Citizens’ assemblies: how to bring the wisdom of the public to bear on the climate emergency | Blog by Graham Smith

Citizens’ assemblies could be vital in kick-starting the tough steps needed to respond to the climate emergency, Chair of the FDSD board of trustees, Graham Smith, argues. But the detail of how they will work is critical. (This blog first appeared on The Conversation website.)

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A new form of politics is gaining steam as a solution to the climate crisis. Six parliamentary committees in the UK are to commission a citizens’ assembly, in which randomly selected citizens will consider how to combat climate breakdown and achieve the pathway to net zero emissions.

This unexpected move complements increasing experimentation with assemblies across the world. Having struggled to realise necessary action on climate breakdown through traditional routes, citizen assemblies could well help governments kick-start the tough but urgently needed steps to safeguard a healthy and stable world.

In a nutshell, these assemblies bring together 50 or more citizens over a number of days or weeks to learn about a particular policy challenge, deliberate together and recommend how to deal with it. Citizens are selected to reflect the demographic diversity of the population. The process is typically facilitated by an independent and apolitical organisation, which brings in experts across a wide range of disciplines, as well as competing interest groups and the voices of those personally affected by the issue in question.

growing evidence base suggests that this form of participatory politics works. The balanced and structured process of deliberation results in more informed preferences. A requirement to justify opinions, for example, counteracts the bias of prior beliefs. Opinions tend to be neither polarised nor uniform, with participants developing increased respect and understanding for opposing viewpoints.

Such a respectful and deliberative context gives rise to considered judgements that can cut through political deadlock on even the most complex and contentious issues. Most famously, Ireland used such an assembly to decide on the constitutional status of abortion. Bridging charged emotions on both sides, the assembly confidently recommended liberalisation, which was backed by a national referendum and enshrined into law.

Evidence from citizens’ assemblies and similar deliberative processes suggests that the broader public have confidence in the judgements of such bodies, especially when compared to traditional political institutions. This is true even of populist-minded voters, who appreciate that decisions are being made by citizens like themselves.

Fixing the climate crisis

As a particularly politically divisive issue, citizens’ assemblies could be vital in uniting populations around the challenges of responding to the climate breakdown – but the devil is in the detail. Past assemblies offer valuable lessons in how they can most effectively address the climate emergency.

Ireland is the only country to have already run a national citizens’ assembly that addressed climate breakdown. The assembly considered a wide and diverse range of issues from transport to peat extraction – but only had two weekends to do so. This was not enough time to consider these challenges in depth, and made it easier for the government to drop more controversial proposals, such as the significant reduction of agricultural emissions.

Given the diverse areas of policy that the climate crisis cuts across, it would be a herculean task for a single assembly to deal with. The amount of time it would take to consider issues in enough depth would place excessive demands on the selected citizens.

Aspects of the climate crisis can be treated individually, as successful citizen assemblies and other similar deliberative models in the USAustraliaCanada, and the Polish city of Gdansk have shown.

An alternative would be to run separate assemblies in parallel, each considering a digestible chunk of the agenda, with time set aside for assemblies to coordinate with each other when cross-cutting issues emerge. This has never been done before, but nor have humans ever encountered a problem of the scale of climate breakdown.

Empowering citizens

More radically, citizens’ assemblies on the climate emergency may need to be empowered to make binding decisions, not just advisory recommendations. Politicians are in a bind: they know that they need to act, but are constrained by their concerns over a public backlash and vested social and economic interests that profit from the status quo. Radical policy suggestions emerging from these assemblies are likely to be watered down – as may have been the case in Ireland, whose strong agricultural lobby cannot be ignored.

Empowering assemblies could break political deadlocks on climate. In Poland for example, activist Marcin Gerwin successfully persuaded city mayors to implement any decision supported by 80% of an assembly, with the mayor having discretion when support is below that threshold. Resulting changes have for instance helped the city respond faster to severe flooding.

Social movement Extinction Rebellion has been quick to criticise the proposed assembly in the UK for lacking such power. As it stands, the plans fall short of the direct action movement’s demand for a citizens’ assembly to have authority to tackle both the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

But the UK citizens’ assembly on climate breakdown can be seen as a positive development. The details of how focused the task will be, including whether the assembly will be empowered to consider a more demanding transition than the government’s current 2050 target, are yet to be made public. Nor do we know how much time the assembly will have to deliberate.

