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One of our most important tasks has been to hold a 'national conversation’ with the citizens of Wales about how they see the future of their nation.
This was an ambitious exercise, especially in the current political climate where many citizens feel disconnected from their elected representatives, along with the pandemic restrictions at the start of our inquiry. We took a multi-modal approach that sought to engage citizens where they are, going to them as well as inviting them to come to us.
We provided a platform to talk to us through several different mediums. We went to those who would not normally choose to engage proactively with a commission such as this: we went to shopping centres, to days out such as family fun days and food festivals, to high streets, and to community centres. We reached out to those who face structural barriers in making their voices heard. We established citizens’ panels to hear views from across Wales, from those who are politically engaged with strong opinions to those who have not formed views on constitutional matters before now. We have supported new quantitative research into people’s views on how Wales is governed and their aspirations for the future.
Taken together, this has given us an insight into how citizens view government and their relationship to government. It has shown us what the people of Wales, and the wider UK, think about the Union and Wales’ place within it. Most importantly, it has shown us their aspirations for the future of their nation.
Giving people a direct line to the commission
From early in the commission’s work, we kept an open line to citizens to tell us what they think and what matters to them.
In March 2022 we opened Dweud eich Dweud: Have your Say, a web-based survey which asked open questions about what matters to citizens, what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of the current system, and how they feel about different governance models. This included contact details to send free-form responses by email or by post, if people wanted to tell us something that did not fit the structure of the survey, and the option to upload video or audio messages.
Over 2,500 people responded to the Dweud eich Dweud: Have your Say survey. We discussed the views expressed in those responses in the interim report. Dweud eich Dweud: Have your Say gave us a valuable insight into the priorities of those who responded, but there were limitations to the data we received. This led us to creating other channels for engagement and for understanding citizens views, shaping the broader conversation we have had in the past year.
One message from Dweud eich Dweud: Have your Say is that people were keen to have their say on constitutional reform, but felt that they did not have the information they need to engage meaningfully. In response, in April 2023, we set up the online engagement platform, which asked people specific questions about possible options for constitutional reform. Importantly, it also included information about devolution and governance, blogs on topical aspects of governance, and a moderated comment and chat function so that people could ask questions and get answers, as well as communicate points that did not fit the survey questions. We received 1,025 separate responses through the online engagement platform, as well as numerous comments and emails (there were over 15,600 hits on the online engagement platform website, where visitors could access information about Wales’ governance system and options for governance in the future as well as having the option to submit a survey response).
Clearly, the views we heard through both of our online surveys are self-selecting. Respondents contributed due to personal motivation and commitment, not because they had been selected to be representative of the views of people in Wales generally. It would therefore be misleading to present a quantitative analysis of the preferences expressed in these responses as representative of ‘what Wales wants’. However, responses to our online surveys gave us valuable insights into what the respondents think about constitutional reform.
We learnt that there are citizens who have given deep thought to the future constitution of Wales and are actively engaged in the process of reform. We wanted to get their insights and better understand what they know, their aspirations and expectations.
There are other citizens who are passionate about improving their nation and the quality of life for those who live here, but may not think about it in terms of governance and constitutional reform. We wanted to learn about their priorities and aspirations for Wales.
There are also citizens who are frustrated by the direction the country is taking, who feel that their voices are not being heard. We wanted to hear what they are unhappy about, what they feel is going wrong and what they feel would redress these issues.
Hearing the views of those who are often unheard
One drawback of both of our online surveys is that they required people to seek out such channels and respond through a digital medium. Self-selecting methods depend on respondents knowing about the commission’s work. We made extensive use of promotion channels, but to reach everyone in Wales in a 2-year period would have required considerably more resources than were available to us.
While many prefer to respond online, this method does not reach those who are not active on social media or similar platforms, and is of no use to anyone digitally excluded.
Another flaw of self-selecting communication methods is that they do not reach those who, for whatever reason, do not wish to engage. This can include those who face structural barriers to engagement, be that language, education, technology, disability. Some people may simply not be interested or believe that their views are not valued.
