Combined Choice: a new approach to community engagement

May 4, 2021   By Jon Nash, Demos

Demos’ Jon Nash on the challenges and opportunities for local authorities after the pandemic and a new approach to community engagement pioneered by Demos.

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented local authorities with new challenges to address, questions to answer, and problems to solve. It has accelerated the use of online tools and services and forced authorities to adapt to a new reality.

While the pandemic has kept us apart, calls for more citizen partition in decision making have continued to grow. In response to these challenges and opportunities, at Demos we have developed an innovative new approach to community engagement called Combined Choice.

What is Combined Choice?

Instead of asking people what they want or how they feel, Combined Choice lets participants make alternative proposals and encourage others to support them.

This community-led approach increases participation and crowdsources detailed proposals with strong community support.

How does it work?

  • First, a local authority defines the problem and proposes a solution.
  • Then citizens are invited to participate. Participants can support one proposal or work together to make a new proposal.
  • When the time’s up, the proposal with the most support is used.

Participants can make proposals, collaborate and build support in whichever way they choose, from organising meetings to using online tools. This creates a sense of ownership that increases involvement and improves outcomes.

This approach allows local authorities to engage with thousands of citizens, to produce detailed proposals at a very low cost.

Combined Choice can be used to address challenges that fall between the short-term engagement of a citizens’ assembly or consultation and the long-term work of councillors.

It’s a way of tapping into the collective intelligence of communities in a structured, inclusive, collaborative way.

Demos and democratic innovation

Demos is not just a think tank. We’re also an innovation charity: we design and deploy new technology to help improve the process of democracy, public consultation, and policymaking.

We’ve built software, in partnership with the University of Sussex, to analyse large scale natural language datasets – like social media feeds or customer contact transcripts – to help organisations understand public opinion and lived experience more deeply.

We’re pioneering the use of an interactive survey tool, Polis, in the UK, which allows us to crowdsource ideas and – crucially – identify points of consensus between groups with different points of view. We build tools and games to help people understand complex policy issues – like a tax calculator where any citizen can play at being chancellor.

We house these tools, along with public opinion polling, in our Public Participation Lab, a centre of excellence for involving the public in policy and decision making.

We do this because we recognise that it is not easy for institutions to take on the kind of democratic transformations for which Demos advocates. We have to build and deploy tools to allow local and national decision-makers to try out these new ideas and processes.

Everyday Democracy

The phrase ‘everyday democracy’ was coined in 2005 by Tom Bentley, then Director of Demos who argued that:

“Without renewing democracy at every level, our capacity to succeed as societies, and then as individuals within them, will drain away. Without the mass exercise of citizenship, many of our public traditions and institutions will atrophy. Without a new level of direct citizen participation, the legitimacy of our political institutions will continue to decline. Without new cultures of dialogue, exchange and learning, our social differences will overwhelm us. That is why democratising the relationships between people, institutions and public authority is the central challenge of our age.”

Tom Bentley

We hope that Combined Choice can be one way to meet that challenge.