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Pioneering new ways to improve democracy for all

Shaping political decision-making and democratic process with cutting-edge politics research.

Published: 7 February 2020

Southampton researchers played a key role in a groundbreaking project that has shown the use of citizens’ assemblies can be a novel means of injecting citizens’ voices into political decision-making.  And a new study will see Southampton politics researchers work with software engineers to use machine learning to explore polarization and disengagement with politics.

A citizens’ assembly is a group of people, selected at random and brought together to discuss an issue or a range of issues and reach a conclusion about what they think should happen.

The Democracy Matters project, conducted in collaboration with other field leaders in the theory and practice of democratic innovation, introduced citizens’ assemblies in British democracy for the first time.

The project ran and analysed two assemblies at regional level: Assembly North, based in Sheffield, and Assembly South, based in Southampton.

It showed that the concept of citizens’ assemblies allowed different demographics to engage with policymaking and bridged the gap between citizens and elected politicians, building more trust.

Crucially, the project also identified challenges within the concept, which Southampton researchers were able to find solutions for.

The Democracy Matters project went on to inform the design of subsequent citizens' assemblies on Brexit and social care – with the latter commissioned by two parliamentary select committees. The Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care (CASC) was the first ever citizens’ assembly run by the UK Parliament.

Southampton’s expertise in this research area has been sought out by political and non-political groups who wanted to improve engagement.  Southampton researchers have worked with the Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership to create a citizen assembly for local councillors about their industrial strategy and also advised environment lobby group Extinction Rebellion, on a citizens’ assembly about climate change.

Dr Matt Ryan, Lecturer in Governance and Public Policy at the University of Southampton, who worked on the citizens’ assembly projects, said: “Citizens’ assemblies have the power to engage and build confidence between the public and politicians. Over the last 10 to 15 years, trust in political institutions and those who run them has gone down.

This work aims to give an opportunity to people to be involved and give their opinion on what happens in their country. Citizens’ assemblies are able to provide better information to leaders and policymakers.

Dr Matthew Ryan - UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, Lecturer in Governance and Public Policy

“However, there is work to be done and we need to know when and where these types of interventions should be used to get the best out of them and to ensure we are including people across society,” Matt adds.

Matt will lead the new Rebooting Democracy project, with the University of Southampton’s Research Software Group.

The £1.47m programme, funded by the UK Research and Innovation scheme, will take place in three phases. Phase one will combine data from surveys, crowdsourcing and social media to determine the best conditions in the past that have led to increases in positive democratic behaviours in political interventions such as citizens’ assemblies or referendums.

The second phase will create a dashboard where social media data and machine learning are used to build an early warning system to tell governments and civil society groups what people are saying about various issues, or when issues are bubbling under that they should consult on.

For its third phase, the project will run trials using the information in the dashboard, working with partners such as Southampton City Council, Involve and the World Bank, to make recommendations on what and how bodies should engage with the population.

“Despite continued support worldwide for democracy as a regime, democracy as a practice is suffering,” Matt said. “People are polarizing and the compromise that is essential to politics is becoming harder to reach.

“Combining our politics research with the University’s software engineering expertise will produce a tool that allows vital insight into democratic processes, so we can answer important questions such as: ‘How can we engage people in the right ways?’ and ‘How can we avoid violence, hate speech and so on?’. If we can shed light on these issues and provide meaningful answers, we hope to be able to help improve the democratic process for everyone.”

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