And while it is primarily structured to inform parliamentary committees, its high profile means it could make a real difference to climate policy. If successful, it may well give rise to the type of empowered citizens’ assemblies that bring the wisdom of citizens fully to bear on the climate and ecological emergency.

#FuturesCymru2019: Wales leads on embedding futures in public policy | Blog by Cat Tully

Great to see Wales continuing to lead the way on embedding long-term thinking and foresight in public policy at last week’s #FuturesCymru2019 ‘Shaping the Future’ conference. Building on its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015 and its unique appointment of a Future Generations Commissioner, the Welsh model really is a leading example globally of a public administration taking seriously the responsibility to design sustainable policies that take into account impacts over decades ahead, and to seek to preserve key social, environmental and cultural assets (framed as the ‘seven wellbeing goals’) for future generations.

Engaging proactively with uncertain futures is a vital part of the toolkit of public sector policymakers and decision-makers everywhere, but this event was a reminder that in Wales it is not an optional extra: the 2015 Act places obligations on all public bodies to report against the future wellbeing framework. This conference was a chance to help drive a culture of future-mindedness through the public sector, as delegates from public health to the fire service, national parks to the arts council heard from futures experts including Bill Sharpe and Graham Leicester (Director of the International Futures Forum), who ran sessions using the ‘three horizons’ methodology and Claire Craig, Chief Science Policy Officer at the Royal Society and formerly director of the UK government’s national Foresight programme, Foresight UK.

The Welsh experience is one to watch globally in showing how integrating long-term thinking can produce sustainable policies. This event showed that futures thinking is slowly becoming introduced across the public sector: a hugely welcome development, and one that is starting to put Wales in the front of the pack globally, along with, say, Singapore and Finland. Next time, it’d be great to see even wider participation – civil servants are on the frontline of policy formulation and delivery, but we need wider societal participation and inclusive decision-making to ensure the ‘official future’ is challenged by outside voices, and the interests of future generations are fully represented, as formative decisions are made.

Cat Tully is an FDSD trustee and Director of the School of International Futures. You can follow her activities on Twitter via @cattullyFOH and @soifutures.



Intergenerational Fairness Criteria | Round Tables – London, 17 April 2019

Together with the FDSD, the School of International Futures (an organisation that helps policy-makers, business leaders and communities make strategic choices, manage risk and become future-ready) is hosting a Round Table on Intergenerational Fairness taking place on the afternoon of 17th April. We hope this will be the beginning of an innovative experiment towards a practical way of supporting intergenerationally fair policy-making.


School of International Futures (SOIF) is working with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to develop an innovative methodology and a robust framework to evaluate the long run impact of public policies from the standpoint of intergenerational fairness (aimed at civil servants and politicians, but also media and citizens for scrutiny).The work forms part of the wider Gulbenkian Sustainability Programme, with a key goal to ensure the inclusion of future generations’ well-being into present decision-making processes.

The Round Tables

We are in the scoping and design phase of the two year project, and are seeking to challenge our assumptions and sense-test our approach. We want to learn from experts so we can build on existing insights and approaches, and build interest and champions to ensure the project output is as effective and impactful as possible. We aim to provide opportunities for the two groups to interact as the project develops.

  • Round Table 1: Challenging assumptions | We are seeking to bring together deep thinkers to challenge our underlying assumptions of what intergenerational fairness really means, and pick up on contextual and framing issues/concerns that might arise later on.
  • Round Table 2: Understanding approaches | We are seeking to bring together practitioners and other experts to ensure we are aware of existing approaches and methodologies, and their strengths and pitfalls, so that we can incorporate the best thinking that already exists in this field.


Please contact Ellen Shepherd ( for more information, or if you would be interested in attending.


Taking the Long View | February 2019

In this February 2019 edition of Taking the Long View, we focus on the loudening call for citizens to lead a new approach to decision making that can steer our democracies towards a greener, fairer future.

Call for applicants to join our board

FDSD is a London-based think tank that explores the critical links between flourishing democracy and sustainable development. Through research, advocacy and dialogue, we build the evidence and make the connections needed to secure fairness for all and a healthy environment, now and in the future.

Trustees play an active role in the organisations’ activities, including writing articles, contributing content for our website and bulletin, as well as coordinating events.

