The UK economy: Insights from the Bank of England’s Citizens’ Panels

A report from the chairs of the Bank of England’s regional citizens’ panels, which were held across the UK from late 2018 to early 2020. The report covers the main themes raised by panel members and reflections from the Bank of England’s Governors.
Published on 14 May 2020

Governors’ foreword

At the Bank of England, we are committed to being transparent, accountable, engaged and approachable. Central banks, like the Bank of England, have not always been good at communicating clearly or in an accessible way. But that is changing and we are transforming the way we communicate and engage to ensure we are better understood by the people we serve.

As part of these efforts, we have expanded our education and outreach programme to engage with a wider range of people. We want to be more aware of the issues that affect people, whatever their background and wherever they live in the UK. And our policies are more effective if they are understood by the people we serve. That is true whether you are a borrower or saver, homeowner or renter, business owner, worker or someone trying to find employment.

The Bank has developed a wide range of outreach initiatives in recent years, such as its Future Forum events and community forums. In November 2018, we also launched a series of citizens’ panels across the UK. Because to truly transform the way we communicate, we recognise that we need to listen more.

The citizens’ panels have enabled us to engage in a constructive dialogue with the public about the economy and the financial system. We got the chance to ask for your views, to listen to your stories and to learn how you feel about the economy – and about our work. This complements our existing, well-established network of regional Agents, who act as our ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ to connect us with local businesses and communities across the country.

At the panel events we were asked a lot of questions. Some of these related to the Bank’s formal responsibilities – maintaining monetary and financial stability in the UK – while others were wider ranging. People wanted to know about the effectiveness of our policies over recent years and how they had affected inequality. We were asked about climate change and what we and the wider finance sector are doing to tackle this. People asked about how we were preparing for an increasingly digital economy. And we had lots of questions about our role and how we interact with government to support the UK economy.

We were encouraged by the positive feedback from those who took part. And we enjoyed meeting people from a wide range of backgrounds. We look forward to continuing these conversations. Given the Covid-19 restrictions in place at the time of writing, it’s likely that face-to-face meetings won’t be possible for the foreseeable future. But we hope to get out and about around the country again as soon as possible, when it is safe to do so.

We would like to thank those who have participated so far and made the events a success. We would also like to thank our chairs, who are independent of the Bank of England, for their engagement and enthusiasm for this initiative. This report is their summary of the key themes emerging from our citizens’ panels.

Listening to members of the public was both informative and interesting. It was great to hear people’s first-hand experiences and this all helps build a picture of the UK economy. – Jo Place, Deputy Governor for Central Services

I found the citizens’ panels both a valuable and a challenging experience. It was great to listen to and engage with people from different walks of life on a wide range of issues relating to their experiences of the UK economy. – Dave Ramsden, Deputy Governor for Markets and Banking

The thing I value most about our panels is the opportunity they provide to discuss how the Bank’s activities fit into a wider set of issues facing people in their lives day-to-day. – Sam Woods, Deputy Governor for Prudential Regulation

The citizens’ panel I attended had a thought-provoking discussion of people’s personal experience of the economy and the labour market. It provided an alternative and very valuable perspective to the highly aggregated statistics we normally focus on. It’s also important that senior public servants like me are directly accountable to the public we serve. – Ben Broadbent, Deputy Governor for Monetary Policy

There is no doubt that the effectiveness of the Bank depends on public understanding, and that understanding depends on the effectiveness of the Bank’s communications. The Bank has made very major progress in communicating more directly and widely with the people it serves, including through initiatives like the citizens' panels, and can rightly be seen as a leader among central banks. – Andrew Bailey, Governor

Chairs’ foreword

Institutions, such as the Bank of England, that make important decisions that affect us all must engage with the public. The citizens’ panels are an exciting initiative that provides a direct channel for people to have their voices heard by those who influence the economy. We think it is vital that the Bank of England listens to the people it serves from across the country to better understand the lived experience of the economy and how it can vary between different places and groups in society.

We represent a broad range of organisations and charities and seek to understand the communities we live and work in across the UK. Collectively we have experience across the private, public and voluntary sectors. Many of us have had a longstanding relationship with the Bank of England, for example through contact with its Agency network. But we have approached this project as independent individuals and representatives of our local areas.

During the citizens’ panels, we acted as chairs for the events in each region and devolved nation. We were there to help each event proceed smoothly and, crucially, to help ensure that the voices of everyone in the room were heard.

We have overseen the compilation of this report. The discussions that it summarises were interesting, extremely varied and provided a useful insight into the views of those attending.

Some of the issues raised in this report are beyond the remit of the Bank of England for example, the distribution of income and wealth. Our hope is that this public report will provide a useful summary to facilitate wider policy discussions and perhaps encourage others to act.

We hope that the Bank continues to engage directly with the public in an open and transparent way. While we understand that the form of that engagement might evolve, we hope that regular engagement with households continues, as it already does with businesses through the Bank’s regional Agency network.

