Bringing the public’s voice to party conference season

Another year, another party conference season passes (where our political parties hold their annual conventions each autumn).  Having survived three weeks on the road, like many of you, I’m now sitting back and taking stock of what passed, what I learned from our participation – and where next…

This was my seventh year managing events and contributing to the fringes at the political party conferences and I was keen to do things differently– you might call it ‘The Seven Year Itch…’

As you may know, with up to sixty fringe events taking place at any one time, the fringe can be a very competitive field with lots of overlap in terms of themes and format.  It can be really difficult to differentiate your organisation.

In addition, with political party membership diminishing and attending party conferences an increasingly costly business, the opportunity to connect elected representatives with the public is reduced – creating a so-called ‘party conference bubble’.

So this autumn, we decided to take the public’s voice to politicians – via our Citizens’ Juries.  At each of the three main conferences, we brought together, in total, 60 members of the public as Citizens’ Juries to debate some of the big pre-general election issues.

This is part of PwC’s broader ‘2015 and beyond’ programme – focusing on three key general election themes – lifting living standards, securing good growth and jobs and delivering public service reform.

Working with BritainThinks, who specialise in facilitating Citizens’ Juries, we first used the model in the lead up to the 2010 Spending Review to get the public’s criteria for making decisions on how to best deal with the deficit.  The Jury then presented their findings to Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander.

This Jury then reconvened twice to look at progress made on redressing the public finances.  Since then, we’ve used Citizens’ Juries to gauge public views on good growth, open public services and improving the quality of health care.

A Citizens’ Jury is where members of the public come together as a group to deliberate on an issue – usually one which requires tough trade-offs. During the party conferences the sessions took place over one and a half days.  Jurors were representative of the wider population –including a mix of genders, ethnicities and socio-economic groups.

Policy experts briefed the Jury to help them understand the underlying facts behind the debate.  Politicians and other conference delegates were also invited to visit and listen in throughout the process. The Jurors then deliberated and presented their findings to politicians at the party conferences – including Rachel Reeves, Peter Lilley and Michael Moore.

So what did I learn?

1) Trying something new is never easy – but don’t give up!  In the beginning, this concept took a lot of explaining to those unfamiliar with the format who I wanted to get involved with the Jury.  Video content helped enormously.  As we’d recorded previous Citizens’ Juries taking place, we were able to produce a one minute trailer (featured above) cost effectively.  This helped both bring to life what we were trying to achieve and prove its credentials as an effective formula.

 2) Politicians value the opportunity to connect with the public. Our Citizens’ Juries went down really well with the politicians invited to receive their deliberations.  It was an unusual platform offer as it was mostly a listening role.   Holding a Citizens’ Jury is an excellent reminder of how critical it is to bring the public’s perspectives into policy discussion – as those ultimately affected by decisions made.  One politician remarked that ‘civil servants and politicians should run these kinds of events’.  Another said ‘the conversations you’ve been having (the Jury), everyone should be having.’

 3) Holding a longer event at the party conferences has its advantages.  As our Citizens’ Jury took place over a day and a half, this provided flexibility to invite observers to drop in at their convenience, working around busy conference diaries.  It also provided more sustained content for social media – helping us to reach audiences among those attending the conferences and beyond.  Our tweet output increased by over 600% on the 2013 conference season!

 4) Flex and repurpose what you find. For example, we created a quiz for each our Citizens’ Juries to take early on in the process to help them get to grips with their policy topic.  We then repurposed the content as an online quiz where anyone could test their knowledge against the Jurors, driving further traffic towards our wider findings.

 5) Don’t forget to report back to those not invited to the party! With civil servants unable to attend party conferences, it’s important to bring them into the loop.  We’re producing a report and one minute videos (available here) of what we found to ensure those that can’t attend have an opportunity to soak up the public’s perspectives and apply them to policy and practice.

What next?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be bringing together the findings from our three Juries across party conference season so keep your eyes open for this (www.pwc.co.uk/generalelection).

I’d be interested to hear your examples of where you’ve engaged the public in your research.  I’d also love any feedback on this project – and ways we can continue to use Citizens’ Juries in 2015 and beyond.

 

Other links

 Labour Party Conference video

Conservative Party Conference video 

 Liberal Democrat Party Conference video 

 

Ros works on Government & Public Sector Marketing for PwC

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