Submission to the Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

Prepared by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)

November 2023




























About the National Centre for Social Research

  1. The National Centre for Social Research are Britain’s leading centre for independent social research, we have over 50 years’ experience of listening to the public and making sure their voice is heard.  The research we do helps government and charities make the right decisions about the big issues and we’re passionate about ensuring its widest possible impact on the world around us.  As a non-profit organisation we are never compromised by commercial or political agendas.


  1. In 2020 we established our Centre for Deliberation[1], founded and led by Dr Ceri Davies, which puts research evidence developed from public deliberation and citizen engagement at the forefront of solutions to some of society’s most pressing challenges; supporting decision makers to develop and implement policy in areas such as energy and environment, tackling inequalities and looking to the future on issues like longevity.

Engaging the public to support strategic thinking in government

  1. In order to confront intricate and complex 21st century challenges, from climate change to inequality, effective governance, trust in institutions, and extensive participation from all strata of society are essential.


  1. The latest wave of the World Values Survey[2] shows trust in democratic institutions amongst the British public is low – only a quarter have confidence in both Government and Parliament (24% and 23% respectively), a figure which has remained low over recent decades. The independent civil service fares better with half (49%) of the British public saying that they have confidence in them. 


  1. A ‘participatory turn’ in policy making has brought theoretical and practical attention to the rationale and utility of involving the public in related issues and decisions as the introductory paragraphs from the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, Second Report of Session 2013–14[3], over a decade ago shows:

In its plan for Civil Service reform, published in June 2012, the Government introduced “open policy-making”. This means engaging the public and experts from beyond the “Westminster village” in debates about policy and in the policy-making process itself, and establishing a new relationship with the citizen who becomes a valued partner to identify problems, discover new thinking and to propose solutions”. 

The same report identifies the committees advocacy on how these same opportunities apply to National strategy[4], recommending that:


Government and Parliament engage with the public continuously to develop a deeper understanding both of how the public perceives our national interests, and of what sort of country the public aspires for the UK to be”.


  1. Strategic thinking in government should be understood as a key interface between government and citizens. A focus on engaging the public, not just in policy making but in long term thinking provides a means to gather diverse inputs, ensure the debate of issues and build consensus; which themselves can act as key constituents of restoring trust and building legitimacy.

The role of Deliberation

  1. Amongst a wide range of participatory methods that provide a roadmap to some of these opportunities, more recently, there has been increased attention on deliberative methodsDeliberation is based on giving citizens the right time, information and conditions to engage with salient technical or policy questions and frame recommendations, make decisions or help inform agendas.  These are arenas in which carefully selected members of the public meet for extended time periods, consider evidence and interact with experts before presenting their views.  These processes have their roots in democratic and political theory based on the normative principle that citizens should be able to participate in reflective and informed discussions about key policy questions that affect them before reaching decisions on the way forward. Deliberation is also often correlated to changes in participant opinion and is thought to positively impact civic competencies, such as propensity to vote[5].


  1. Common formats for deliberation include Citizen’s Assemblies, Juries, Public Dialogues and Deliberative Polls and are pursued alongside otherwise representative forms of democracy[6].  More recently, the use of deliberative methods in social research has increased and is focused on the provision of information to explore public attitudes and their underlying drivers and values.  There are also an increasing range of examples of their use in government departments and across devolved administrations which show the role they are playing.  Just in the last few years at NatCen for example, we have delivered or are working on:


  1. These cases sit alongside many others including those supported via government’s Sciencewise[10] programme, which provides co-funding, expert advice and guidance to government bodies who wish to commission deliberative public dialogue. Focused on policy development in scientific and technological innovation, it has now supported over 50 projects.


  1. It is also the case that deliberation is playing a role for a range of non-governmental institutions in increasingly diverse areas including on for example the economy, bioethics, housing, trade policy and the research and development sector.  What these efforts help point to is an opportunity to grow the evidence base, support and capacity to increase our use of deliberation, producing insights relevant to government and practice and experience on which to draw from.


  1. Evidence about the benefits, costs and circumstances under which a range of different methods can add value to UK policy and decision making is not particularly well joined up and efforts to implement deliberative approaches on policy questions are similarly uneven. This is in part due to the wide range of ways in which these approaches can be designed and used as well as a lack of awareness about their potential and effect.  There are opportunities to strengthen and programme cross-government practice.


  1. Many existing examples of public engagement with government tend to be department and policy issue specific, rather than say areas identified for scrutiny through public views, preferences or ideas.  They are also quite often tackling topics that relate to policy under development now, rather than supporting long-term thinkingThere are of course exceptions which might demonstrate new possibilities, such as the Nature & Us Citizen’s Assembly commissioned by Natural Resources Wales – which brought 40 people met as part of a programme to support a national conversation about the natural environment and develop a vision for how the country’s citizens should relate to their natural environment by 2050[11].  In the current parliament, the Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission would be one such example of a relevant opportunity; and one which the Citizens Convention on UK Democracy[12] has developed proposals for.


  1. This inquiry offers a timely opportunity to consider a more imaginative and nuanced approach to public engagement for strategic thinking with clear internal architecture that can create ‘docking in points’ for these efforts and better underscore the value, awareness, capability and coordination of doing so. Taking such a view also provides a framework to consider questions about the purpose and format of deliberation in relation to achieving a range of possible outcomes, as well as where this might be sited in government. This could include for example:


  1. Maximising the benefits and significance of deliberation would also benefit from an agenda of experimentation.  All methods have benefits and limitations, and bringing citizen engagement into the strategic thinking space will bring with it the need for capability building and to determine how things can be best done. Issues such as scale, inclusion, cost and mode are all relevant to deliberation and are areas that continue to develop.  For example, we are currently working alongside global leaders in this field including Professor Jim Fishkin at Stanford University on a series of experiments on the use of Artificial Intelligence to support deliberation at national scales. There are an increasing number of experts in the UK and further afield who can be brought together along with the tools, know-how and flexibility to explore these possibilities further.


  1. Our experience to date tells us that using deliberative approaches directly engages citizens and gives them access to the debates and information that shapes and affects their lives; giving them an opportunity to have a meaningful say also delivers on democratic principles.  The public are ready to participate and grapple with complex issues relating to our futures and that their views and aspirations are sometimes, but not always aligned with those in power, makes it even more important that their voices are heard and can contribute.

I would be pleased to be available to the Liaison Sub-Committee through further evidence or via a personal briefing to expand on any of these suggestions and the practicalities of achieving deliberative engagement between citizens and government in support of long-term and strategic thinking.


Dr Ceri Davies

Director, Centre for Deliberation

National Centre for Social Research



[3] Public Administration Select Committee, Second Report of Session 2013–14, Public engagement in policy-making. HC 75 [incorporating HC 663-i-iii, Session 2012-13]

[4] Ibid. page 5

[5] See for example: Newton, K. and Geissel, B. eds., (2012). Evaluating democratic innovations: Curing the democratic malaise? And Fishkin, J., (2009). When the people speak: Deliberative democracy and public consultation. Oup Oxford.






[11] .  In the devolved Welsh context is it worth noting the likely influence of the Well-Being of Future Generations Act on these more strategic long-term agendas.



[14] Equally we could look to recent work in the Scottish Parliament and the work of their Citizen Participation and Public Petition Committee (CPPPC) for some bold new ideas on how public participation could be embedded in government.