A one-day deliberative event convened by UK non-profit Model Westminster to allow youth ages 19-21 to debate proposed reforms to the education system. The views and opinions voiced throughout the event were collated into a report presented to the British Cabinet.
Problems and Purpose
Model Westminster organized a dialogue between members of its organization and policy makers in the Department of Education to debate and collaborate on educational reform. By bringing young, politically active people into the policy making process, Model Westminster hoped to reverse the longstanding disregard for young people in British politics.
Background History and Context
The UK political establishment has historically neglected the views and wants of younger demographics, causing low young-voter turn out in elections. In the 2010 elections, only 44% of registered young people turned up to vote. In a 2014 report based on survey data, young people expressed low trust and confidence in politicians and two thirds of respondents stated that they did not believe politicians were interested in the issues that matter to young people. As with any demographic, a low rate of civic engagement among a country's youth causes government policy to be out of touch and unrepresentative of the demographic's needs.
By 2014, the reduction in youth disengagement had become imperative to the health and longevity of British democracy. However, new forms of participation were needed to get young people involved as the existing system of 4-year election cycles was broken. With the vote only being given to people 18 and above, 16-17-year olds have very little say in the way they’re governed and yet they are affected by many legislative and policy decisions. Bringing 16-21 year olds into a new, direct form participatory democracy was not out of the question. Indeed, similar processes like select committees where panels of experts and informed citizens are brought in to debate and discuss policy have been used to influence British policy in the past. As well, the European Youth Parliament has been a long running initiative that involves over 50,000 young people in the European Parliament, decentralising power to younger people to increase representation with considerable success. While the process of participation is different between those two examples, the European Youth Parliament is similar to that of Model Westminster and thus provided a viable method of youth participation in the UK.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Model Westminster was founded by independent start-up creator Fifi Kara dedicated to “breaking down the barriers between young people and politics and engaging the next generation of British citizens in the democratic process”. MP and former Secretary of State Sir Vince Cable is the key sponsor of the initiative. Along with cross-party endorsements from MPs up and down the country. It is a voluntary based initiative and independent from Government but sponsored and facilitated by top Government officials and departments. The organisation however, remains bipartisan and open to all views and political beliefs allowing a free and open debate process at each event. The organisers run each event from a facilitator roll allowing open “talks, games, debates and group work, designed to demystify politics and policy making." As an organisation there are also advisory boards which includes a Youth Advisory Board that consist of 15-25-year olds. Further decentralising decision making to younger people.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
At the Education Reform event, participants were young people with an interest in politics from many different backgrounds. Participants were recruited through schools, colleges, university societies, word of mouth and online. Focusing on politically interested and informed young people wanting to be involved in the democratic process. Events run by the Model Westminster organization are not intended to engage all young people but, rather, to allow 'informed', politically active young people advise government policy. This is similar to the Schumpeterian approach to participation where the informed and interested participating in this process rather than the whole society. However, the application and selection process is open to all - with all young people from every sector of society encouraged to apply and partake in each event. Applications are made either online or through a local Model Westminster ambassador at your respective school or university. Participants apply due to their own interests in politics, the democratic process and wanting to contribute towards better policy affecting themselves and their peers.
Methods and Tools Used
The initiative used a mixed methodology to promote scrutiny and debating through “talks, games, debates and group work." The event as a whole did not follow one method but a selection of participatory interactions, granting all participants the ability to have their view heard and acknowledged through different activities. This enabled the inclusion of young people in the formulation of government policy relevant to them but also further helped promote democracy on more local levels by focusing on democratic innovations within the education system.
