Case study: The People's Panel

The People's Panel was a citizens' assembly made up of 5,000 members of the public, which aimed to act as a ‘sounding board' – providing ongoing feedback  of government policy. It was organised by the Labour Government from 1998 to 2002.

It was made up of a randomly selected group of individuals who were representative of the UK population in terms of age, gender, region and other demographic indicators.

There were some issues with recruitment leading to an imbalance in representation. Responsive members were more likely to be white, middle class, professional and activist. As a result of this, 830 extra members were recruited from ethnic minority groups to make the sample large enough to ensure that it was representative of the wider population and could be used for quantitative research.

The People's Panel operated differently from other assemblies, with the Panel used for in-depth interviews with individuals, focus groups and surveys rather than a one-off event. The Panel also considered a wide with consideration range of issues from i leaflets on genetically modified foods, to perceptions of ministerial involvement in the process of appointing civil servants.

The cost of the Panel was high, reaching around £4,000,000 a year by early 2001. Although generally seen as influential in demonstrating the value of establishing the views of citizens and the users of public services in policy-making and service delivery, the Panel was used for consultation rather than genuine decision making.

Lessons learned:

  • Responsive members are more likely to be white, middle class, professional and activist – great care must therefore be taken to ensure that the sampling is truly representative of the wider population in a devolution area.
  • An ongoing assembly leads to high costs and participant fatigue – it is important that definitive timescales are applied with a clear end-point,
  • The Panel was used as a consultation rather than making genuine decisions which served to undermine the importance of the body.

The general purpose of the Panel led to a lack of focus in the deliberations compared to Citizens' assemblies which discuss single issues in great depth.