time. The Assembly heard from more than 60 experts, deliberated with one another, and found 92% consensus on 67 recommendations, which they formulated and delivered to President Emmanuel Macron on 3 April 2023 in the form of a 176 page report. These recommendations are now going through parliamentary process.
Polling by Pew Research Center has found that, on average, 77% of respondents in France, Germany, the UK and the US think it is important for governments to create Citizens’ Assemblies where citizens debate issues and make recommendations about national laws. According to a poll by OpinionWay and Sciences Po, 63% of people in France, Italy, Germany and the UK want the recommendations of Citizens’ Assemblies to be binding.
Assemblies are brave spaces that enable us ‘to citizen’ – to take an active role and do the hard work of understanding and shaping difficult things that affect us all. They build trust, draw on our collective intelligence, and ultimately enable a representative group of people to have some agency and power over what happens in their city.
The issue that Birmingham’s Citizens’ Assembly should tackle could be framed as such: ‘How can our city use this moment of crisis as an opportunity? How can we consider the trade-offs that will be involved in the hard decisions that need to be taken in the light of the city’s bankruptcy? What do we want to change about how we in Birmingham make decisions that affect all of us, and how we live together?’
This moment of crisis should be a watershed, marking the beginning of a hopeful new way of us working together in Birmingham. This is too big a challenge to be solved behind closed doors. We all need to be at the table.
ABOUT OUR AUTHOR:
Despite growing up in the borderlands of Northumberland and Herefordshire in the UK, Lucy has always been drawn to cities – living in Paris and Sydney before settling in Birmingham over 20 years ago.
Lucy began her career in arts management working for the world-renowned children’s choir Gondwana Voices – where highlights included performances at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and a sleepover at the Sydney Opera House as part of celebrations for the new millennium. She was General Manager of Ex Cathedra, managing choirs, baroque orchestras, ensembles and music education programmes in the UK. She also had a 12-month stint as the editorial assistant to John Lichfield, the veteran French correspondent of the Independent.
Before joining Democracy Next in May 2023, Lucy worked for the National Trust – Europe’s largest conservation charity – in a variety of operational roles for 16 years, initially as a General Manager, and then Assistant Director of Operations for the Midlands & East of England. She led a team of General Managers with responsibility for National Trust places in Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Birmingham – from the wonders of Wicken Fen, to art treasures at Anglesey Abbey and Upton House, and the last surviving court of back-to-back housing in Birmingham city centre.
Lucy was regional co-lead for all things inclusion, as well as the region’s urban programme. She led the creation of the National Trust’s first holistic city strategy in Birmingham, which included partnerships with community and arts organisations, local authorities, national and international heritage organisations, on a range of place-based and creative work all of which were about civic pride.