We recently invited Scott Butterfield, Strategy, Policy & Research Manager at Blackpool Council to join us for Transitions 2.0.

I'm Scott Butterfield, Blackpool Council’s, Strategy Policy & Research Manager. I'm here to talk about our climate assembly, which we ran with FutureGov, and the transition we had to make to digital delivery mode, given the pandemic.

To say a little bit about the climate emergency, as I'm sure a lot of you are aware, over 300 councils have now declared a climate emergency. In Blackpool, our ambition is around reducing carbon emissions to net-zero by 2030.

We've taken quite an ambitious approach. A lot of the declarations I've seen seem to be copy and paste, whereas ours goes a lot further around youth engagement, public involvement and really substantial building of community knowledge on these topics, which are obviously going to dominate social life over the next coming decades.

Bringing the community together

When it came to the assembly, we didn't want to delay due to the pandemic. We obviously recognise the benefits of face-to-face engagement but we also felt that there's an opportunity here to do something really positive. We wanted to bring people together when a lot of people were feeling perhaps isolated, staying at home or self-isolating.

We were clear that it needed to reflect the reality of Blackpool, our whole population. The idea of our assembly was to get a group of people together who were wholly representative, from deprived areas and also including those who were potentially digitally excluded. So aiming to be as inclusive as possible, but delivering entirely online because we didn't know at that time what the roadmap out of lockdown would look like.

In terms of the selection process, when we brought FutureGov in they recommended we go with the Sortition Foundation. They do a random sample approach with a very professional service around marketing and communicating to people using postal invitations.

The invite to residents for the climate assembly in Blackpool.

You can see that we did an incentive as well of £200 to get people to participate. That formed a random sample, making sure that we involved our deprived areas too. This gave us the proportions of age group, sex, location and all those other factors to genuinely have as close to a “mini Blackpool” as we can. Clearly, people are interested in this topic more than others. But nevertheless, we really wanted to go the extra mile there.

We also included a question on attitudes to climate change, which we deliberately worded to ask: ‘how much your views tended to represent those of the people around you’.

That way we were hoping to pick up both people who were sceptical and the people that might be on the activist end of the scale. Around about 15% of the people expressing an interest in participation said that their views differed from what they saw to be the norm. In total, we sent out 8,000 invitations which got 300 responses for 40 places in the assembly.

Making the assembly accessible and inclusive

In terms of anticipating needs, this was really big for us because of the inclusivity of the process. And shoutout to FutureGover Craig who did a really good job actually helping us through an equality impact assessment of what we needed to put in place.

We thought about easy reading materials, creating large print versions that were sent out. We organised the loan of ICT equipment, everybody had access to broadband but we were ready with dongles to give them wireless access if needed. We gave two of the 40 participants tablets and webcams, which was something I hadn't anticipated at all. They had the kit, but they just didn't have the video capability.

We gave them an introduction to using Zoom if they wanted one, led them through the technology, offered childcare payments and support where necessary. We were intending to open up libraries to those who weren't able to access equipment but clearly, circumstances prevented that. In the end, we didn't need any translation or sign in support but it was there ready to go if needed. We had clear points of contact, making sure that everybody knew who to speak to if they had any issues.

We chose a format which was four sessions of two and a half hours each, that worked really well. It felt about the right length of time, nobody seemed to lose interest towards the end. And we maintained a full attendance throughout, which is quite remarkable I think.

We took a series of inputs from national experts, but also we had the local dimension. That was really important in setting the context for Blackpool. Because one of the things that came out of our breakout discussions was some consideration of what we wanted the principles of the assembly to be. The people in Blackpool were really conscious first of all of the opportunity they'd had to learn about the issues, but also of the place they lived in being the most deprived local authority area in the country. They wanted it to be a just transition where this saw the need to help people, but also not to put too much onus on what people should be doing for themselves. It was very much there in the space of being collaborative on that. Finally, we brought the draft report together and emailed that around afterwards for input and comments from the participants.

In terms of feedback, we had 100% retention from start to finish. Everybody said that they got on okay with the technology. We also had seven participants providing details into the final report. And remarkably, one of these unintended consequences that I'll touch on in a moment, we had a full business case for a Blackpool forest proposal. Which for those of you that know, our local authority boundaries, know they’re quite tightly rounded. So that was an extremely interesting proposal that we're still debating the merits of internally.

Here's one of the fascinating things for me. We invited as one of the speakers an all-electric taxi firm in Blackpool, which I suppose goes into the heritage of Britain's first electric tramway. He took the opportunity to do some of his own marketing, promoting our climate emergency through the medium of leaflets in localities. Which I'd say didn't go down amazingly well with some of the taxi drivers and other companies. But it really did show the value of bringing people into that process and the impact that it had on them.

Slightly different unintended consequences which I was particularly heartened to hear was one gentleman who had access to technology but wasn't confident with it. We were able to get him to the point where he was sufficiently confident to say to us, ‘I can now talk to my grandchildren on Zoom’. During this time with everything that's going on, that was just such a boost to the team to know that we've made a real tangible difference to somebody's life.

Sharing our learnings

I’d like to round off by giving you some quick tips on how to run an assembly from our learning, and I think our colleagues at FutureGov would agree. Send postal invites at least three weeks in advance If you're doing Second Class post. We sent ours at the time when we were really at the peak of the pandemic. And we've had about 13 responses about two and a half weeks into the process. So we were all panicking with phone calls to the Royal Mail, it was a tense time. And then they all landed in one go and fortunately, we had the 300 applicants who really responded practically to that request. But it was a tense time for us.

Definitely build in time for onboarding and also chasing people before sessions. Between us, we all took a couple of people who hadn't actually shown up to the Zoom invite and made sure we got onto the phone and got them around because some people just genuinely forgot. And definitely promote a hybrid digital and in-person methodology, I think we would really like to get everybody together at the start and at the end, but other than that the tech works absolutely fine and really enabled the debate. I would also suggest you keep the ratio of facilitators and participants as low as possible to enable quality discussions. And finally, definitely behind the scenes have a Whatsapp group to deal with any tech or people issues. We did have one participant which, unfortunately, was quite disruptive. And that really enabled us to deal with them in an appropriate manner.

In terms of outcomes, we're not there yet. But we want to bring together with other evidence and science-based targets our internal action plan and best practice from elsewhere. It's really made us think about how we need to use our digital engagement in future on this and other topics.

We're now in the process with FutureGov of thinking through as a council, how we respond to this, what model of response do we want to take? Is it about big bang projects of nudging people towards positive behaviours? That's the debate we're having. And finally, we did a survey as well as part of the evidence base. And this is all part of where we need to go next on future climate assembly work. Thank you very much for your time.

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