Fracking: A Citizens Deliberation, Preston 2016

Fracking is a hugely important issue for politicians grappling with the energy challenges we are faced with now and in the future. However, the debate is dominated by industry representatives, politicians and campaigners, with citizens often left watching from the sidelines. This report is of a citizen led inquiry and the conclusions of a group of citizens who looked at Fracking with fresh eyes and an open mind.

At Shared Future, when approached by Cambridge University, we jumped at the opportunity of bringing our experience of deliberative democracy to this crucial issue. Our desire was to explore what happens when a process attempts to move people from ‘raw’ public opinion, to what the American academic James Fishkin describes as ‘refined’ public opinion. That is, ‘opinion after it has been tested by the consideration of competing arguments and information conscientiously offered by others holding contrasting views’.

The process we used drew on both deliberation and dialogue to create a space for a diverse group of people to share experiences and stories and in turn encourage them to look beyond set positions to identify the interests and values which underpin them.  This is different from other approaches as it moves away from conversations as the trade of monologues and the emphasis of people persuading each other of their own argument.

The Fracking Citizens Deliberation aimed to bring together a diverse ‘mini public’ to share their initial opinions, listen to each other and external ‘commentators or expert witnesses’, to ask questions and then deliberate their way towards a set of ‘refined’ conclusions. Surveys and opinion polls give us a clue what individuals think. However they don’t help us understand what citizens will conclude if they are given the time and space to be able to deliberate at length with each other and consider a range of differing perspectives; to share opinions, to challenge and disagree with each other, to appreciate other viewpoints and ultimately come to their own conclusions.

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Our report available below is a summary of the process followed and a record of the conclusions of the group. Our role has been purely to facilitate the considerations of the participants. At no point does the report seek to interpret any of the information gathered.

As the facilitators of the process we have taken every effort to be impartial and to document a citizen led deliberation about a complex and often highly contested issue of public concern.

We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to test this approach as a way of both influencing and democratising public policy making on a crucial topical issue, especially at a time when so many are questioning the role of the public in deciding what the future of our country should look like.

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The Process:

The project was initiated in June 2015 and was co-designed by Peter Bryant of Shared Future and Dr David Reiner of the University of Cambridge, who is leading the overall project on public attitudes. This was followed by the formation of the oversight panel, the selection of the best location to undertake the deliberation, agreeing the questions for the deliberation to consider, identification of potential commentators and finally the recruitment of the participants.

The Inquiry took place on weekday evenings (and one Sunday) in April 2016 and consisted of five sessions. An average of fourteen people took part over the five gatherings completing some sixteen hours of deliberation. During these informal and relaxed sessions, those taking part were encouraged to think and talk about the issue, to share opinions and to challenge each other. A number of ‘experts’ (‘commentators’) agreed by the members of the Oversight Panel, spoke to the participants and were in turn cross-examined.

Oversight Panel

Central to the success of deliberative processes such as this is the engagement of a diversity of key stakeholders who meet separately from the Citizens Jury as an oversight panel. The role of the Panel is to do the following:

  • Ensure that the project design is fair and rigorous,
  • Agree on the question to be posed to the citizens in the process,
  • Suggest topics to be considered by citizens in the process,
  • Identify commentators/witnesses best able to present on these topics,
  • Monitor the process of citizen selection,
  • Advise on the form and dissemination of the findings.

Recruitment

A mixed method approach to recruitment, as agreed by the Oversight Panel was used. The aim was for a sample profile that was balanced in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and education background.

Recommendations

The final activity saw the facilitators lead a process to produce a list of recommendations. Small groups were formed and recommendations written. Recommendations were then themed and further discussion led to some editing of the recommendations prior to the anonymous voting process. Each participant was given eight equal votes each, for a total of sixteen recommendations. Everyone was also asked to identify their top 3 recommendations on the anonymous voting sheet. The prioritised recommendations are listed in the final report.

For more information on this project please contact Peter Bryant