To overcome these barriers, we tried to bring the commission to people directly. We commissioned Cazbah to run pop-up engagement events at 26 different sessions across Wales (Cazbah is a Wales-based, bilingual marketing and event management company with extensive experience of managing public engagement roadshow events, specifically in areas relating to skills, careers, education, health and government).These were located at the heart of communities where we could reach people as they went about their day; at shopping centres and supermarkets, at summer family fun days run by local councils, at community centres and on high streets. Over the summer of 2023 this reached 3,545 people, of whom 2,327 completed a short survey (this survey was a different, shorter, survey than that hosted on the online engagement platform and was closer in structure to the Dweud eich Dweud: Have your Say) to express the values they thought were important for a future Wales, and 600 gave their email addresses to receive further information on the work of the commission.
Additionally, we wanted to hear from those who have characteristics that are underrepresented in the general population, and to understand how their experiences and needs have shaped their views of constitutional change. Population-weighted, balanced, representative research can include some of those perspectives, but the views of smaller groups can get overshadowed by the wider population in the aggregate analysis.
To address this, we launched the Community Engagement Fund. The purpose of this fund was to enable groups from more marginalised communities to gather and reflect the views of their community to the commission. 42 groups bid for up to £5,000 in funding. We were able to fund 11 organisations across Wales between October 2022 and January 2023. A final report was received by May 2023. The full list of groups who received funding is listed in appendix 7 – Citizens’ Voices.
The method of communication can be a barrier to this kind of participation. Often, responses are expected in writing, using formal or professional language. This can exclude people who cannot comfortably express themselves in formal written English or Welsh. We offered groups maximum flexibility in how they engaged and reported back to us. There was some overlap in the demographics that each group reached, but each report took a different approach and contributed a different perspective. The reports took a range of forms including poetry, rap, music, creative writing, visual arts, and photography, alongside more traditional written summary reports.
By enabling people to tell us in their own words what matters to them about governance, we gained valuable insights on experience of government, governance and constitutional reform from people who are seldom heard on these topics. This revealed information about priorities, about conceptions of government and the role of the citizen, and aspirations for the future that would not have reached us through less targeted methods.
Hearing the views of the whole of Wales and beyond
The engagement methods discussed above gave us some rich qualitative information on the views of citizens, based on self-selecting or targeted responses. We wanted to complement this with qualitative and quantitative data, both from Wales and reflecting perspectives from the wider UK too. We did this in 2 ways.
Firstly, we commissioned Beaufort Research to run a series of deliberative citizens’ panels and a pan-Wales survey. Secondly, we partnered with Professor Richard Wyn Jones at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and Professor Ailsa Henderson at the University of Edinburgh on their 2023 State of the Union research.
We set up 8 citizens’ panels to consider constitutional options in different locations across Wales. This strand of work was undertaken by Beaufort Research who have extensive experience in this field, enabling us to access a wider range of participants than we could have found ourselves.
These were deliberative sessions rather than focus groups. They followed the principles of deliberative process: giving balanced information, supporting discussions and enabling participants to reach informed decisions. We discuss the value of deliberative mechanisms in chapter 3.
Each panel was made up of 16 people selected to reflect a broad cross section of the population of Wales in terms of age, gender, political views, socio-economic background, rural/ urban residency, disability, Welsh speakers, LGBTQ+, life stages (e.g. parents with young children, people who are leaving education, retired people, etc.), disability, ethnicity, and perceived knowledge and interest in the constitution. Out of a total of 128 citizens invited to participate in the panels (16 per panel, with 8 panels taking place across Wales), 127 took part in the first stage and 121 people took part in the second stage. Less than full attendance was anticipated, due to factors such as sickness, lack of childcare, work patterns and so on.
