The (in)appropriateness of a deliberative response to Covid-19

The (in)appropriateness of a deliberative response to Covid-19


As governments turn from crisis response to economic recovery and social renewal there is increasing focus on the engagement of the wider public in decision-making and informing public policy decisions.  Dr Ruth Lightbody of GCU’s Social Sciences Dept., and a specialist research in deliberative and participatory governance, offers an incisive perspective on effective and meaningful participation, and particularly the gendered dimensions of Covid-19, time-use and care, that affect capacity to respond to more demands.

Deliberative democracy has gained significant attention as a way to engage the public in decision making on complex issues, which is particularly prevalent given the challenges faced during the current pandemic. Citizens’ Assemblies (CAs) are one example of deliberative processes which have been trialled in the UK and Scotland in the last few years. The benefits of facilitating deliberation between randomly sampled groups include giving citizens the time and space to break down complex issues, educate and develop the participants’ skills, and make decisions more palatable to those they affect. A recent report from the OECD (2020) showed that recommendations from 280+ CAs were able to help national governments to negotiate some contentious policy challenges, such as climate action and abortion rights. Covid-19 poses significant social, political and economic problems for contemporary decision making, and has highlighted the need to discuss suitable public engagement strategies.

Communities, universities, businesses and charities have been adept at responding to Covid-19 using innovative and sensitive ways to inform, support and help wider society. Examples of citizen led innovation include local ‘mutual aid’ support groups, who have offered vital lifelines for people shielding from the virus, and  advocating for the introduction of support bubbles.  Citizens have good ideas. They know what is needed for local areas, their communities and their networks. It is therefore natural for conversations to arise as to the appropriateness of on- and offline deliberative processes as a response to the pandemic.

When recommending a citizen led response to Covid-19, or any emergency, four key areas require further reflection. First, do governments want, or even deserve, public engagement?  Second, can governments be trusted to honour the recommendations that come from CAs? Third, how appropriate are online modes of deliberation? Finally, will CA’s add to the existing unpaid labour which already burden women – or just exclude them and other groups entirely?

To begin with, the UK government responded slowly to Covid-19. A number of fundamental mistakes were made. If the public are tasked with problem solving the economic and societal impacts of lockdown, or how best to exit lockdown, a problem lies with who is responsible for decisions that are made and – critically – who is accountable. Instead of an exciting proposal of citizen led initiatives, it could smack of a desperate attempt to think up policy initiatives from a government that doesn’t know what it is doing, or worse, be used as a way to legitimise unpopular policy decisions. The government could well hide behind performative public consultation processes and blame any unpopular decisions on the participants. To avoid such cynicism, citizens should have already been engaged in long-term emergency policy planning processes. Insights from a broader range of voices may have reflected how a nationwide lockdown would affect the most vulnerable in society, helping the government put a more considered response to an emergency in place. Furthermore, it would be easier to call upon an established assembly of citizens instead of attempting to recruit participants in the midst of a crisis. The government may learn from this omission and decide to establish a citizens’ partnership as part of a public inquiry (and I hope they do) in order to consider what went wrong with our response but also to contribute to long-term planning.

This leads to the second problem. Would governments commit to adopting the recommendations which come from a CA? Sources remind us that often policy makers do not trust the public to make critical and informed judgements (Roberts et al. 2020, Brown 2014). Concerns recently voiced by Involve’s Simon Burall say that now is not the time for hearing from the public, as no one is listening. Governments are in crisis mode and experts are tied up with advising, researching, adapting, not to mention dealing with their everyday roles. It would be badly timed to include more voices in what is already a confused rabble of voices and opinions. So how can the public be sure that their proposals would be taken seriously? Several recommendations from the Citizens’ Convention in France have already been publically rejected by government ministers. Where do the transparency and commitment come from that reassure participants that their time has not been wasted?  Assurances must be made that citizens’ contributions will be valued but in this quick moving situation where new evidence is emerging all the time, that may not be possible.

