Bristol Citizens’ Assembly

Today’s blog comes from Christine Betts, one of the members of Bristol’s first Citizens’ Assembly. She shares her reflections on taking part in the process in advance of the recommendations being published later this week.

Huge thanks to Christine and to all 60 assembly members for giving up their time to consider how Bristol can recover from COVID-19 and create a better future for all who live, work and study in the city. The recommendations will be shared publicly later this week and will then be presented to Cabinet and the One City Boards for consideration.

Back in the anxious days of November 2020 I was surprised to receive a letter saying that I had been randomly selected for consideration as a member of Bristol’s first Citizens’ Assembly and inviting me to indicate whether I would be interested in taking part.  I had heard of Citizens’ Assemblies in other contexts and, feeling somewhat disillusioned with parliamentary democracy, felt that they might offer an important alternative forum for difficult ideas and decisions to be examined in a less highly charged atmosphere away from party politics.  So I confirmed that I would like to be considered – and then forgot about it. 

By mid-December when I was told that I had in fact been selected as an Assembly member, pandemic anxiety levels were even higher and continuing lockdowns loomed on the horizon.  The prospect of discussing the challenges facing our city with a wide range of people that I would normally never meet was intriguing.   Such a shame that it was all going to be on Zoom – no meeting up in City Hall with opportunities to chat to other Assembly members between sessions over tea (and biscuits?). 

The actual process has been demanding.  Zoom sessions of two and a half hours, even with short breaks, are draining.  We were provided with huge amounts of detailed and fascinating information from a range of different speakers and then plunged into discussions in breakout rooms to exchange views with complete strangers. 

We started with agreeing “conversation guidelines” – over a long career I wished I’d had a pound for every training day that started with agreeing “the ground rules”!  In fact, contrary to my expectations, we never really had any heated debate.  All the Assembly members I came across were assertive but positive and respectful. 

Our groups were indeed representative of all the different sections of Bristol society and everyone came up with interesting ideas.  Sometimes we wondered how realistic those ideas might be but certainly within the groups that I worked with, we felt that we should be ambitious and radical given the massive and urgent challenges facing our city.

I was impressed with the organisation of all four weekends.  Everyone will be aware of the limitations of Zoom and I sometimes longed for the simplicity of a flip chart as I peered at the screen.  However, the facilitators did a great job keeping everything going to schedule, keeping us all informed and capturing our ideas in accessible form.  

I fell in love with Bristol as a student in the sixties.  Although I lived elsewhere after graduating, I leapt at the chance to return to the city in 1980 and have been a proud Bristolian ever since.  I’m retired now but for many years I worked as a lawyer for Avon County Council specialising in child protection, adult care and education so I have certainly been aware of the inequalities in our beautiful city.  I feel privileged to have been able to contribute to the Assembly’s mission of examining how Bristol can recover from Covid-19 and look forward to seeing how the Council and the One City partnership take our ideas forward.