Each panel met twice. The first time, participants talked generally about government and governance, and about their priorities for government in Wales. Next, members of the panels took part in a period of online engagement, designed to increase their knowledge and awareness in preparation for the second deliberative stage of face-to-face discussions. This generated good levels of engagement with over 1,150 posts on the platform in total (excluding polling questions). This stage also gave participants the chance to ask questions and receive information in response, which was provided during the second panel meetings
The panels then met again, this time to consider specific options for constitutional reform.
Participants were presented with balanced information about how Wales is currently governed and the different options for the future. Then they were asked to reflect on, discuss, and come to their own assessment of the constitutional options. Participants sometimes reached a different conclusion by the end of the final session than when they began the process, demonstrating the impact that information, discussion and thinking space had had on their views.
This part of the national conversation was valuable for telling us what citizens think now, and how their views sometimes changed after discussing with their peers and receiving information about how government works and constitutional reform.
In between the citizens panel sessions, Beaufort Research conducted a survey on constitutional reform with a representative sample of 1,596 members of the Welsh adult population aged 16+ through a combination of online and telephone research. Quotas were set for gender, age and social class and adjusted by data weighting to ensure that the sample was as fully representative as possible of the Welsh adult population.
The State of the Union research
Any significant constitutional reform for Wales would have implications for other parts of the UK. To support our discussions on the future of Wales, we wanted to get quantitative evidence on the views of citizens across the UK. To get this 360-degree view from all 4 parts of the UK, we partnered with staff at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and the University of Edinburgh on their 2023 State of the Union research. They have regularly surveyed a representative population in each nation of the UK on constitutional issues since 2011, tracking changes over time. Partnering with them enabled us to include new questions, tailored to the work of the Commission.
This research gave us invaluable new insights into the views of people in Wales and across the UK. It stimulated our thinking on how constitutional change in one part of the UK could impact on changes, and perceptions of potential change, in other parts, and how citizens’ views both align and differ across the nations.
Publicising the commission’s work
The second strand was bringing our work to the attention of people living in Wales and beyond. At the start of our work in 2022, opportunities to engage were constrained by the last phase of Covid restrictions. Once these were lifted, we made the most of meeting people in-person, as well as online. Commissioners attended both national and local events, including taking part in sessions run through the Community Engagement Fund. A full list of these events is set out in appendix 7 – Citizens’ voices.
It was a priority to ensure that opportunities to hear about the cxommission and its work were offered across the whole of Wales. The Cazbah roadshow landed in all 22 local authorities, sometimes on more than one occasion.
The citizens panels were geographically representative, with each held in a different part of Wales. Appendix 7 sets out the locations of the panels and the Cazbah roadshow visits.
The online engagement platform had a facility to record where people accessing the platform lived (respondents provided the first 4 digits of their postcode to give us their location data). This enabled us to monitor survey responses by geographical area and target communications towards areas we had not heard from as much as others.
What we learned from the national conversation
Much of what we learned informed the findings set out in the chapters that follow. The general messages from the conversation were:
1. Levels of understanding of the UK’s constitutional set-up are low, and most people do not feel informed enough to contribute to the debate about changing it
This finding has 2 aspects: how informed people are about the constitutional arrangements of their country (a general baseline of knowledge), and how informed people feel they are (citizens’ confidence in their own understanding). These 2 aspects are linked, but different, and have a different impact on citizens’ ability to engage with the debate on constitutional reform.
The national conversation has confirmed what has long been thought: people in Wales (and in the wider UK) generally have a low level of understanding of how they are governed. Even those who were motivated to respond to us directly through our online surveys frequently demonstrated misunderstandings about the devolved responsibilities and how governments take decisions.
In the citizens’ panels, many started from a position of ‘don’t know’ when asked about their preferences for the 3 options. Some did not feel confident in selecting an option even after having the opportunity to learn, discuss and consider preferences. It must be noted that this is based on the qualitative data stage, and is not statistically significant, but does give an indication of the challenges citizens’ face in discussing constitutional futures.
Citizens panels and constitutional options
Question: Looking ahead, which is best for Wales?
