One evening in late June, two months into lockdown, 156 people logged on to Zoom to talk about food and farming in Ceredigion. It was no ordinary discussion. After hearing from a range of farmers, community organizers and environmentalists, they had spent time in small groups sharing their personal responses to the crisis that is Covid, Brexit, climate change, globalization and much else. Guided by a facilitator, they listened carefully to each other, looking for common ground and tentatively suggesting solutions.
At the end of the two-hour meeting, when the note-takers had reported back, it was clear that the event had achieved a remarkable level of shared inspiration. There was a strong call for the relocalizing of food, self-determination for communities and support for young people to enter the food and farming sector, among other things. It had demonstrated the hunger that there is for change in the county, and the richness of knowledge and expertise present.
As one retired farmer put it: “It was quite amazing to have such a breadth of participation…to have a platform where parties involved in farming, land management, horticulture, nature reserves all on large and small scales being represented was so very worthwhile.” Another commented that he had no idea so many people cared about farming. For many, it was an emotional experience to find such warmth and compassion between hitherto opposing sectors.
The event itself came out of a somewhat unlikely collaboration between the Cardigan branch of climate protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) and local Member of Senedd and former agriculture minister Elin Jones, with support from the farming unions and environmental groups. Ben Lake MP also spoke. As Vicky Moller, one of the organizers, said: “Elin Jones’ decision to co-host with the local Extinction Rebellion branch was in the spirit of the event. Everyone feared hostility or ding dong argument. It didn’t happen.”
This was many people’s first experience of a People’s Assembly, one of a series of five that have so far been organized in west and mid Wales since Covid. The first was held in Pembrokeshire in late April, and it came about from work that organizers Vicky Moller and Anna Monro had been doing to support community groups during lockdown. “At our meetings people discussed the future, and it was clear that they did not want to return to the old normal,” says Vicky. “The leading area where they wanted to see change was food and farming, and so we decided to look at that in detail.”
The format of the People’s Assembly is widely used in XR, which is perhaps best known for its high-profile protests in London, Cardiff and other cities last year. “They are a taster of a growing global alternative to our adversarial model of democracy – where rival parties slug it out and we choose between them every few years, often motivated by fear of those we oppose,” says Vicky. “It’s officially known as deliberative democracy, and in Wales we are calling it ‘trafodwn’, which means ‘let’s discuss’.”
Central to all Assemblies is the work of the facilitators, who are trained in the three pillars of the method: radical inclusion (hearing all voices), active listening (dropping your own agenda to give your full attention to the speaker); and trusting the process (allowing the wisdom of the hive to generate new thinking).
“Thankfully, there is a growing number of trained facilitators available,” says Angie Polkey, one of the organizers of the Ceredigion event and herself a trainer. “We are all helping to satisfy people’s thirst to have they say, be heard and, most vitally, be part of the change that many of us know is needed for a more sustainable and just world.”
Angie explains how important it is that the Assemblies have an impact. One of the five events stimulated local action groups to form, but as she says, “the significance of the others lies as much in the inspiration they created, which will shape future relationships, as well as the feedback that has been shared with elected representatives and local Council.” It is a fundamental tenet that the participants know why the Assembly has been called and what will happen to the findings, because otherwise “people will feel disillusioned and that their time has been for nothing”.
Deliberative democracy for Wales
The People’s Assemblies described here were citizen-led and unfunded, but the principle is also used when Citizens’ Assemblies are commissioned by governments who want to make difficult ethical decisions with public buy-in, such as the abortion laws in Ireland. They use an approach similar to the recruitment of jurors to ensure that the groups are representative, and they typically run over several days or weeks with professional facilitation. A recent OECD study reviewed about 300 government-commissioned events on five continents, and a good practice guide is also available.
Wales held its first Citizens’ Assembly at Newtown in July 2019, to discuss how citizens could engage with the National Assembly for Wales (now the Senedd), and since then there have been calls for Wales to make more use of them in the recovery from Covid. The ground-breaking Well-being of Future Generations Act already sets out a process whereby public bodies are required to collaborate with the public in creating an ecologically sustainable Wales, but it is not enough on its own, as David Thorpe explains in a recent blog for the One Planet Centre.
He calls for Citizens’ Assemblies to work with the Public Services Boards of every local authority, and for the Boards to be held accountable to them. That would raise awareness of the Act and tap into the energy and expertise of community groups, which has been so much in evidence during the coronavirus pandemic. Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre made a similar point in the Western Mail recently:
“We have a chance to reverse normal political relationships, for the public to be in the driving seat via something like a more expansive citizens’ assembly…If a consensus was reached, we could then hand over our blueprint to the parties and test their genuine appetite for change.”
“Trafodwn is a good term for this newer version of deliberative democracy,” says Vicky. “It is organised from the ground up, with both sides of the divide wanting to meet and sort things out. Something is stirring.”
For a full account of the five Assemblies, including the main conclusions from the Ceredigion event, click here.
This article was first published on the Food Manifesto Wales website.