We are seeking to recruit two or three new members to our committed Board of TrusteesIf you have a professional background or significant experience in marketing and communications, fundraising or social justice and environmental sustainability, we’d love to hear from you.

You will work with others on the Board who come with various backgrounds and have a shared commitment to enhancing democracy and sustainable development. We are particularly keen to speak to candidates who:

  • can help us to further develop our marketing and communications strategy, help enhance our online presence and extend our reach among key audiences;
  • can help us with our fundraising strategy, in particular our knowledge and understanding of funding bodies that would support aspects of our work
  • can help us extend our knowledge and understanding of the challenges of realising social justice and/or environmental sustainability and our reach to key organisations working within those areas

Trustees are expected to attend about four evening meetings a year, in London. It would be desirable if candidates are active social media users (with ideally a good on-topic audience).

If this opportunity interests you, please get in touch with Graham Smith (Chair of the Board): The closing date for applications: Friday 29 March 2019.

A call to do politics differently—Blog by Peter Davies

The 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act requires public bodies in Wales to incorporate public involvement in their decision making. The explicit emphasis on engaging the public reflects the strong views expressed in the national conversation of 2014 that shaped the legislation that “a lack of engagement between the community and the decision makers resulted in frustration”.

The conversation laid bare the disconnect between those making decisions and those living with the consequences. At that time, people said they felt that the decisions affecting their everyday lives were made from the top down, far removed from their local realities. There was a real sense of fatigue and disappointment with the way in which public bodies were engaging citizens (or not).

We’ve moved on since 2014: the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales has prioritised public involvement as a key theme in her efforts to implement the 2015 act, and is already identifying best practice in this area across diverse organisations and using that to craft guidance for public bodies.

But we’ve still got a long way to go before effective public involvement is the norm, rather than the exception. And last month, Public Policy Professor Laura McAllister called for a new approach that goes beyond usual consultation or engagement to take decision making firmly out of the hands of powerful elites and firmly into the hands of ordinary citizens.

The political system is broken, she says, plagued by active apathy and lack of trust or respect. The only way to fix it is to do something radical: “Tinkering around the edges simply won’t hack it in the midst of the current deep democratic crisis.” McAllister suggests we turn to innovations like citizens’ assemblies, panels or juries that can “drive a genuinely more participatory and deliberative politics”.

She is not alone in her thinking. As highlighted this week by FDSD Chair Graham Smith, the call for citizens’ assemblies is growing louder every day, led by a broad range of stakeholders, including the new, dynamic climate change movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR).

With a constant eye on the long term, FDSD supports any approach that can ensure decision makers bring future generations and longer-term thinking into political processes. We are supporting the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales to strengthen its work in public involvement. And we welcome Professor McAllister’s push for alternative models of representative democracies built on innovative approaches to public involvement.

Peter Davies is a trustee of the FDSD. As Wales’ first Sustainable Futures Commissioner, he played a lead role in the development of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act. You can follow him on Twitter.

Image: CC-BY 2.0 :: A call to do politics differently /

Extinction Rebellion and democratic renewal—Blog by Graham Smith

2018 witnessed the emergence of a dynamic, new climate change movement—Extinction Rebellion (XR). Building chapters around the UK, Europe and across the world, XR’s most visible action was its day of mass civil disobedience in November, with 6,000 activists shutting down major road bridges in London.

XR is an interesting movement for all sorts of reasons. Commentators tend to focus on its demands on government to treat climate change as a national emergency, and on the willingness of activists—many of whom are motivated to protest for the first time in their lives—to be arrested for their convictions.

This use of mass civil disobedience has a long democratic heritage and makes a significant contribution to democratic culture. But XR has other ambitions to renew democracy. Like all environmental campaigns, XR is demanding a particular outcome: in this case to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. But unlike most others, one of its key demands is also democratic reform: “a national citizens’ assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.”

XR is very clear that the extreme distrust and lack of confidence in government and its apparent unwillingness and inability to act demands new approaches to decision making. “By necessity [our] demands require initiatives and mobilisation of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war. We do not however, trust our government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians. Instead we demand a citizens’ assembly to oversee the changes, as we rise from the wreckage, creating a democracy fit for purpose.”