- Devolution strengthened and secured
- Federal structure
- Something else
- Don't know
Graph taken from 2023 Beaufort Research report (Concluding deliberative qualitative research findings: views on the Commission’s three preferred options for Wales, Beaufort Research, 2023)
When members of our citizens’ panels were asked which government was responsible for what, the majority identified most subjects correctly except for policing and broadcasting which they thought were devolved matters (Concluding deliberative qualitative research findings: views on the commission’s 3 preferred options for Wales, Beaufort Research, 2023). But in the quantitative survey carried out by Beaufort Research, significant minorities got it wrong – a third thought that benefits are devolved, and just under a third thought that health policy in Wales is the responsibility of the UK government (Gathering public views on potential options for Wales’s constitutional future: Quantitative survey findings summary, Beaufort Research, 2023). Data from a similar survey by Beaufort Research in 2013 suggests that levels of knowledge have not increased (ibid), despite a decade of expanding Senedd legislation and the heightened visibility of the Welsh Government during the Covid pandemic.
What also emerged from the national conversation is that people’s confidence in their knowledge seems even lower than their understanding would suggest. For example, in the State of the Union research, when citizens were asked about where they stood on the spectrum of parliamentary sovereignty as opposed to shared sovereignty with national governments, one of the most popular answers in all four parts of the UK was ‘don’t know’.
Graph from 2023 State of the Union research (Henderson, A., Jones, R. W., 2023, Public attitudes towards the constitutional future of the UK: Analysis from the 2023 State of the Union Survey, Wales Governance Centre and University of Edinburgh)
Both in the citizens’ panels and in several of the Community Engagement Fund reports, many participants started by saying that they did not know anything about how Wales was run (and a few added that they did not care). However, when pressed, or asked about their views in the context of public services, many revealed a much higher level of understanding about Welsh governance than they acknowledged.
The generally low levels of knowledge and understanding, even among those who are politically engaged, is striking. It is not unique to Wales, but it is a problem that undermines confidence in democratic institutions at each level of government. When the UK government intervenes on devolved matters, this adds to confusion. Citizens are uncertain about who is making decisions on their behalf even on subjects of great importance to them, like health services.
The cumulative effect is that people are disengaged, are not aware of the influence they could have in the current system and are unaware of the options for change.
2. In general, citizens are interested in constitutional reform, but may not express that interest in those terms. Many citizens frame their views on constitutional reform in terms of immediate priorities rather than in abstract terms.
When asked about their overarching priorities, people often rank constitutional change below matters such as the NHS, education, and other public services (The economy and inflation remain the country’s biggest concerns, closely followed by the NHS).
The work of Beaufort Research suggests that it would be a mistake to interpret this as ‘citizens are not interested in the subject of how Wales is run, and therefore government should concentrate on other priorities.’
When citizens are asked about their interest in how Wales is run, without reference to technical terms about governance, 81% of those surveyed across Wales say they are very or fairly interested. This figure is fairly consistent across all demographic groups and political affiliations (the outlier is non-voters – 62% - Gathering public views on potential options for Wales’s constitutional future: Quantitative survey findings summary, Beaufort Research, 2023) .
We have also seen that when given the opportunity to get involved in the debate, people are keen to make the most of that opportunity. We received over 5,900 responses to our online surveys. The attrition rate of members of the citizens’ panels was extremely low and attendance was high, even at the second stage panels held on sunny summer evenings, though some of this attendance can be attributed to participants being paid for their time
When we asked people what matters to them, they told us about their values and policy priorities for government action. These varied widely, including climate change, social justice, efficient delivery of public services and many more. The consistent message is that people care about having a voice in these decisions. Often, they are not satisfied with the decisions made on their behalf and want a greater voice in government.
When asked about options for constitutional change the people we engaged with, both self-selecting and those who contributed through the quantitative research surveys and citizens’ panels, were able to give clear views about governance models, what they perceive as benefits and drawbacks, and their preferences for the future.
