May 5, 2023
The huge social, economic and environmental challenges we face today prove our current policy-making process isn’t working for everyone or our planet – so we decided to try something a bit different. In the autumn and winter of 2022-23, Positive Money partnered with Cheshire East Council to organise the Cheshire East People’s Panel on the Cost of Living. It brought a diverse panel of 21 residents together to deliberate and propose solutions to the cost of living crisis, supported by specialist citizens assembly facilitators. Here’s what happened…
21 residents of Cheshire East came together in October 2022 to develop a set of 12 policy recommendations for the Council’s Strategy on the Cost of Living. Council staff then presented a proposal to action 10 out of the 12 recommendations, which was agreed and voted on by all Councillors (cross-party) at the Corporate Policy Committee public meeting in March 2023. Three panel members gave short presentations to Councillors, who committed to doing more participatory engagement going forward. You can see the full People’s Panel report and recording of the Council meeting here.
Why did Positive Money organise the People’s Panel?
One of Positive Money’s core values is democracy, along with fairness and sustainability. We believe that part of the reason our current money, banking and wider economic system is failing our communities and planet so badly is the lack of democratic participation and control over that system.
Right now a small group of people, from a narrow set of backgrounds, decide on policies for the rest of us, and it’s clearly not working fairly for everyone or our planet. In 2023, with the knowledge and technology available to us, we believe we can do better. To address the huge challenges we’re facing — such as inequality, poverty and climate change — we need everyone to be involved in deciding how we’re going to overcome them.
So we brought together a broad group of citizens to tackle a pressing economic issue in their community, and provided an inclusive democratic process, in order to develop policy recommendations to benefit the whole community.
How did it work?
First we found a facilitator experienced in designing and delivering citizens assemblies and similar types of democratic engagements. Then, we searched for a local council looking to try a new way of empowering their community to shape policies. The team at Cheshire East Council were keen. Finally, we agreed on the issue to tackle: in the summer/autumn of 2022, the soaring cost of living was the most pressing issue for many families and councils around the country. So we agreed that Cheshire East People’s Panel on the Cost of Living would come together to develop a set of policy recommendations to feed into the Council’s Cost of Living Strategy.
As an organising team, we decided to adopt the principles of a citizens’ assembly and apply them on a local scale. So in September 2022, we invited thousands of residents in Cheshire East to apply to be a member of the panel. Hundreds applied and answered an anonymous online survey sharing their views on various issues related to the cost of living. This survey helped build up a broader understanding of how people across the borough were experiencing the cost of living crisis, and their ideas to tackle it. Then, we used a Sortition tool to randomly select a diverse and broadly representative group of residents from across Cheshire East. 21 residents from Crewe to Macclesfield and various towns, villages and hills in between, and from a range of ages, backgrounds and experience, were then invited to form the People’s Panel.
What happened next?
Supported by an experienced team of independent facilitator the People’s Panel came together over two weekends in October 2022 to:
– learn about the issue of the cost of living and share their experiences,
– deliberate over their ideas, and
– develop and vote on a set of recommendations for Cheshire East Council.
On the first day, they spent time getting to know each other, then heard from a range of expert speakers — from economists, to a local head teacher and Citizens Advice officer, to a community wealth building expert and Council officers including:
- Will McKellar, Chief Officer of Citizens Advice Bureau Macclesfield – How Citizens Advice Bureaus are experiencing and addressing the Cost of Living Crisis
- Mark Bayley, People Directorate, Cheshire East Council – Schools and their experience of the Cost of Living crisis
- Sarah Bullock, Director of Policy and Change, Cheshire East Council – What the council is already doing. What it can and can’t do.
- Lisa Adamson, External affairs officer, Centre for Local Economic Strategies – Community Wealth Building as a (long term) response to the Cost of Living crisis.
- Rachelle Earwaker, Senior Economist, Joseph Rowntree Foundation – Big picture view of the Cost of Living Crisis.
- Jane Emery, Area Manager Cheshire and Shropshire for the Trussell Trust and involved with Nantwich Food Bank, What’s happening in local Food Banks.
After hearing from the speakers, they reflected together on what they’d heard and the future they’d like to see in their community. On day two, they developed a set of three themes that would house the recommendations:
- Energy, Transport, Planning
- Rethinking Funding and Distribution
- Community and Appropriate Support
Over the second weekend, the panel split into three teams dedicated to each theme. They developed a set of policy recommendations, then spent time editing and honing each of the other teams’ recommendations. On the final day, they voted and ranked their final 12 recommendations, then presented these to Sarah Bullock, Head of Policy and Change at the Council. They ranged from changes to transport and energy policy, to better outreach and communication of the support available locally.
Then what happened?
Following the People’s Panel weekend sessions, the facilitators presented a report to the Council, which outlined all of the recommendations in full and the process the panel went through. Council staff and officers then had four months to consider how to implement them.
In January 2023, members of the Council staff and (almost all!) the People’s Panel came back together on a Saturday morning, so the Council could share the progress they’d made, and panel members could offer more feedback and reflections. Council staff went through each recommendation in turn and explained how they were hoping to act on them — pending a vote and sign off from Councillors. Of the 12 recommendations, the Council determined that they could enact 5 of them, 5 were already underway, and 2 could not be taken forward. You can see full details of these in the People’s Panel report documents here.
On 23rd March 2023, at the Council’s Corporate Policy Committee meeting, the Council staff’s proposals were unanimously accepted by all Councillor’s present (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and independent councillors) – a fantastic result. Three representatives from the People’s Panel spoke at the public meeting, to share some reflections from the process, and the Councillors committed to doing more participatory engagement with their residents – another positive outcome.
Reflecting on the process
Panel members reflected on their experience of the People’s Panel whilst in person together and afterwards in an online evaluation survey. There were valuable lessons learned for organisers about how future processes could be tweaked and improved, but overall the majority of panel members felt it had been a very positive experience, with two aspects in particular highlighted as being the most beneficial. Firstly, the experience of coming together with people in their community that they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to meet, listening to each other, and deciding on solutions that would help everyone. Secondly, the experience of being empowered and listened to by decision makers, and having an opportunity to better understand the challenges and opportunities faced by the Council.
Positive Money was thrilled to support and enable this process, which helped empower a group of citizens to come together and discuss solutions to pressing economic issues affecting everyone’s lives in different ways. Hopefully, together we can support more participatory democratic projects like this in the future, to help produce fairer public policy outcomes for everyone.
You can help fund Positive Money’s work to build a fair, democratic and sustainable economic system for the wellbeing of people, communities and the planet, by making a one-off or regular donation today here.