A citizens’ assembly involves randomly-selected citizens coming together over a number of days to learn, deliberate and make recommendations. It is a very different way of doing politics; one that has great faith in the capacity of ordinary citizens, when brought together in an inclusive and respectful setting, to be creative and collaborative in responding to challenging political issues.

The use of citizens’ assemblies is growing internationally. Perhaps the most celebrated are the Irish examples in which randomly-selected bodies made recommendations on the constitutional status of same-sex marriage and abortion. In both cases, these recommendations were supported in national referendums. There is growing interest in the UK: from recent citizens’ assemblies on Brexit in 2017 and social care last year, through to growing pressure to use a citizens’ assembly to break the current parliamentary deadlock over Brexit

What XR has recognised is that it is not enough to simply make a demand for change in government policy. To be effective in the long term, substantive change is needed in the way we do democracy: an analysis that we share at FDSD. For XR and a growing number of democratic activists and practitioners, citizens’ assemblies offer an attractive solution to what demands for democratic renewal look like in practice.

Graham Smith is Professor of Politics at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster; and Chair of the FDSD. You can follow him on Twitter.

Image: CC-BY 2.0 :: Julia Hawkins / Flickr

Promoting public involvement in Wales | Blog by Bethan Smith

Bethan Smith is Goal Convenor for Involvement, Office for the Future Generations Commissioner, Wales.

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Through the 2015 Well-being of Future Generations Act, all devolved public bodies in Wales are legally required to put sustainable development first; that is, to consider the long-term impact of their decisions and “to act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The act outlines five ways of working for public bodies to put sustainability first: long-term thinking, collaboration, integration, prevention and involvement.

For the last couple of years, FDSD has been supporting the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales to think about our approach to the last of these, involvement, and find new ways to help public bodies involve people in the decisions that affect them.

In May 2018, FDSD supported a training session (delivered by Involve) on participation theory and practice for staff within the Commissioner’s office. As a busy office made up of staff seconded from many different organisations across different sectors with differing degrees of prior knowledge on the topic, the training session was particularly valuable in creating a mutual understanding of what ‘participation’ means and the different levels of participation that exist:

“To me the session was extremely useful in understanding the technicalities between the different definitions and levels of participation… We are trying to implement some of the definitions and tables used [by the trainer] in our own work on involvement.”

“[The training] was done in a very simple and clear manner so I could understand everything without [much] prior knowledge on the topic.”

Following the training, staff certainly seem more confident in spotting opportunities for participation and in exploring the right approach to take. We all have ambitious plans to ‘walk the talk’ on involvement in our future work.

Among these is our plan for another training session in early 2019. Again supported by FDSD, this one will target Welsh public service staff in organisations beyond the Commissioner’s office. We hope to use the training as a platform for identifying involvement champions within the public sector and building momentum and capacity around public involvement.

This work on public involvement will feed into the Commissioner’s ‘The Art of the Possible’ programme which is identifying best practice in sustainable development across diverse organisations and using that to craft guidance for public bodies. This guidance ranges from simple changes that public bodies can implement through to work that is leading the way. There are ten suggestions for supporting better public involvement, ranging from using plan English and Welsh in public documents to including involvement in planning, monitoring, reporting and staff appraisal.

This resource will continue to be developed over the coming weeks and months. Drawing on the wealth of experience and knowledge from across the public, private and third sector in Wales and further afield, ‘The Art of the Possible’ has the potential to really demonstrate and promote good and innovative practice around shared decision making and involvement. We are excited to have FDSD and other partners involved in the process.

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Image: Artwork from The ‘Art of the Possible’, one of the Commissioner’s main programmes of work. More details at:

“You won’t get it right all of the time, but give it a go.”—Sara Parkin in conversation with Peter Davies

Sara Parkin is Principal Associate of The Sustainability Literacy Project, and Founder-Director of Forum for the Future. Her 2010 book The Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World has become a course book in many countries. Its sequel What Does Good Look Like? (due out 2019) will argue there is one destiny but many paths to sustainability.  She serves on the Board of the Carnegie Trust for universities in Scotland, advises the National Union of Students and Chairs the Board of the Richard Sandbrook Trust. In the past she held high-profile leadership roles in the UK Green Party and brokered and led the European Green Coordination, now the European Green Party.

