Meet the winner: Philipp Verpoort
Philipp Verpoort is a PhD student in Physics at Trinity Hall, who has recently won a Vice-Chancellor’s Social Impact Award.
Since 2018, Philipp has been highly committed to implementing a Citizen’s Assembly in Cambridge, to involve the wider community on decision making processes related to transport.
His nominator highlighted how impressed he was with Philipp’s efforts:
“Philipp was involved through the entire GCP Citizens’ Assembly project, from pitching the idea to the GCP, helping to acquire government funding (£60k), and sitting on the advisory board that helped shape the format and content of the assembly meetings. He is now writing an article for an expert journal to report on the process and its outcomes.”
Explaining his work in more detail, Philipp said:
“For the past two years, I have worked on a citizens’ assembly project in Cambridge. I have done so as part of the Sortition Foundation, an organisation working towards better engaging citizens on policy making across the UK.
As a result of my work, the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) convened a citizens’ assembly to give people living and working in Cambridge the chance to have a say on what Cambridge’s transport system of the future should be. The assembly happened in 2019 and its outcomes will help set the agenda of GCP’s transport planning for the next few years.
GCP is currently under pressure to make difficult decisions on what measures to introduce to reduce congestion in the city, and thus wanted to consult people affected by those measures. They had tried other forms of engagement, such as polls and focus groups but these were unable to truly engage a wide and diverse range of people from the area.
On the contrary, GCP’s citizens’ assembly included people who normally would not engage with community consultations, and therefore it allowed GCP to understand the priorities of the wider population in ways none of their previous consultations did. This was because of the way in which the assembly was designed: attendees were chosen through stratified random selection, similar to how first democracies in ancient Athens worked.” “I was involved in the citizens’ assembly project throughout: I pitched the initial idea to Rachel Stopard (GCP’s Chief Executive), I helped GCP obtain the required governmental funding (£60k) through the Innovating Local Democracy Programme, and I sat on the advisory board of the citizens’ assembly to help with key issues around design and communication.
The citizens’ assembly has benefited the Cambridge community in many ways:
First of all, the assembly will finally deliver workable solutions to reduce congestion and improve public transport. It has been clear for many years that measure will need to be put into place to prevent Cambridge from suffering a traffic collapse. Yet, the controversy around any possible measure arising from the unpopularity of road access restrictions and the fear of adversely affecting people with low income has so far resulted in effectively no progress on those urgent matters. The citizens’ assembly will give the GCP board a mandate to act decisively, and make choices in the interest of the wider public while ensuring more vulnerable groups will not be affected too strongly.
Secondly, the Greater Cambridge citizens’ assembly allowed for a more democratic decision making that involved people who are normally left out of the picture. Previously, politicians were afraid to make a call for a transport policy agenda, fearing the anger of the people and the media should they propose unpopular solutions. Local interest groups and individuals raised their concerns in ways that made them appear as if they represented the community, when actually they only made up a tiny fraction of a much larger and more diverse population in Cambridge. Most people on the contrary were not involved in (and probably were even entirely unaware of) those debates that could have had a huge impact on their future lives in Cambridge.
The assembly took the controversial issue of transport planning away from heated discussions between politicians and activists, and placed it into the hands of ‘everyday’ people. Involving citizens in such a way has not only lead to better transport planning but also allowed a more inclusive form of democracy through citizens’ participation. While the Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly was just a one-off example, the hope is that it will foster the use of participatory methods by local authorities in Cambridgeshire to build a more inclusive community that puts people — and not politicians, campaigns, parties and politicking — at the heart of decision making.
The Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly was the first of its kind funded by the government (through the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sports), and among the first citizens’ assemblies ever conducted in the UK. I think Cambridge should be proud of that achievement and build up on that success.”
More information about the Citizens’ Assembly can be found here: