The unusual suspects: how to make sure Citizens’ Assemblies are representative

Citizens’ Assemblies have been in the news a lot recently. Among the ideas mooted have been a Citizens’ Assembly to sort Brexit, a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss the potential details of Scottish Independence and a Citizens’ Assembly to decide on steps to tackle climate change.

They have been heralded by some as a new democratic process which will put the public at the heart of policy development and decision making at a local and national level; one of a number of “deliberative democratic tools” to help engage people more in decision-making processes, allowing people to decide not only what outcome they want, but which issues should make up the agenda in the first place. However as experiences so far have shown, the theory and the execution do not always match up.

With some arguing that they are just another opportunity for those who already have a voice to make their voice even louder, advocates of Citizens’ Assemblies and similar projects have their work cut out to ensure they are both representative and effective.

What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

The basic principle of Citizens’ Assemblies is this: collect a representative group of people from a particular area, invite them to a discussion, and allow them to identify and discuss potential policy issues and options based on an initial question. They are then invited to come to an agreed consensus which is then reported to politicians/ government.

The members of a Citizens’ Assembly are typically selected at random from the general public – like a jury – and can, in theory, be any size, but the larger they are the more likely they will be to be representative of the electorate. The aim is to secure a group of people who are broadly representative of the electorate across different characteristics such as their gender, ethnicity, social class and the area where they live. Depending on the topic they will be discussing, information about party political affiliation or voting in referendums may also be taken into account.

Citizens’ Assemblies tend to rely on a few key values in order to function effectively, and participants should be made aware of these expectations and values (or any additional objectives) at the outset:

  • Debate should be informed and informative and should allow for discussion and deliberation based on sound argument and evidence;
  • Experts in a particular field and campaigners from all sides and all possible viewpoints should be invited to discuss their arguments with participants and be willing and able to be questioned;
  • Participants should be willing to talk and listen with civility and respect;
  • Participants should be representative of the general population as far as possible and should reflect a range of perspectives.

The sessions of the assemblies themselves vary but will usually include learning and evidence sessions introducing the assembly, the participants and the question to be discussed as well as background and contextual information and additional evidence from invited experts; sessions in which campaigners are able to present their arguments and be questioned; and sessions which focus on deliberation, discussion, consensus building and reporting. Facilitators will often be used to ensure a fair spread of opinions are heard – but facilitators cannot participate in the discussions themselves, and organisers will often pre-plan elements such as seating plans or evidence presented to assembly participants to ensure an even spread of opinions.

The fundamental idea is that if you randomly select a representative group and give them time, information and a safe space to discuss issues, you can create an illustration of what it would be like if everyone had the tools and time to discuss and debate the important issues. There is, however, no legal obligation for Government to take the recommendations forward.

What has happened elsewhere?

In the Republic of Ireland, they have held a number of “democratic experiments” and the Irish examples have been cited as examples of how Citizens’ Assemblies can effect change.

In 2012-13 the Irish Constitutional Convention led to the bringing forward of legislation and the eventual legalisation of gay marriage in the Republic of Ireland, and the 2016-17 Citizens’ Assembly paved the way for the 2018 referendum which legalised abortion. Ireland has been cited as a major inspiration for a Scottish Citizens’ Assembly to be established, something Nicola Sturgeon expressed support for in her speech at the 2019 SNP conference.

Ireland is, supporters of the concept argue, an example of how Citizens’ Assemblies can be effective at helping to reach consensus on contentious issues and allowing people to have a meaningful say in what legislation is put forward to parliament, not just having the choice of policies that are prescribed to them by politicians. Critics have argued however that the Irish experience has, to a degree, been oversold in Britain and shows how “the symbolic value of the ordinary citizen can be exploited for political purposes”.

And, for all the perceived successes of the Irish experience, the somewhat contrasting experience of Iceland also has some potentially useful lessons for anyone looking to implement Citizens’ Assemblies at a national level. The experience there shows that it doesn’t always go to plan. Citizens were invited to input into the new values of Iceland’s constitution following the 2008 economic crash. Consultations took place across the country and a series of recommendations were presented but these were not taken forward by parliament.

Other models of Citizens’ Assembly have been trialled in Belgium, the Netherlands and in Canada. The Canadian model invited public input into electoral reform proposals in British Columbia and Ontario, while the G1000s organised in Belgium saw 1000 participants randomly selected to deliberate for one day on major policy issues. Success in Belgium inspired the Netherlands to run a similar scheme.

How can we ensure everyone feels able to participate?

Deliberative models, like Citizens’ Assemblies, aim to encourage consensus building and finding common ground. They also aim to take opinions and make decisions based on a diverse spread of participants, however identifying and encouraging those on the fringes of democratic processes to participate can be a challenge. But it is a challenge that Citizens’ Assemblies and other local community engagement models need to address.

Research conducted around improving local community empowerment initiatives highlights a number of relevant questions and opportunities to improve engagement in deliberative democratic processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies.

  • Is it appropriate to pay participants to attend?
  • Should organisers actively invite participants from certain underrepresented groups or highlight to people that they are part of an underrepresented group to encourage participation (minimising self-selection bias)?
  • Will holding meetings at evenings or weekends enable or disable certain groups from attending and what impact might this have on the make-up of the assembly?
  • Have organisers considered holding meetings in facilities that are accessible via public transport?
  • Have organisers considered holding meetings in facilities which are accessible to disabled people and people with children (perhaps with creche facilities)?
  • Have organisers ensured that the information presented is robust but varied, so that everyone feels their views are represented in some way by the evidence?
  • Have organisers considered additional support for participants? (Organisers should provide effective and complete support throughout the process, making no assumptions on previous knowledge or understanding of how participation in activities like Citizens’ Assemblies work and understanding potential anxieties around participation, particularly of first-time participants).