Peter Davies was Wales’ first Sustainable Futures Commissioner, 2011 to 2016, and played a lead role in the development of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act, particularly through leading the national conversation on the Wales we Want.  His current project portfolio focuses on working in support of communities, citizens and consumers. It includes chairing the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Welsh Water’s Customer Challenge Group, the Size of Wales charity, Pembrokeshire Community Energy and being Community Custodian for River Simple. He is a trustee of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development.

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PD:  Sara, thinking back ten years ago what was the original motivation of your paper then, to which this is a sequel?

SP:  I was invited to write a paper about the UK electoral system for FDSD.  I thought I’m damned if I’m going to write about proportional representation yet again. Then I came upon an amazing piece by the Young Foundation arguing under a series of headings that political parties were “for the public good” and vital for democracy.  That set me off.  I used all the headings to demonstrate the opposite!  I wrote a not entirely tongue in cheek, rather over the top rant about how essential it is to pay attention to our electoral system and our democratic system as a whole.  I even proposed we elect our representatives more as if we were employing them to represent us. What is their track record?  What evidence do they bring to show they are the right person to represent us?

PD: So the political parties get in the way of achieving better outcomes through the democratic process?

SP: Yes, I concluded by calling for a revolution to change the system!

PD: Looking back over the ten years, did you come to a slightly different perspective on that conclusion?

SP:   Well, when I reviewed the earlier paper I found I still agreed with most of it!  So no point in trying to say it differently.

PD: It does make very good sense the point you were making around this mediation role; we should be looking at these people in terms of their capacity to represent us.

SP:  When I started to think about it all again, it was 2016, which was quite a year. Things coming out about electronic interventions in the democratic system, so I started writing the paper paralleling, in a minor way, the work of Carole Cadwalladr, the investigative journalist.  So much emerged so fast I ended up reorganising the paper to focus on those people who currently have money and power, who are worryingly interlinked.  For a long time, watching people like Charles Koch and other big anti-sustainable people – particularly the big libertarian ideologues – you can see their strategies leading in to the 2016 US Presidential elections.  Koch admitted he is playing a very long game – ironically, he’s referenced Lenin as somebody he admires in terms of strategy! This made me realise we are living in a continuum which started after the Second World War with the Mont Pélérin Society, set up by Friedrich Hayek, father of neoconservative economics.    Once neo-Keynesianism won the post-war battle of economic ideas, the neo-cons got busy setting up think tanks all over the place (e.g. Institute of Economic Affairs in UK) and colonising university departments.   Hayek spoke of his disciples as “freedom fighters”.   The strategy was to normalise free-market economic liberalism in public and academic discourse, essential for getting ideas into power.  Which is something I’m quite interested in – but for sustainability.    Koch, and similarly ideologically motivated billionaires, learnt that institutions have to be changed to get the ideas to stick.  2016, for them, was a massive step forward in the US, with the UK referendum result a bonus.

PD: So the process of getting ideas into power, I guess that’s at the heart of the concept of the political system. But what we’re seeing is this combination of power and a philosophy and a technology which has changed the context of how ideas achieve that power.  Achieve that status of being normalized. And that’s been such a change in the ten year period since you wrote your original article.

SP:  Just to pick up on the notion of getting ideas into power being the purpose of the political system. I think that’s been corrupted. Elections are about getting people into power, not necessarily the ideas. As you’ve probably noticed we’ve got a pretty idea-free environment in our political parties right now. And all the commentary is about how long Theresa May is going to be in power, if the Tories vote this way on Brexit are they going to lose power for three generations, and so on.

PD: Yes, what we have in politics is more of a soap opera than a genuine debate about the society we want to be.  I guess I come at this from an angle where in a very small way, in a small country, Wales has tried to look at the role of a legislative framework that addresses the short-termism that you tend to see in the political system by putting into place a legislative requirement that is about the long term through the Well-being of Future Generations Act.  It’s very early days in its application, but I guess, where your original paper might have been about revolution, this was a process of trying to get the sustainable development commitment – which was part of the devolution settlement, a part of the Government of Wales Act 20 years ago – into a stronger frame for how the political system was to work, and how the involvement of people, of citizens, was at the heart of shaping the Wales We Want.  We’re coming at it as a small country with some small steps, but it is definitely seen to be in this context of trying to address the issues of short-termism in the political systems by building in requirements to focus on the long-term.  How do we address this in a bigger sense in terms of the short-termism that drives the political system and drives everyday life increasingly through the soap opera of 24 hour news?

