Using Citizen Panels + street-level voting: A model for democratic decision-making
How can democracies best decide what to do with controversial statues and place names? Should it be decided by experts, or by government? Should it come down to a vote?
In this activity, we present one model for democratic decision-making on difficult issues, and apply it to statues, using a combination of Citizens Panels and street-level voting. You can adapt this model and experiment with it if you want to. Here are several things you could do as part of this activity:
If you are an individual citizen, let us know what you think of this model. Is this a good way to make our decisions?
If you are part of a local authority, you could test this model in your area, to decide what to do with statues or place-names. Does it work? What problems do you run into, and how can we protect against them?
If you are a school, you could try putting together a mock citizen panel. How does it go? What lessons can you pass on from the experience?
Citizens Assembly, Citizen Juries and Citizen Panels are now being used in many contexts where public bodies need to make decisions on a) topics that are contentious, and b) topics that may affect different stakeholders in very different ways. A Citizen-based model increases the chance the diverse social impacts are taken into account. It also increases democratic legitimacy and protects against the objection that decisions are being made by a distant elite. It gives fellow citizens greater confidence that their views have been taken into account, making people more likely to trust the fairness of the outcome. It may also function as a barometer for whether a community is ready for a given change.
Many reviews of contested heritage in the UK to date have been guided by the principle that decisions are best made by small panels of experts, such as a group of academics. However, findings from democratic theory suggest that when problems are hard and involve a large amount of socially distributed knowledge, then diverse groups of non-experts working in medium-sized groups tend to arrive at better solutions than a homogenous group of experts (Anderson, 2006). This is because such problems often involve a great deal of situated knowledge. For instance, statues and place names mean different things to different people, and meanings can be very local.
At the same time, it may be appropriate for ultimate decision-making to rest with the group of stakeholders most affected. In the case of street names, residents have a clear stake in outcomes so it may be appropriate for them to have a final say. It might be objected that the street residents should simply vote without the extra layer of the Citizen Panel. However, street residents are not the only stakeholders on these issues, which are highly political. Other people across the city have a legitimate interest in the decisions to keep or rename streets where this is being done for reasons of justice or values. Having input from the Citizen Panel will help street residents appreciate the perspective of the city, and understand how their decision may affect the wider community.
1) Imagine that a petition is brought forward to rename a street.
2) The Council assembles a Citizen Panel through a non-mandatory selection process similar to that of a jury. It is important that the panel have socioeconomic diversity, geographical diversity and be diverse with respect to protected characteristics (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation etc). The make-up of the panel should be looked at carefully to ensure that it includes multiple representatives from key stakeholder groups.
3) Optional: The Citizen Panel and street residents get to know each other using structured activities like resources from Bridging Histories.
4) Optional: The Citizen Panel and street residents have a chance to discuss a resource like ‘Understanding and evaluating common arguments about contested heritage’ (coming soon!)
5) The Citizen Panel and street residents:
a. Hear arguments both for and against any proposed changes. It is important that both sides are represented, so it should be somebody’s job to lead representation for each side.
b. Hear expert testimony. Experts might testify on the contested figure’s life history and principal legacies, wider history, artistic significance (in case of a statue), circumstances of memorialization, demographic balance of commemorations in the area, practicalities and costs to the street or taxpayer, etc.
c. Receive written or oral evidence from the public (e.g. street residents).
d. Receive results from any preliminary inclusive consultation findings (see section on Inclusion, above.)
6) The Citizen Panel deliberate behind closed doors to ensure that members can speak freely. The panel come to a recommendation about the proposed change. They are supported to write up their recommendation in a 1- to 2-page report.
7) Their recommendation is shared with the street residents.
8) The street residents then get the final vote, with a super-majority of 75% required to change the name of a street.
9) An appeals process provides a chance for the decision to be reconsidered.
If the proposed change was to a council-owned statue or other object, instead of a street, then the decision could rest with the Council. In that case, the presumption would be that they would accept the panel suggestion, and if they went with an alternative then they would need to justify the decision on clear public grounds.
The panel could hear evidence on a group of objects instead of a single one, if several objects are being examined at once. The duties of a panel member could be time limited to a single review. Discussion would be governed by Chatham House rules, meaning that ideas can be reported but not attributed to individuals. The views and opinions of individuals on the citizen’s panel would be protected by confidentiality and any breach could lead to expulsion from the panel.
An alternative model would have the street residents acting as the panel. However, this has several downsides in terms of achieving democratic legitimacy, as explained in the rationale.
Another alternative would change step 6 by allowing street residents to listen in on the Citizen Panel discussion (aka a ‘fishbowl’ model). This would give them more of a chance to understand how their decision might be seen by a wider public.
The size of the panel might vary depending on resources. One model would have a small panel of 10 - 12 individuals. In someplace like Bristol, the process might instead use the city’s long-running citizen panel, which has 1400 members.
The role of the public body
The panel would be convened and administered by the public body and regulated by a Terms of Reference written by the public body and agreed by the panel. The local authority or other public body would be responsible for administering the panel and if they were owners of the object would be responsible for taking the final decision, subject to appeals and the call-in powers of the Secretary of State. Where the decision of the public body deviated from the recommendations of the citizens panel, it would be incumbent on the public body to justify this deviation, according to a set of pre-defined criteria (e.g. carrying out the recommendation would be unlawful, negative impact on social cohesion etc).
The panel could be adapted to encompass a broader scope. As a city-wide ‘citizen’s panel for culture’, the group could make recommendations on new public art commissions, comment on grant awards and deliberate on other cultural matters.
In summary, incorporating the use of Citizen’s Panels, pioneered in Bristol and elsewhere, can strengthen the link between the engagement, deliberation, and decision-making stages of an inclusive reviews process. Bringing different perspectives together for the purposes of democratic deliberation is beneficial in that it helps develop respectful civic discourse, leading to decisions that can be owned by the community.
 Elizabeth Anderson ‘The Epistomology of Democracy’ Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, Volume 3, Issue 1-2, 2006, pp. 8-22 (Article) Edinburgh University Press
 An example structure for a general citizen’s panel (used to regularly consult on council services) can be found here:https://www.involve.org.uk/resources/methods/citizens-panel