The third issue is the appropriateness of an online deliberative response.  Deliberative processes are slow moving and labour intensive without the added complication of moving to online deliberation. There is an argument to say that participants may feel braver behind a screen and more likely to contribute. Organisers from existing online CAs tell us that citizens are more committed to the deliberative output. Willing to dedicate hours, even days, in order to finish what they started. Yet crucially, many of these current online deliberative processes started face to face, thus stabilising relationships, feelings of reciprocity and a shared goal.  It is incredibly difficult to facilitate such an endeavour from scratch. The ability to interpret participants’ social cues and body language remotely is tricky, creating significant challenges for facilitators. Anxieties, fear, confusion and bewilderment may be harder to identify online. Limitations of confidence, time and space, or a fundamental lack of trust in the system may put people off taking part but people with young children, ill health, weekend jobs, caring responsibilities, no internet or computer, may well find involvement impossible. Those most likely to struggle to get involved in face to face deliberation include women, minority groups, people living in poverty, those who use ESL, disabled people, those with hearing, visual or speech issues, and those struggling with their mental health. They may find the barriers exacerbated rather than removed by shifting online.

Finally, the gendered impact of lockdown is falling heavily on women’s shoulders. We see evidence of women’s productivity in academia and research lowering and men’s increasing.  Women are tending to take on greater levels of caring responsibilities and housework, and the burden of women’s unpaid labour has risen globally. Women are more likely to work part time and have precarious positions so the risk of losing jobs is especially high. A recent report by the Sutton Trust estimates that a third of nurseries in deprived areas may close. While schools are set to open, outbreaks of Covid-19 and localised lockdowns show the unevenness of any return to the ‘new normal’, meaning that some caregivers will find it more difficult than others to commit to extra-curricular endeavours. In addition, women are more likely to be living in poverty and the vast majority of single parent families living in poverty are headed by women. There has also been a significant rise in domestic violence meaning that women are more likely to be living in fear or displaced in shelters or temporary accommodations. How then can we expect women to involve themselves at any level of a deliberative process, be that as participants, experts, organisers or even policy makers who can help to implement the recommendations into legislation? Even when women do take part, research shows that women are significantly less likely to contribute, ask questions, or speak and will often give way to men in order to hear from them instead (Karpowitz et al. 2012, Hans et al. 2015, Carter et al. 2018). Surely this will be exacerbated by trying to juggle increased caring responsibilities.

Vitally, the ongoing crisis unequally impacts those citizens that need to be heard from. Without the space to engage, think and deliberate, women, people living in poverty, care-givers, the elderly, disabled people, minority groups, and people from the LGBT+ community will find their opportunities to contribute limited. On top of home-schooling, working from home, losing jobs, losing loved ones, are they also expected to expend emotional and intellectual labour on these major issues? To spend more time online? For what – and who is listening? Many communities throughout the UK live with multifaceted inequalities. They are bruised and tired. Trust of politicians and experts, politics and justice is thin on the ground. Whether it is devolved or national government, more must be done to reassure the public that governments need the public’s engagement and deserve the hard work and input of their citizens to help them out of the present situation. Of course, citizen engagement benefits citizens too, but if the government can’t be trusted to implement the changes or to value their public they may not deserve citizens’ innovative and creative ideas. Citizen input would be better adopted as a long-term commitment, that way citizens will not question the validity of the government’s quest for public engagement at a time of crisis.



Brown, M.B. (2014) Expertise and Deliberative Democracy, in Elstub, S. & McLaverty P. (eds). Deliberative Democracy Issues and Cases. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Carter AJ, Croft A, Lukas D, Sandstrom GM (2018) Women’s visibility in academic seminars: Women ask fewer questions than men. PLoS ONE 13(9): e0202743.

Han, S., Schenck-Hamlin, W. & Schenck-Hamlin, D. (2015). Inclusion, Equality, and Discourse Quality in Citizen Deliberations on Broadband. Journal of Public Deliberation, 11(1): 3. Available at: http://www.publicdeliberation. net/jpd/vol11/iss1/art3

Karpowitz, C., Mendelberg, T., & Shaker, L. (2012). Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation. American Political Science Review, 106(3), 533-547. https://doi:10.1017/S0003055412000329

Roberts, J., Lightbody, R., Lowe, R. and Elstub, S. (2020) ‘Experts and Evidence: Scrutinising the role of witnesses and evidence in mini-publics’ in the Journal of Policy Sciences.




Ruth Lightbody

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