SP: Wales was able to do what it did because it had a national conversation.  I am Scottish, and, while I’m not a fan of nationalism, at least we have shown we can hold a national conversation as we did for the constitutional convention.  I’ve even suggested the Scottish Conservatives’ best hope is to have an absolutely brilliant plan for devolving real power – not independence – and look at how the different devolved units would collaborate on the larger issues where it’s more sensible to act as a group.  Now from an England perspective, or a UK perspective, we’ve never had such a conversation.    So, I think if we want to plan for the long term, we need to talk about devolution and what is the appropriate level to make what decision.

PD: In your current article ten years on, you’ve also focused in on what you say are seemingly mundane activities about telling good stories, bolstering our elected representatives, promoting democracy, for sustainability policies and taking back control of our data as being core to what we now need to do to address the challenges that we’ve seen in the last ten years, with democracies being undermined.

SP:  What I am suggesting are not necessarily going to be all that’s needed. But I think we have to come to an end of demanding other people do things.  That’s part of my 50 year reflection as a campaigner.  If we carry on doing what we’ve always done in the past, and it hasn’t worked, we need to think of different ways of doing things, or we’ll get the same outcomes.  My suggestions are all things each of us can do.  Things we can encourage others to do too, ask them to join in, to help normalize some key things and make them a habit.  That means you’re not dependent on waiting for one of these wretched political parties or one of these wretched politicians to actually take the lead on it. We can just get on and do it! Imagine campaigning around a good story of what sustainability looks like by saying, see, this is normal! It should be normal that we have a political process that helps us do it, rather than stand in the way of it.  It should be normal that we should counter this ethic-free, grotesque growth of the digital world and the lead players in it.  And if data is the new fossil fuel for the economy and we don’t want it that way, we can intervene.

PD: And I think one of the factors that you’ve also highlighted is the feeling of powerlessness in a world where we can’t control our eco-systems, and our human institutions. And you’ve referred to national conversations.  I had a role in leading the conversation about the Wales We Want, and that feeling of powerlessness, and the inability to make a difference, came through so strongly which is why involving communities, and putting people at the centre of policies is crucial – though easy to say, harder to do.  I think one of the things we’re finding is that in a digital world, place becomes even more important.  Would you see that as part of where the next focus should be?  We have examples in England, like Frome, where you have a more localized system of governance, which has abandoned the political parties.

SP:  What I haven’t done in my piece is to give too many examples or prescriptions, because the point I make is that there is not just one route to a sustainable future. There is one destination and being pretty clear about the broad lines which will shape that means that people, from wherever they are, and with whatever competence or capabilities they have, they can start to move towards it.  There are many ways in.  When people have the confidence that this is what the good might look like, then they could look at what their opportunities are to contribute in that journey towards it.

PD:  Part of our role, I’m sure, is to influence that to happen, and to work with others in order to achieve that.  I’m very interested in the point you made about campaigning and the need to look at different ways of reaching the destination.  I am conscious that we have the experience where we have a very active environmental sector that has taken an active adversarial campaigning role on land management that has alienated a significant element of the farming community who generally want to do the right thing but feel threatened by the approach that has been taken by environmental campaigners.  I’m just wondering whether that sort of aggressive campaigning – which is absolutely right in that it gets the message across about the urgency of nature recovery – but wondering whether it is actually delivering the effect we want it to have.

SP:  Then what you’re talking about is the sort of campaigning which tells other people what they should do.  I think farmers feel pretty much under the cosh as they’re being told what to do, what not to do, not necessarily by people who know what they’re talking about, and so I can understand that.  There is no reason why that can’t be turned into a way of working with farmers so that they work out what farming might look like in the future and how might they get from here to there. And how everybody can help. So it’s a different approach from how environmental, and indeed democracy, campaigners have behaved over the last several decades.  We’ve angrily demanded, we’ve ranted – and I count myself in and amongst this – but what we haven’t done is to say, ok, we’re all in it together.  And how can we work together to get what we want, and how can we be part of deciding that.

PD: Given that we’re having this conversation in the middle of Brexit, which has become such a turn-off to a major part of the population, maybe it is an opportunity to get back to basics of describing what we want the world to look like.  Could we play a more effective role in through a more community led approach that is focused on bringing people together?

