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Newsletter, March 2006

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What is a national debate?

The cynics say that calling for a national debate is the political response to any subject that is too hot to handle. "Let the people speak" is accompanied by a stifled mutter of "Let's hope it either goes away or takes so long that the next government gets landed with the decision".

It's been happening again. It's only just March and we've already had calls for national debates about new nuclear power stations, the role of the police, multiculturalism, and the need to find the right balance between freedom and security in a liberal democracy.

But how do we have a national debate about complex issues? Are the cynics right and it is just the ultimate diversionary tactic? Or could we really have large-scale, grown-up discussions about serious subjects?

We think it can be done; this is how.

  1. Start with information needs. Get people to a website where they can list the issues and suggest the questions that need answering. Those without access to the technology use freepost forms to be completed, asking for the same information, in public places such as libraries and community centres. You start here because people need to feel it is they - not the government, not the 'experts' - who call the shots.
  2. Collate the results - with the paper responses being scanned into the same database as the online responses. Use them to develop a set of demanding questions that really reflect what people are thinking.
  3. Recruit a panel of individuals ranging from academic experts through elected representatives and community leaders to 'ordinary people'. Put the questions to this panel and ask for concise, rigorous and well-informed responses. The purpose of this would be to broaden and deepen people's understanding of the issues. Display the responses on the website and publish selections in newspapers and newsletters. Point out areas of agreement and disagreement.
  4. Now let it rip. Well-informed people choose how to get involved: through commenting on the panel's responses, providing their own ideas, or participating in local workshops. Generate a ferment of opinion and comment.
  5. Publish the results: all of them online; highlights in papers and newsletters. Ask the powers that be for their reactions and conclusions.

This is a national debate: large numbers of well-informed people asking difficult questions and knowing the answers they receive - or don't receive - will be published.

Will it ever happen? Possibly not - but the next time you hear someone calling for a national debate do tell them to get in touch...


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