Final thoughts

Citizens’ Assemblies and other similar mechanisms like Citizens Juries have the potential to revolutionise the democratic process in the UK. Although not intended to be a replacement of the traditional mechanisms of government, if done well, engaging citizens more meaningfully in not only the decision making process but in setting the options under discussion in the first place could transform how policy is made and how politicians interact with their public.

The emphasis on weighing available evidence and consensus building is also valuable, particularly in instances where politicians are unable to come together over contentious issues. However, to be truly transformational, the assemblies must have a level of self-awareness which recognises the difficulties some groups may have in participating in the process.

Finding ways of tackling this, and engaging the “unusual suspects”, giving them a voice and showing them that their opinion can have a direct impact on the choices taken by politicians could potentially repair some of the damage which appears to have been done to the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, but it is clear we have a long way to go yet.


If you enjoyed this blog you may also be interested in reading:

Follow us on Twitter to see what topics are interesting our research team.

Digital Leaders Week: Closing the digital divide

Today, in our final Digital Leaders Week blog post, we’re looking at the issue of digital inclusion.

As you look around, it may seem as if everyone is online. In the street, on the bus, in cafes and shops, most people seem to be glued to their smartphones. But a number of articles on our blog have highlighted the digital divide in society, between those who have access to digital technologies and those who don’t.

In 2018, we focused on digital exclusion among young people:

“One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

Our blog went on to highlight research by Carnegie Trust UK which found that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK lack basic digital skills.

Schools and local authorities have been tackling digital exclusion in a number of interesting initiatives. We’ve reported on a ‘bring your own device’ scheme in secondary schools in Inverclyde, where children were encouraged to work in pairs or groups to help with communication, partnership working and sharing of knowledge. Another project – BBC Micro: Bit gave children the opportunity to learn how to code.

Recently, a new project was launched to ensure young people have equal access to digital technologies. During 2019, Digital Access for All (DAFA) will be working on a series of pilots to test out different ways of improving digital access for children and young people.

As our blog underlined, addressing digital exclusion among young people is crucial for their future development.

“Failure to tackle the issues of integrating “digital” successfully into the curriculum, and digital exclusion in schools and at home could also have serious implications. If a significant portion of the next generation is digitally excluded this potentially puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of employment and further education.

However, the digital divide is not confined to the younger generations. This month, new research has shown that one-fifth of the population do not have foundational digital skills, such as using an internet browser or connecting a device to a wi-fi network. Nearly one in ten of the population have zero digital skills.

There are good reasons why people dislike going online, such as concerns about security and affordability. But being “digitally disadvantaged” matters because it can exclude individuals from earnings, employability, communications and retail transactions benefits. As government moves increasingly towards a digital by default position, the need for everyone to improve their digital skills will become more important.

A lot of work is going on to address digital exclusion, including research into its causes, funding initiatives and training programmes. Local government is also playing its part.

In 2017, the London Borough of Croydon was named Digital Council of the Year at the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) Awards – a showcase event for sharing innovation and improvement in local government. Among the initiatives that impressed the judges was Go ON Croydon, which aimed to help people struggling with technology or lacking digital skills.

“The Go ON Croydon project was introduced to support the 85,000 people in Croydon who do not have basic digital skills. Reaching out to organisations such as community and faith groups, this year-long programme set out to highlight and promote the council’s digital skills initiatives. One scheme promoted by the project was digital zones.  Staffed by volunteer digital champions and located in banks or retail stores, these physical spaces provided places where people could go to have their questions answered and to improve their basic skills.”

The Go ON Croydon project clearly made an impact, with digital skills levels in Croydon increasing from 70% to 79% within one year.

Throughout this Digital Leaders Week, we’ve highlighted just some of the ways in which the public, private and third sectors are working to help people make the most of the tremendous opportunities presented by digital technologies.

Digital doesn’t have all the answers, but it does provide examples of good practice from which organisations, communities and individuals can learn. As we enter a new “fourth industrial revolution”, where artificial intelligence, automation and robotics become more commonplace, our blog will continue to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities presented by digital.


Some of our recent articles on digital technologies include:

To read more of our digital-themed blog posts, follow this link.

Digital Leaders Week: Digital government – looking beyond Britain

 

Image: Digital Leaders

This week, the Knowledge Exchange blog is marking Digital Leaders Week with a look back at some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and focusing on more recent digital developments.

Our blog has often taken an international view of digital transformation, looking for lessons that might be learned from cities and countries around the world that have been leading the way in making the most of digital technologies in society.

Singapore is one country that has been blazing a trail in digital readiness, and in October 2015, we reported on the city-state’s efforts to ensure that more and more government services could be delivered electronically.

Among the earliest innovations was eCitizen – a first-stop portal for government information and services:

“When the portal was first introduced it pioneered the concept of cross-agency, citizen-centric government services, where users transact with ‘one government’ (the ability to access several government services via the one website).”

That was impressive enough, but, as the Smart Nation website explains, Singapore has continued to explore how digital innovation can improve citizens’ lives. From assistive technology and robotics in healthcare and environmental news updates to autonomous vehicles and an app linking parents and schools, Singapore’s digital revolution is transforming the way its citizens live, work and play.

Closer to home, Estonia has been leading the way on digital government. Our blog post from August 2015 reported on the country’s pioneering approach:

“In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.”

The article went on to highlight some of the key elements in Estonia’s approach to digital government:

  • An ID card (installed on a mobile phone), providing every citizen with secure and instant access to online services such as internet banking and public transport.
  • A national register providing a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia.
  • Estonian government services, including verification of citizens’ identities, enabling them to vote in e-elections. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In 2017, Wired magazine called Estonia “the most advanced digital society in the world.” And with good reason:

“Estonians have complete control over their personal data. The portal you can access with your identity card gives you a log of everyone who has accessed it. If you see something you do not like – a doctor other than your own looking at your medical records, for instance – you can click to report it to the data ombudsman. A civil servant then has to justify the intrusion. Meanwhile, parliament is designed to be paperless: laws are even signed into effect with a digital signature on the president’s tablet. And every draft law is available to the public to read online, at every stage of the legislative process; a complete breakdown of the substance and authorship of every change offers significant transparency over lobbying and potential corruption.”

Our blog noted that there were lessons for the UK to be learned from the Estonian experience:

“…it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.”


As one of the premier election service providers in the UK, Idox is leading the way in the provision of innovative, agile and cost-effective solutions that help authorities deliver across all areas of electoral management, both in the UK and overseas. From canvass tablets and call-centre solutions to electronic voting, Idox delivers democracy through technology, combined with an exceptional customer support service.

In 2019, Idox Elections has gone from strength to strength, delivering local and European Parliament elections in the UK. In addition, Idox made electoral history in Malta, using an Electronic Vote Counting Solution to count the country’s European Parliament election ballots for the first time. Idox’s e-counting software successfully reduced the counting time from days to hours, delivering the poll results in record time.

Digital Leaders Week: Digital transformation in local government

Image: Digital Leaders

Today is the start of Digital Leaders Week, a celebration of the opportunities and challenges for the digital transformation of Britain’s businesses, public services and society.

Here at the Knowledge Exchange blog, we’ve been taking a keen interest in digital developments in both the public and private sector. To celebrate Digital Leaders Week, we’re revisiting some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and bringing you up to date on current developments.

Several articles on our blog have highlighted the potential of digital technologies as drivers of internal transformation and improved service delivery in local government.

In May 2016, we looked at the benefits of digital for local authorities, noting that research by Nesta and the Public Service Transformation Network had suggested local councils could save £14.7 billion by moving all transactional services online and digitising back office functions. This echoed the findings of Policy Exchange, which reported that £10 billion could be saved by councils making smarter use of data and technology.

But another article on our blog also pointed to some of the reasons why local government was struggling to develop digital strategies, including limited infrastructure, red tape and funding issues:

“In theory, providing technical solutions to local government services should provide long term efficiencies. Yet, in an era of constrained budgets, finding the initial capital for digital projects can be challenging. Leaders in councils trying to fund social care services and schools may not view digital as a priority.”

Further blog posts have indicated that some councils are overcoming the barriers to digital change:

“For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.”

Today, more councils are embracing the challenges and opportunities of digital. A good example comes from Adur & Worthing Councils, which believes that digital inclusion can greatly improve the lives of local people. Among the digital services now offered by Adur & Worthing is an online payments facility. In addition, online access points enable residents to get up-to-date information on important issues such as council tax, recycling, public transport and cultural events.

Another example is Nottingham City Council’s workflow management app, introduced to replace an inefficient paper-based system:

“The new app allows staff from customer services, highway inspectors and response teams to enter faults, such as potholes or damaged street lights, directly into the system. It then automatically allocates the fault to the relevant inspector and, once the work is completed, digitally signs it off. The council has reported that the app has created £100,000 in savings in less than one year.”

However, we’ve also underlined that there’s more to digital transformation than getting the technical aspects right:

“With digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.”

It’s clear that digital transformation is a journey, not a final destination, and we’ll continue to report on the ways in which local government is embracing digital technologies for the benefit of councils and citizens.

Our next Digital Leaders Week blog post, on Wednesday, looks at digital developments in Singapore and Estonia.


With over 90% of UK local authorities as customers, Idox has built relationships that last across a varied portfolio, incorporating specialisms such as electoral management, business transformation, software solutions, managed services and front-end design and delivery. Our recent white paper explores the new digital trends being embraced by local government.

Five challenges facing the people who make elections happen

They’ve been called “the unsung heroes of democracy”, and in the past few years the UK’s electoral administrators have been facing unprecedented challenges that have imposed enormous strains on our voting system.

Multiple general and local elections, a new system of electoral registration, and referendums on Scottish independence and UK membership of the European Union have stretched – almost to breaking point – the resources of the country’s electoral administrators. And this year, their efforts to continue providing electoral services to the high standard they always strive for has been tested further.

Here are just five of the major challenges facing the people who deliver democracy.

1. The European Parliament Elections

It’s the poll that UK voters weren’t expecting to be part of. But because Brexit didn’t happen as planned, the UK was obliged to take part in the elections to the European Parliament.

Making elections happen is no small matter, involving months of planning and many different agencies, including central and local authorities, non-statutory bodies, partners and contractors, such as the police and postal services. Printing of ballot papers, arrangements for postal voting, booking polling stations and arranging venues for election counts are just some of the elements that need to be confirmed well in advance of polling day.

When the government confirmed in April that the UK would take part in the European Parliament elections on 23 May, this left electoral administrators with just a few weeks to organise a poll that would usually take months to prepare. Things were further complicated by unpredictable factors. Would enough staff be available to count the votes on a bank holiday weekend? And with forecasts of a higher than expected turnout, would extra ballot boxes be needed?

Initially, it looked as if the elections would be delivered smoothly. However, on Thursday morning, reports began to emerge of citizens from other EU countries being denied the right to vote. Thousands took to social media under the hashtag #deniedmyvote to complain that they had either been turned away from polling stations or barred from voting because of delays in registering them.

The Electoral Commission, which oversees UK elections, acknowledged the problems, and said the very short notice of the UK’s participation in the EU elections had significantly affected election administrators’ ability to inform and register citizens of other EU states intending to vote in the UK.

Cat Smith, the shadow minister for voter engagement highlighted the difficulties facing electoral services teams:

“This has caused havoc for electoral administrators tasked with delivering a national poll with extremely short notice.”

The Electoral Commission has promised to review the process, but its chief executive, Bob Posner, has indicated that there are broader lessons to learn:

 “We have argued for some time that the failure of governments and parliament to properly maintain and update electoral law, and to address the pressures on local authorities, has built up significant risks for well-run elections. It is time that these warnings are properly heard and acted upon.”

2. Trialling voter ID

In 2018, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations. The trial followed a 2016 government-sponsored review of electoral fraud which recommended ID checks to prevent vote stealing.

Earlier this month, further pilots took place during local elections, involving 10 areas of England, including Derby, Mid Sussex, North West Leicestershire and Pendle. The trials required voters to show different types of photo ID and/or non-photo ID in order to be given a ballot paper.

The pilot schemes involved additional work for electoral administrators. Voters had to be informed well in advance of polling day about which forms of identification were valid in each area, and staff required additional training on delivering the identification requirements. In three areas voters could apply for local identification cards, while two areas used technology to scan QR codes on voters’ polling cards. Before the 2019 pilots began, two councils pulled out of the trial, with one believing it was too much work on top of a boundary review, and another expressing concerns about the time needed to inform the electorate about the changes.

Although an evaluation of the 2018 trials found that Returning Officers and their staff in polling stations were able to run the new processes without any significant problems, the Electoral Commission was not able to draw definitive conclusions on how a voter identification requirement would operate in the future across the country, or at polls with higher levels of turnout.

The authors of the report also found it impossible to say whether the requirements actually prevented attempts to commit electoral fraud at elections. Critics of Voter ID say the relatively low levels of fraud in UK elections mean identification is unnecessary, and could put some voters off – particularly the elderly, homeless and people with disabilities – if they do not have the necessary documentation.

It’s still too early to assess the impact of the 2019 trials, but a Local Government Chronicle analysis of the pilots found that almost 700 people were turned away from polling stations operating voter ID pilots and did not return.

3. Funding elections

“Administering elections requires ample resources. Administering them well requires even more”
Benjamin Highton: Political Science and Politics, January 2006

Funding arrangements for elections in the UK are highly complex, with separate personnel and operational costs for electoral registration and elections / referenda, and funding coming from local and central government. But there is surprisingly little information available about the cost of electoral services.

A 2017 University of East Anglia (UEA) study has underlined the difficulties in collecting accurate data about the budgets and spending of electoral organisations. However, the UEA survey found that, while budgets for electoral services have been rising, so too has the cost of managing these services. The authors found “strong evidence of many electoral services being financially stretched.”

Local elections and registration are funded from local authority budgets, and since 2010 they have been significantly affected by the financial restraints imposed by austerity cutbacks. At the same time, election administrators’ resources have been stretched by additional polls, as well as the introduction of a new electoral registration system.

In 2010, the Association of Electoral Administrators called on the UK government to undertake a thorough review of funding and resources required to deliver electoral services. The AEA repeated this call in 2015 and again in 2017, when it described the existing funding model as flawed:

“We remain disappointed that, despite recognising in its response to our 2015 report that general funding arrangements are an ongoing issue, the Government has failed to give any further thought as to how to address it.”

Does this matter? For those who believe elections just happen, their funding might seem of marginal importance. But when lack of resources leads to electoral mismanagement, the consequences for public confidence in democracy could be grave.

4. Improving communications about elections

The past week has underlined the importance of spreading the word to voters in order to ensure that they know when, where and how to vote in forthcoming polls.

The issue of elections communications was put in the spotlight earlier this year in a Local Government information Unit (LGiU) report.

The report focused on local elections, and expressed concern about falling turnout, suggesting that factors may include voters being unaware about candidates and their policies, difficulties in finding out local election results and a sense that local democracy is somehow “lesser democracy”.

The report went on to provide councils with tips on improving elections communications. The advice included simple guidance, such as:

  • providing photographs of preparations for elections and of the count
  • posting the results of elections on council websites
  • using social media to raise awareness about registration, voting information and other election-related information

In addition, websites such as Where Do I Vote and Who Can I Vote For can deploy council-supplied information to raise awareness about local elections and candidates – some councils are also highlighting these sites on their own websites.

The report highlighted examples of good practice. These include efforts by Kirklees Council to convey the many different aspects of delivering local democracy, and the inventive use of infographics by Coventry City Council to display election results quickly and clearly.

These techniques are all helpful in raising awareness about the opportunity to take part in decisions that could affect the way we are governed at local and national levels. As the LGiU report concludes:

“Proactive, open and transparent communication about elections does not guarantee active engagement with local government, but it is the essential base on which we build democratic involvement.”

5. Enabling blind / partially sighted people to vote

A functioning democracy is one where anyone entitled to vote is able to vote – and that includes people with disabilities.

Earlier this year, a High Court decision highlighted the difficulties facing blind and partially-sighted people when they enter a polling station.

The ruling concerned a tactile voting device (TVD), a transparent plastic overlay that fits on top of the ballot paper, with cut-out sections for the voter to mark their vote. However, even with the device, blind or partially sighted voters still require assistance to read the names on the ballots. The High Court ruling, delivered earlier this month, said the provision of a TVD “does not in any realistic sense enable that person to vote”, and described it as “a parody of the electoral process”.

The challenge is to find and implement a solution that allows blind people to vote independently, while maintaining the secrecy of the ballot. Elsewhere, new technology has been used, such as a telephone dictation system in New Zealand and a combination of audio and braille systems in Germany.

Perhaps the most effective solution would be a web-based system, enabling all voters to cast their votes online. But the UK government has been reluctant to introduce electronic voting because of concerns about fraud and security.

In the meantime, 350,000 people in the UK who are blind or partially sighted are waiting for the day when they can vote independently and in secret, just like the rest of the electorate.

Final thoughts

Former prime minister Harold Wilson once observed that a week is a long time in politics. The truth of that statement has been brought home in the past seven days, which has seen another attempt to break the Brexit deadlock in parliament, significant results in the European Parliament elections, and the announcement of the current prime minister’s resignation.

Interesting times lie ahead, and it’s not out of the question that the UK’s electoral administrators could soon be called upon once again to help voters play their part in shaping the country’s political future. Unsung heroes they may be, but our democracy depends on them.


Idox Elections is one of the premier election service providers in the UK, providing outstanding expertise and knowledge across all areas of election management. Find out more here.

Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team.

How AI is transforming local government

Robot

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Scottish Local Government Chief Digital Officer Martyn Wallace spoke to the CIO UK podcast and highlighted that in 2019 local government must take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver better outcomes for citizens. He explained:

“I think in the public sector we have to see AI as a way to deliver better outcomes and what I mean by that is giving the bots the grunt work – as one coworker called it, ‘shuffling spreadsheets’ – and then we can release staff to do the more complex, human-touch things.”

To date, very few councils have felt brave enough to invest in AI. However, the mood is slowly starting to change and there are several examples in the UK and abroad that show artificial intelligence is not just a buzzword, but a genuine enabler of change.

In December, Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak announced the first round of winners from a £7.5million digital innovation fund. The 16 winning projects, from 57 councils working in collaborative teams, were awarded grants of up to £100,000 to explore the use of a variety of digital technologies, from Amazon Alexa style virtual assistants to support people living in care, to the use of data analytics to improve education plans for children with special needs.

These projects are still in their infancy, but there are councils who are further along with artificial intelligence, and have already learned lessons and had measurable successes. For instance, Milton Keynes Council have developed a virtual assistant (or chatbot) to help respond to planning-related queries. Although still at the ‘beta’ stage, trials have shown that the virtual assistant is better able to validate major applications, as these are often based on industry standards, rather than household applications, which tend to be more wide-ranging.

Chief planner, Brett Leahy, suggests that introducing AI will help planners focus more on substantive planning issues, such as community engagement, and let AI “take care of the constant flow of queries and questions”.

In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services. Steve Liddicott, head of service for children and young people at Hackney council, reports that the new system is identifying 10 or 20 families a month that might be of future concern. As a result, early intervention measures have already been introduced.

In the US, the University of Chicago’s initiative ‘Data Science for Social Good’ has been using machine learning (a form of AI) to help a variety of social-purpose organisations. This has included helping the City of Rotterdam to understand their rooftop usage – a key step in their goal to address challenges with water storage, green spaces and energy generation. In addition, they’ve also helped the City of Memphis to map properties in need of repair, enabling the city to create more effective economic development initiatives.

Yet, like most new technologies, there has been some resistance to AI. In December 2017, plans by Ofsted to use machine learning tools to identify poorly performing schools were heavily criticised by the National Association of Head Teachers. In their view, Ofsted should move away from a data-led approach to inspection and argued that it was important that the “whole process is transparent and that schools can understand and learn from any assessment.”

Further, hyperbole-filled media reports have led to a general unease that introducing AI could lead to a reduction in the workforce. For example, PwC’s 2018 ‘UK Economic Outlook’ suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although its likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Should local government investment in AI?

In the next few years, it’s important that local government not only considers the clear benefits of AI, but also addresses the public concerns. Many citizens will be in favour of seeing their taxes go further and improvements in local services – but not if this infringes on their privacy or reduces transparency. Pilot projects, therefore, which provide the opportunity to test the latest technologies, work through common concerns, and raise awareness among the public, are the best starting point for local councils looking to move forward with this potentially transformative technology.


Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team.

Lessons from America: ideas and caveats from the US midterm elections

This month, a new session of the United States Congress met for the first time since November’s mid-term elections. The election results brought mixed fortunes for the country’s main political parties. Although the Republicans retained control of the US Senate, the Democrats gained the seats they needed to take control of the House of Representatives.

Beyond the impact on American politics, the 2018 vote shone a light on the management of elections in the US, with a particular focus on registration and voting issues arising on election day. It’s worth taking a closer look to see if the midterms offer any lessons for the UK system of voting.

Voter Registration

Electoral registration is an important and often highly sensitive issue. The validity of elections depends on ensuring a high turnout, which means encouraging all eligible voters to ensure their names are on the electoral register.

In the United States, electoral registration is very complicated, as each of the fifty states has its own registration rules, processes, and deadlines. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law has described the US voter registration system as ‘broken’, and ‘a chief cause of long lines and election day chaos’

During the run-up to the mid-term elections, many states reported record numbers of voter registrations, reflecting intense media attention and the widely held view that the mid-terms represented a referendum on the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. On national voter registration day alone, 865,000 people registered to vote, compared to the 154,500 people who had registered in 2014.

However, concerns have been raised that some states have been making it harder for US citizens to register, particularly among African-Americans, Hispanics and other marginalised groups. A report in The New York Times highlighted attempts in Alabama and several other states to require proof of citizenship before granting the right to register to vote in state and local elections. There were also reports that strict voter registration requirements had disproportionately disadvantaged students in New Hampshire, that poorly labelled forms prevented more than 300,000 voters in Arizona from updating their voter registration information, and that manipulation of voter rolls had been taking place in Georgia and Ohio.

One possible way of overcoming these problems is automatic voter registration (AVR). The Brennan Center for Justice reports that fifteen states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR, and more states are expected to join the list. The policy streamlines registration by making it opt-out instead of opt-in for eligible citizens who interact with government agencies. For example, under AVR anyone issued with a driver’s licence has their details passed to the electoral registration authorities and they are then automatically registered to vote.

The impact of AVR has been striking. Since Oregon became the first state in the US to implement AVR in 2016 voter registration rates have quadrupled, while in the first six months after AVR was implemented in Vermont in 2017, registration rates jumped by 62%.

Election day voting issues

The record numbers registering to vote was a foretaste of the turnout for the mid-term elections.  An estimated 114 million votes were cast by voters for the House of Representatives. This was a significant increase on the 83 million votes cast in 2014, and the first time a midterm election surpassed 100 million votes.

However, the figure could have been higher. Across the US, there were reports of delays in polling stations opening, long queues of people waiting to vote and extensions to the scheduled closing times. In many cases, the problems were caused by technical issues and equipment failures due to the use of ageing voting machines. Unlike UK voters, for many years, Americans have been using a variety of devices to cast their votes, from punch card systems to touch-screen technology. However, in the most recent elections, 41 states used voting machines that were at least a decade old, and most existing systems are no longer manufactured.

From broken ballot scanners in New York to machines changing votes in South Carolina and untested technology in Michigan, the technical difficulties heightened fears that inadequate equipment could undermine faith in democracy.

Another election day issue concerned the requirement for voter ID. Ten US states require eligible citizens to present some form of government-issued identification before they can vote. But 11% of Americans don’t have the relevant ID and certain groups, such as black communities, those on low incomes and students are even less likely to have the required documentation.

The problem has been compounded by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling which struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act introduced to protect minority voters. The 1965 Act required states to obtain permission from the federal government before changing voting laws. The 2013 ruling in effect struck down practices that helped make sure voting was fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

Following the ruling, the state of Alabama enacted a strict voter ID law, which remained in force for the 2018 mid term elections. The state dismissed claims from civil rights groups that an estimated 118,000 potential voters lacked the necessary photo ID.

Lessons for the UK?

Registration

In 2014, the UK government replaced household registration with Individual Electoral Registration. While the new system improved the accuracy of the register and helped to counter fraud, there are concerns that certain groups of voters – such as students, private renters and young adults –  might be falling off the electoral register.

The success of AVR in the US suggests that this method of registration can ensure that these and other groups don’t miss out on voting, for example because they’ve forgotten to register after moving home.  The UK’s Electoral Commission has advocated an automatic registration scheme similar to that in Oregon, where citizens can register to vote whenever they are in contact with government, from getting a driving licence to applying for benefits.

Voting technology

Much has been made of internet voting as a way of improving turnout at elections. Estonia has pioneered online voting for parliamentary elections, but only a few countries have followed their example. In the UK, pilot schemes involving internet voting have taken place at local level, but there are no plans to introduced online voting for national polls. However, e-counting (the electronic counting of ballot papers) is becoming increasingly prevalent in Europe. An e-counting solution developed by Idox has been used successfully for elections in Scotland, Norway and Malta, resulting in considerable  improvements in speed and accuracy of results.  The problems caused by obsolete technology in the US elections underline the importance of ensuring the mechanics of elections systems are up to delivering transparent, fair democracy.

Voter ID

Concerns about election fraud has prompted the UK government to consider voter ID. During last year’s local elections, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations. While some saw the trials as successful, others argued that the fact that hundreds of voters were turned away because they did not have the relevant documentation proves the policy of voter ID is misguided. Further trials of voter ID have been proposed, but these are being challenged.  The American experiences of voter ID raises questions about the exclusion of citizens from exercising their democratic rights.

Final thoughts

Delivering transparent, fair and accessible elections is never straightforward, but the challenge is all the greater in one of the world’s biggest democracies. America’s midterm elections may have changed the landscape of the country’s politics, but they’ve also provided ideas and caveats to exercise the minds of electoral administrators on this side of the Atlantic.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange Blog on elections:

Reeling in the year: a look back at 2018

It’s been another busy year for The Knowledge Exchange Blog. We’ve covered a variety of subjects, from housing and the environment to education and planning. So as the year draws to a close, now’s a good time to reflect on some of the subjects we’ve been blogging about during 2018.

Bibliotheraphy, walkability and family learning

We started the year with health and wellbeing in mind. Our first blog post of 2018 highlighted the increasing application of “bibliotherapy”:

“The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.”

In February, we blogged about family learning, where parents engage in learning activities with their children. This can involve organised programmes such as Booksmart, but activities such as reading to children or singing with them can also be described as family learning:

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

In recent years, growing numbers of cities and towns have introduced “shared spaces”, where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers share the same, deregulated space. As we reported in March, the practice has proved divisive, with supporters claiming that shared spaces can improve the urban environment, revitalise town centres, and reduce congestion, while opponents believe that shared space schemes – particularly the removal of kerbs and crossings – are dangerous and exclusionary for vulnerable groups of pedestrians, people with disabilities and those with reduced mobility.

In April, we took the opportunity to promote the Idox Information Service, highlighting a selection of the hundreds of items added to our database since the beginning of 2018. All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

Voters, apprentices and city trees

Local elections in May prompted us to blog about the voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Many people with dementia still hold strong political feelings, and know their own opinion when it comes to voting for political parties or in a referendum. However, the process of voting can often present them with specific challenges. It is up to local authority teams and their election partners to make the process as transparent and easy for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s as possible. Specific challenges include not spoiling the ballot, and the ability to write/ see the ballot paper and process the information quickly enough.”

A year after the launch of the government’s Apprenticeship Levy in June, we highlighted a report from the Reform think tank which suggested that significant reforms were needed to improve England’s apprenticeship system. Among the recommended changes were a renewed focus on quality over quantity, removal of the 10% employer co-investment requirement and making Ofqual the sole quality assurance body for maintaining apprenticeship standards.

The shortage of affordable housing continues to exercise the minds of policy makers, and in July we blogged about its impact on the private rented sector:

“In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.”

The long, hot summer of 2018 was one to remember, but its effect on air quality in urban areas underlined the need to combat the pollution in our air. In August, we blogged about an innovation that could help to clear the air:

“Designed by a German startup, a City Tree is a “living wall” of irrigated mosses with the pollution-absorbing power of almost 300 trees. A rainwater-collection unit is built into the City Tree, as well as a nutrient tank and irrigation system, allowing the assembly to water itself.”

Planning, polarisation and liveable cities

September saw another highly successful Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference. It opened with a thought-provoking presentation by Greg Lloyd, professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who challenged delegates to consider what might happen if the current planning system were to be abolished altogether, to clear the way for a new and more fit-for-purpose planning system.

In October, we focused on the ever-increasing job polarisation affecting the labour market:

In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%). As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown.”

More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, presenting significant challenges to local authorities who have to try and make their cities work for everyone. In November, we reported from The Liveable City conference in Edinburgh, which showcased ideas from the UK and Denmark on how to make cities more attractive for residents and visitors:

“A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people.”

Although much has been made of the government’s claim that austerity is coming to an end, many local authorities are still struggling to provide services within tight financial constraints. One of our final blogs this year reported on local councils that are selling their assets to generate revenue:

“In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations.”

Brexit means….

Overshadowing much of public policy in 2018 has been the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Our blog posts have reflected the uncertainties posed by Brexit with regard to science and technology, local authority funding and academic research.

As we enter 2019, those uncertainties remain, and what actually happens is still impossible to predict. As always, we’ll continue to blog about public policy and practice, and try to make sense of the important issues, based on evidence, facts and research.

To all our readers, a very happy Christmas, and our best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

“The great British sell-off” – losing community assets to balance budgets

Since 2016, local authorities have been allowed to invest the proceeds of assets sold by April 2019 (now extended to 2021-22) into transforming frontline services, something they were previously prohibited from doing.  Following years of austerity and the extent of recent government funding cuts, it is not surprising that councils have used such money in this way.

However, the rate at which such assets are being sold has raised concerns over the potential loss of publicly-owned buildings and spaces.  Earlier this year, coinciding with the launch of their Save our Spaces campaign, Locality highlighted that on average more than 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off every year – “more than four times the number of Starbucks in the UK.”

‘Financial predicament’

This year’s National Audit Office (NAO) report on the financial sustainability of councils highlights the financial predicament facing councils across the country. While it notes that the sector has done well to manage substantial funding cuts since 2010-11, financial pressure has increased markedly since 2014. In real terms, there has been a reduction in government funding of 49.1% since 2010, representing a reduction in local government spending power of 28.6%.

These cuts are coupled with rising demand for services and other cost pressures. For example, demand has increased for homelessness services and adult and children’s social care. The NAO highlights that from 2010-11 to 2016-17:

  • the number of households assessed as homeless and entitled to temporary accommodation under the statutory homeless duty increased by 33.9%;
  • the number of looked-after children grew by 10.9%; and
  • the estimated number of people in need of care aged 65 and over increased by 14.3%.

Other cost pressures have included higher national insurance contributions, the apprenticeship levy and the National Living Wage.

It is perhaps no shock that Northamptonshire county council became the first local authority since 1998 to be issued with a section 114 notice earlier this year, indicating it was unable to balance its books and at risk of being unable to set a legal budget for 2018/19. Nor is it indeed a shock that the NAO have identified other councils that are in danger of following suit in the next three years.

Despite this dire financial situation, it seems worse is to come. It has been recently announced that local services are to face a further £1.3bn cut in government funding in 2019/20. The revenue support grant, the main source of government funding for local services, will be cut by 36% next year – the largest annual deduction in almost a decade.

While the 2018 Budget has made provision for extra funding for adult social care, recent analysis suggests this falls short of what is needed to plug the projected funding gap.

Plugging the gap

In a desperate bid to raise finances, councils have been trying to find alternative income streams. A growing reliance on the use of reserves to offset funding reductions is an approach highlighted as unsustainable by the NAO. Most councils plan to increase or introduce charges for various services and many have also been making use of the government’s flexibility offer of using capital receipts to make improvements to services.

According to the NAO, in the year to April 2017, £118.5m of such capital receipts were used in this way. Locality has reported that the rate of asset sales has been consistently high for the last five years, with an average of 4,131 publicly owned buildings and spaces being sold off each year. Many councils are hoping to sell off their historic town halls to save much needed money. But it’s not just buildings that are under threat; council-owned parks and other land are also at risk. A recent parks survey, published by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), found that 85% of councils surveyed expect a cut in parks and green space funding in the next year. In January, Knowsley council voted to go ahead with proposals to sell 10% of its parkland to fund the running of its remaining parks, since funding for its green spaces is to end in March 2019.

Locality warns that selling such assets on the open market could result in them being lost to the community forever as they have no real influence over what they will be used for; and could potentially lead to social, economic and environmental decline.

