The Citizens’ Economic Council programme has been piloting models of engagement that seek to enable citizens, including those ‘left-behind’ citizens in Leave areas, to ‘take back control’ over the economic decisions that affect their lives.

“I feel I have no voice in society. I don’t have a concept of my voice being heard.” – Participant, RSA Citizens Economic Council workshop, Oldham

In the RSA’s Citizens’ Economic Council interim report, published ahead of the Autumn Budget in 2017, we caution that decision-makers need to find new ways of engaging citizens earlier and upstream in economics to avoid the annual Budget media controversies  such as ‘pasty-gate’ or the 10p tax row.

Drawing upon roadshow workshops held in Clacton-on-Sea, Port Talbot, Glasgow, Birmingham, as well as nine day-long workshops on economics with randomly selected citizens, we show how the UK public’s decline in trust in politicians, economists and business is closely connected to the distance they feel from decisions made about the economy. Something brought to light by both the ‘Brexit’ vote and the Edelman Barometer 2017.

In Port Talbot, a town deeply affected by the steel crisis, one participant sketched the following when asked to draw an image of how they saw the economy:

Our report illustrates how inequalities, such as gender and regional effects, are often overlooked, or rendered overlooked or invisible, by national narratives about the economy and economic performance. Narratives which often aggregate figures and mask the varying levels of income and wealth distribution for different sections of society. This was a point somewhat more bluntly made by a Newcastle resident when Europe expert Anand Menon invited an audience to contemplate a plunge in the UK’s GDP as a consequence of Brexit. She yelled at him, ‘that’s your bloody GDP. Not ours!’

To address the problem, the Citizens’ Economic Council found ways of communicating and engaging both those left-behind and a diverse group of citizens on how they could reclaim terms such as ‘GDP’ so that it was able to respond to their experiences once again. In this interim report, we set out some emerging recommendations which we seek to test with a range of stakeholders. The RSA’s work, through the Citizens’ Economic Council, proposes a series of measures to help rebuild trust, including that economic institutions, such as government and the Bank of England, use randomly selected Citizens’ Councils and juries to better understand the public’s views on important issues. This could include their views on the setting of interest rates, as well as the decisions announced in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget. Specific recommendations include:

  • With the Budget on Wednesday, HM Treasury pilots Citizens’ Reference Panels, juries and other ways of engaging citizens to give their views – rather than making policy behind closed doors in Whitehall.
  • ­The Bank of England pilot Citizens’ Reference Panels and other deliberative approaches with a view to advising their departments and committees on key economic decisions including the setting of interest rates. ­
  • Combined authorities, local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships seize the opportunities of devolution, using deliberative approaches to engage citizens through the development and implementation of their devolution deals.

We recognise that the adoption of advisory councils by institutions alone is not sufficient. It is also important to create the right conditions in which they can thrive. To this end, we propose that the government creates a code of practice for effective public engagement and participation, recognising the sheer range of engagement approaches that can empower citizens; for example, participatory budgeting, citizens’ reference panels, citizen juries and co-production methods. At its core should be engagement and participation practice that extends beyond simple consultation towards approaches that are more deliberative, promote dialogue and allow sufficient time and space for policymakers to respond to citizens’ views.

To make this possible we also propose the creation of an expert resource centre on inclusive and participatory economic policy that would support government departments, non-departmental public bodies and publicly funded organisations, including the Bank of England. It would be modelled on Sciencewise, a similar programme funded by the Department for Business, Energy Innovation and Skills,  which offers public bodies support in participatory policymaking relating to science and technology issues. Both the code of practice and expert resource centre would also work in co-operation with the existing international Open Government Network. The network engages civil society in creating a more open and transparent approach to government across the world, and builds on those ambitions set out in the Civil Service 2012 reform plan.

It is clear that we stand at a crucial crossroads. We can ignore the populist signal and the democratic deficit at the heart of our economy, trapping us in a vicious cycle of distrust and instability. Or we can build a legitimate, transparent and accountable system that brings the much maligned ‘expert’ and citizen together to shape a fairer economy.


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