SP: Absolutely right, and that’s what I’m wrestling with at the moment to actually write what would good look like in a way that helps people to contribute, whatever they’re doing, wherever they are, to move in that direction. It’s not easy, as I’m trying to write for everybody, not only for the wonks. So I think one of the key things that FDSD could do is to lead this conversation about where we are going with Brexit and what would be better for sustainable development in the long run, and why and how, and what would be better for democracy, and why and how. And if there are any caveats in there, what has to change to make it ok to stay in or stay out.  As far as democracy and sustainable development are concerned, to do an analysis from our perspective would be good – nobody’s done that.

PD: That’s very interesting and of course one of the other points you make in terms of the democratic dimension is the ineffectiveness and the inappropriateness of referenda as a means of achieving change.

SP:  I agree with Freedom House on this, that referenda are a sort of end run round the obstacles that get in the way of people in power doing what they want to do. They are the lowest common denominator.  I like the whole idea of opinion polling, finding out what people want, and indicative voting, but I like preferenda, something which the Irish Greens worked out, which are the idea that you put all the options down and then start voting until you shave off all the extremes and arrive at the best possible consensus.  So I don’t like referendums.  And as a decision-making process over EU membership it was disgraceful.  It was Yes/No on something which nobody on either the Yes or the No side really understood, or indeed campaigned for, in a way that represented what the real outcome would be.  The electorate was duped.  I would have much preferred that our politicians in Parliament had stood up to the plate and did what they should do which is freely decide to do what is best for this country.  I’m not that hot on another referendum, but if that is the only option, well, so be it, as long as the choices, processes and the debates are worthy of the magnitude of the decision to be made.

PD: And for a small foundation, the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, this is our core interest – how the democratic process can lead to sustainable development. What would be your advice to us regarding the work we can take forward?

SP: We all have to get very radical and very active very quickly.  Any of us who pretends that this can be a long-term project is kidding not just themselves; they are letting down other people and indeed nature. I think it’s absolutely key that we get a sense of urgency into it, but not in a way that generates despair or fear – with the powerlessness that goes with hopelessness. The idea is to give confidence to people to start doing and campaigning for things, to free people up.  I use the term ‘sufficiently’ and ‘good enough’ enormously when I teach leadership for sustainable development.  We’re heading in the wrong direction, anything we do that shifts that, over to the right direction is a plus.  Give it a go.  You won’t get it right all of the time, but give it a go.

PD: Sara, thanks very much for this. There’s obviously a lot more in your paper which expands further on this than we’ve been able to cover now.  And you’ve given a good sense of direction for the Foundation in terms of the role we can play in moving us forward to both a more democratic and a more sustainable world.


The think piece is available for download on our publication page.

Lord John Bird calls for Future Generations Act for the UK

Delivering the inaugural Well-being of Future Generations Commissioner for Wales‘ Annual Lecture, The Big Issue founder and crossbench peer, John Bird, called for the approach to long-term thinking pioneered in Wales to be rolled out across the rest of the UK. As a prominent anti-poverty campaigner and keen supporter of the work of the first Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Lord Bird spoke about the importance of tackling today’s crises, as well as working to prevent tomorrow’s: “Looking ahead, I’ll be calling on parliamentarians from all parties to join forces in planning how, at a UK-wide level, we can learn from Sophie’s work and ensure that the golden thread of preventative thinking is woven into all levels of policy-making… What (the Wales office) is doing is gold dust: it’s equivalent, but even more astute, than the founding of the welfare state. I want our friends in England, Ireland, Scotland and across the world to benefit from the same revolutionary thinking. We need a Future Generations Act for the UK.”

FDSD wholeheartedly supports John Bird’s call to arms. Government decision making is often short term, failing to account for the impact on future generations. In policy areas such as climate change, social care, infrastructure and pensions, long-term considerations are often overlooked as short-term political dynamics take priority. The potential for a UK-wide Commissioner for Future Generations is a key theme of our work. An event last year brought together speakers with intimate knowledge of the work of Commissioners and Ombudsman around the world, to explore the opportunities and challenges to building on the pioneering work of the Welsh Government at UK level and in the other nations of the UK. The video of the workshop is available on our event page.