Indeed, concerns have been raised over the programme of disposing of council assets by Norfolk County Council, which has recently been reported to be looking to save £10m by selling its assets.

Locality suggests that community ownership is the answer to saving such assets under threat. Community Asset Transfer, set up in 2003, enables councils to sell assets to community organisations at below market rates in return for demonstrable community benefit.

In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations. However, the Locality report shows that less than half of councils have a Community Asset Transfer policy. It also notes that while community ownership is a ‘powerful alternative’ to losing public buildings and spaces, it is not straight forward, and community organisations face a number of barriers, including:

  • funding;
  • lack of expertise;
  • limited time; and
  • a lack of clear process.

With 95% of councils surveyed expecting the sell-off of publicly owned buildings and spaces to play an increasingly important role in the next five years, it is surely paramount that something is done to protect important community assets from being lost.

Way forward

Locality has called for the government to create a Community Ownership Fund and for a change in legislation to make it easier for community organisations to gain control of such assets.

Or perhaps councils could follow the example of others who, instead of selling their assets, are using them to generate revenue. Lewisham Council for example, is planning to raise £500k through hosting large commercial events in its parks.

Whatever route local authorities take, it remains to be seen if others will follow in the  footsteps of Northamptonshire or succeed in counteracting continuing cuts to maintain services and balance budgets; and indeed protect important community assets.


If you enjoyed reading this you may also like our previous blogs on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of green spaces.

Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team.

Co-location of researchers: challenges and opportunities before and after Brexit

“International collaboration and mobility is integral to life as an active researcher across all disciplines and at all career stages.” British Academy, 2017

Collaboration is a core part of the work of researchers. In recent decades, growing numbers of researchers have taken advantage of improved mobility and support from policymakers to travel and work with others in a variety of disciplines.

The benefits of co-location

So it was interesting to read a recent toolkit on co-location of researchers, published by What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, which looked at interventions that encourage the co-location of researchers, and considered the effectiveness of policies that specifically encourage co-location with the objective of increasing the quantity and quality of scientific output.

The toolkit’s review of evidence found that:

  • Co-location can raise the quality of research.
  • Spillovers may exist between researchers in different academic fields or commercial sectors, but the greatest positive effects of co-location occur for similar activities.
  • Science park co-location impacts positively on firm-level patenting of research, but spillover effects may die away rapidly with distance.
  • Temporary co-location (such as conferences and workshops) can also be effective in inducing collaboration and innovation.
  • Previously collaborating labs continue to work together, although the quality of research suffers with separations.

Co-location in practice

Co-location can occur within a national or international context. A good example of international research mobility in action has been highlighted in a paper published by RESEARCHconnect, which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community.

Fifteen partners from thirteen countries, including the USA and Canada, have joined forces to improve the capacities for marine-based research in the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. The ARICE (Arctic Research Icebreaker Consortium) project aims to better coordinate the existing polar research fleet, to offer scientists access to six research icebreakers, and to collaborate closely with the maritime industry.

For researchers, project sponsors and hosts, the importance of face-to-face collaboration on projects such as ARICE cannot be overestimated. As Dr Chris Coey, Research Development Support Officer, Division of Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Salford, told RESEARCHconnect:

“The advantages of international mobility are, for researchers, access to prestige networks, resources and infrastructure not available at home. Reputations are burnished, arguably in part through mobility itself, collaborations are established or reinforced and, publications and other outputs are achieved. Metrics show that these international collaborations are higher profile and higher quality.”

Of course, arranging and managing co-location can be challenging, particularly when working across languages, cultures and disciplines. And although technology provides alternative ways of exchanging information, the evidence suggests that teleconferencing is no substitute for co-location. A 2017 study of the role of international collaboration and mobility in research noted that “travel was seen to be important in building international collaborations, by helping develop stronger relationships and a broader understanding of each other’s strengths and interests.”

Co-location after Brexit

But while collaboration – particularly international collaboration – has become a key aspect of research, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is causing uncertainty in the research community. The EU has been a significant source of research funding, and Brexit is now forcing researchers to consider alternatives.

A 2017 report from Digital Science Consultancy for Universities UK explored the challenges and opportunities facing UK research in the post-Brexit landscape. The authors noted that international collaborative partnerships in research with other EU states make up the largest pool of collaborators with UK research:

“Research undertaken with EU partners like Germany and France is growing faster than with other countries – hence while it is vital that the UK takes every opportunity to be truly global in their outlook, the importance of collaboration with EU partners should not be underestimated.”

At the same time, the report suggested that the UK should be developing new networks and funding arrangements that support collaboration with major research powers outside of Europe.

Regardless of access to EU programmes, enhanced international collaboration could be facilitated by either agreeing partner funding or at least avoiding ‘double jeopardy’ through, for example, a coordinated application process at agency level.”

Speaking to RESEARCHConnect, Dr Chris Coey also highlighted UK sources that provide an alternative to EU funding for international research:

“…this isn’t just the Research Councils but also the larger and more prestigious charitable sources such as Wellcome and the British Academy.”

 Final thoughts

As the What Works toolkit explains, co-location is one of the methods used by policymakers to help encourage the generation and diffusion of new ideas. It enables researchers to share access to expensive equipment, forge links, or simply observe – and learn from – each other.

As the UK prepares to leave the EU, research bodies and researchers themselves will be looking anxiously at the impact of Brexit, while continuing to forge strong partnerships at home and overseas.


RESEARCHconnect is the Idox group’s funding service providing information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK and wider European research community. Focused on researchers at all levels of academia – from undergraduates to senior career researchers – and also including a spectrum of funding opportunities for universities and research institutes, the service offers a comprehensive one-stop-shop of funding information.