The process roughly reflected Thematic Dialogue Tables with roughly 30 participants in groups of 5-6 working together. The form of discussion was comparable to parliamentary debate where each attendee is given time to present their point and allow a response from other members.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Participant interaction was direct; there were no electives or represent and participants voiced their own opinions through a process of deliberation and mediation. Deliberation predominantly took the form of face-to-face debates over specific topics in which each group was given their own time to speak and convey their view. The process followed four steps:
- In groups of approximately 30 individuals, participants collectively debated ways to improve the quality of General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and A-Level subjects
- Participants were introduced to the changes proposed by government
- Again, working in their groups, participants were asked to formulate ways to improve democracy within schools and communities on a local level, and to improve the relationship between teacher and student
- Participants were then given statistics and fact sheets and instructed to sketch practical scenarios to convey their views
Throughout all discussion the independent conveners took down notes of what was said by all parties. At the end of the day, the final report was collated by the 10 independent conveners taking into account the key points raised and the general consensus concluded at the end of each of the exercises.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The initiative has been and continues to be a very successful way of getting politically interested students engaged with real life politics – as shown by the large number of MP endorsements, continuation of events and growing influence. This form of participation includes various theoretical forms of participatory democracy: The Education Reform initiative shows signs of Schumpeterian ideals of democratic participation as this form of participation only includes those who are politically knowledge and have an interest and understanding of the matter, excluding those who did not wish to be involved due to lack of knowledge, interest or general incompetency with British politics. However, Pateman’s view on democracy would also concur with aspects of the initiative as MW includes young people whom are normally excluded from other main forms of participation such as elections or referendums.
Furthermore, Model Westminster is also comparable to Athenian Democracy in the way decisions are made as it shows elements of pure democracy where everyone partaking has a say and the ability influence the decision-making process – albeit not all of society, only those who through the application process are eligible to partake. Specifically, for the Education Reform event, the initiative not only influenced government policy but also helped form ideas on how to increase democratic innovation on local levels in schools – increasing the effect of the initiative further than just central government. However, how much cabinet took this into account in their formation of policy regarding changes to British education is uncertain. The extent to which the conclusions gathered and opinions voiced throughout the event made it into definite Government legislation is unknown but one can assume from the high quality of discussion and points gathered throughout the event, the government ministers would have been likely to take much of it into account when deciding future policy changes to the British education system.
Analysis and Lesson Learned
After each Model Westminster event, a short summary is published by the organization on their website including an overview of the activities, members and staff involved throughout the event. Because these events are purely matters of debate and consultation, it is difficult to measure their success in terms of concrete policy outcomes. The final summary written during the event is submitted to the Parliamentary Cabinet and is not publicly available so it is hard to know what influence it had on government officials.
What can be judged, however, is how well the event performed as a case of deliberative democracy. In hindsight, many things worked well with other minor aspects needing improving. It appears to have demonstrated its viability as new, potentially permanent, channel of participation to bring young people into politics. The Education Reform event was facilitated to a very high standard both by the qualified staff present and by the Department for Education where it was held, allowing high quality debate and discussion on serious topics affecting many people. Furthermore, there was a very diverse representation of types of people and political views at the event which helps lead to broader more representative policy recommendations. However, small scale direct forms of participation can lead to issues where participants have the potential to make unreflective decisions due to personalities and non-relevant factors with other members involved. In this case, we can see that in the group work environment, members of the group who have personal traits to speak up and/or other group members will have more influence. This was mediated by the conveners between groups but inter-group-dynamics are much harder to control. This issue however, is very hard to avoid when dealing with small scale participatory methods. On the whole, the decisions and discussions were very representative of all participants with everyone involved being satisfied with outcomes. The participants could be seen to be enjoying the debate whilst retaining a serious and professional composure to all activities set.
Looking at changes that could be made, it is hard to compare it to other initiatives as it is unique in its methods and organisation but one could focus on the accessibility of participation. As the event was held in the Department for Education in London, it could restrict the ability of some eligible participants to take part. If there were many of these events held across the UK in many cities it could increase the geographical representation of the initiative.
Model Westminster events such as the debate on education reform can tell us a lot about participatory democratic innovations when done right. It highlights the need for good mediation rolls within small scale deliberation and decision making. Creating a space where conversation and ideas can flow freely without becoming irrelevant to the task at hand or unfair to certain members is key to participatory initiatives on this scale. Furthermore, using multiple methods such as the ones used in the Education Reform event allows the participants to engage in many different ways, enabling everyone to voice their opinion through different means. This can be transferrable to similar small participatory initiatives that may struggle including everyone in the decision making process.
 IPSOS, 2010. How Britain Voted in 2010. [Online] Available at: https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/how-britain-voted-2010. [Accessed 9 11 2017].
 Political Studies Association, 2014. Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission: Young People and Politics, s.l.: PSA. https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/PSA%20Beyond%20the%20YCC%20FINAL_0.pdf
 Model Westminster Website http://modelwestminster.org.uk/
MW Education Reform Round-up http://modelwestminster.org.uk/model-westminster-reform-event-roundup/