People do not generally conceive of governance in abstract terms, they think about its direct impact on the life of communities and individuals in Wales. They may not have a fixed view about what would be best for Wales: what they want is an efficient, effective system of government that delivers the policies that they support, with high quality public services that meets their needs.
People may not want to engage in the debate on constitutional change if it appears to be divorced from the concerns of daily life, but they care deeply about how their country is governed and want their voices to be heard.
3. Many people conflate questions about constitutional structures with judgements on the actions of the government of the day.
Many citizens do not distinguish between the actions of a government and the governance structures within which it operates. In the citizens’ panels people talked about service provision rather than sovereignty or autonomy. In discussing governance, people talked about corruption and poor use of public funding (this view was most prominently shared in the online survey responses and the Community Engagement Fund reports, and to a certain extent in the citizens’ panels).
Similarly, the reports from Community Engagement Fund groups noted that participants talked about government in terms of the services it provides. In many of these reports, participants described their relationship to government as service user to service provider. The quality of the service, and its suitability for their needs and preferences is how they gauge the performance of the government.
This delivery-based view of government, combined with a low level of knowledge about local and national structures, means that, for many people, their views on governance derive from their experience of government policy and performance. For example, the most common reasons given by respondents who support independence related to disaffection with the actions of the current UK government. Conversely, many of those arguing for less devolution, or abolition of the devolved institutions, did so because they object to the policies of the Welsh Government or felt that services in Wales are not good enough (this was observed in responses to the online surveys).
4. Identity and political affiliation have an impact on what people see as the way forward
If people see the government in power and national governance structures as one and the same, it is not surprising that their political affiliation affects their governance preferences.
In the interim report we noted a polarisation of views expressed by citizens, aligned to their constitutional preferences.
The citizens’ panels research gives an insight into how different characteristics affect people’s experiences of devolution, and views of the best constitutional future for Wales.
54% think the current system of government for Wales works very or fairly well, 43% that it does not. Younger people are more positive compared to older cohorts (but the differences are small).
Effectiveness of Welsh governance
Effectiveness and party affiliation
Conservative and Reform UK supporters, those who did not support a political party, and those who supported other parties from the options offered were less satisfied with how the current system of government in Wales works, whereas supporters of the other listed parties are significantly more positive about the current system of government.
Views expressed to us in the Welsh language were almost entirely in favour of greater autonomy, often more in favour of the EU and likely to support policies that promoted societal goals (tackling poverty, minority rights, environmental measures). Conversely, the minority who told us that they were Welsh speakers but chose to respond in English were generally against greater autonomy, and often objected to how the Welsh Government promoted the Welsh language (this was observed in the online survey responses and to an extent in some of the Community Engagement Fund reports).
Views on options for constitutional reform
Drawing these strands of the national conversation together showed us that:
- on balance, the majority of people in Wales support devolution, and many would favour greater autonomy, though their aspirations vary on the extent of that greater autonomy.
- Wales in a federal UK is an attractive aspiration for some. Federalism can take many forms and no existing version appears to be self-evidently right for the UK. It becomes less attractive when the practicalities of implementing a functioning federation across the UK are discussed.
- support for independence and for abolition of the devolved institutions are currently minority, but strongly held, views. Support for each has grown significantly over the past few years. The growth in support of these positions appears to reflect a higher level of political polarisation in the population at large.
We explore these views in more detail in later chapters.
Taking diverse approaches, designed to engage with as many people as possible, has given us a rich and detailed perspective on the views of citizens in Wales.
We succeeded in reaching many people through cost- effective methods, but there are still significant gaps in our engagement: 18 months is not long enough to hold a comprehensive national conversation. We were not able to hear from representatives of all communities across Wales. We began to engage with communities representing D/deaf, blind and partially sighted people and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in particular. Important steps were made, with thanks to third party organisations working with us, but the time needed to overcome barriers and enable them to participate fully was not available to us. A national conversation needs to be continuous and long term, over years rather than months, to build on and develop the start we have made.
In the next chapter we consider how to respond to these issues by revitalising democracy in Wales.