Executive summary

In November 2018, the Bank of England launched its citizens’ panels programme. These panels give policy makers the opportunity to speak directly with the people they serve, and are part of wider work to improve engagement with the public. Since the programme’s launch, the Bank has held 23 citizens’ panels across the UK, attended by 492 people. This report from the independent chairs summarises the discussions at those events.

Panellists discussed a wide range of topics relating to the UK economy and financial system and similar issues cropped up across the country.

In this report, we explore the key themes. We also take an in-depth look at housing and jobs which were the subject of particular focus at the panels. The report includes sections on each of the following:

Uncertainty and insecurity were key themes. The first round of panel events took place between November 2018 and July 2019 – a period of exceptional political turbulence. Brexit, while not a major discussion topic in and of itself, had significantly raised the level of uncertainty for people and businesses.

The second round of panels took place between September 2019 and February 2020. Most panel members felt uncertainty had reduced following the December 2019 general election, which had resulted in an uptick in consumer confidence and strengthening of the housing market. However, other sources of uncertainty emerged, such as the outcome of future trade deals and, more recently, the sudden spread of Coronavirus (Covid-19).

Panellists expected Covid-19 to have a large and long-lasting impact on the economy and society more broadly. Some expected changes in consumer behaviour to continue beyond the lockdown, with – for example – people potentially choosing to save more in the future.

The panels took place during a period when the unemployment rate was at record low levels. Yet many panel members told us they felt uncertain and insecure in their jobs. Alongside the uncertainty associated with Brexit and other factors, panellists noted some structural changes in the labour market. The rise of contract work, for example, while supporting flexibility, was seen to be creating a more uncertain work environment. Many people – even those in jobs that appeared secure – worried about redundancy or having their contracts terminated or not renewed.

Panellists felt employment statistics were not a true reflection of the reality for them or others. People thought that zero-hour contracts and underemployment were distorting the data. But improvements in flexible working were seen to be supporting women and older workers back into the labour market, alongside some welfare reforms. Panellists thought the Covid-19 outbreak could potentially accelerate the shift towards more flexible working models. Experiences of pay rises were patchy and increasingly targeted at those in areas with pressing labour shortages, for example those with coding skills. Younger people said they didn’t recognise the concept of ‘across the board’ annual pay increases. Some people mentioned that they were earning less now than they had before the financial crisis and few expected substantial pay rises in the near future.

There was widespread concern about the level of inequality across the UK, both across regions and across generations. Regional imbalances were a major concern, with panellists talking of a clear ‘North/South’ divide. Many saw a need for better investment, especially in transport, outside the South East of England, arguing that this would help people to find work. Younger generations were perceived to be worse off than their parents – a source of concern for people of all ages. And poverty – particularly among those in work – was seen to be a growing problem, including a perceived rise in homelessness.

People recognised that low interest rates had been necessary to support the economy during a period of weakness and uncertainty since the financial crisis. But attendees felt that low interest rates were contributing to a culture of debt, with concerns that many people do not have any significant savings and are probably unprepared for rate rises to more ‘normal’ levels in the future. There was a need for better financial education to help prepare people for making financial decisions. And some older people raised concerns about the lack of return on their savings.

Panel members agreed that housing was an important part of their economic wellbeing. Some lamented the way property had become widely thought of as an ‘asset’ rather than a place to live. Many said that housing was unaffordable, both to rent and to buy, especially in London and the South East. Many felt that policy interventions were needed to address these issues, including boosting the supply of new homes.

Introduction

The Bank of England recognises that it needs to be transparent, accountable, engaged and approachable. To achieve this, it has taken steps to make its work more accessible through initiatives such as a new education programme; revamped publications; a simple online guide to boost financial literacy (KnowledgeBank); and other outreach initiatives.

The launch, in November 2018, of the citizens’ panels followed a recommendation in a report by The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). In ‘Building a public culture of economics’ , the RSA noted that to build a strong democratic discourse about economics it is, ‘essential to meet people where they are; to proceed from people’s everyday experience of the economy through work, at play and in their communities’.[1] In a speech in March 2018, the Bank’s Chief Economist Andy Haldane set out how the Bank would use citizens’ panels to listen to the people it serves to help inform its work.

Spotlight: The Bank of England and Outreach

In recent years the Bank has worked hard to engage with more people from all backgrounds across the UK.

The Bank has held a number of Future Forum events across the country, which were attended by hundreds of members of the public and hosted by the Bank’s Governors. These events addressed a range of themes such as: how the Bank can serve society and maintain stability in times of change; financial and economic education; and the future of money.

As part of its outreach work, the Bank has also organised community forums across the country since 2017. These events target harder-to-reach groups, especially the economically and financially disadvantaged – groups who are typically not well represented at the citizens’ panels. They are run in partnership with charities across the UK and allow charity leaders and their staff, along with the people who rely on their services, to speak to Bank of England officials about the financial and economic issues these groups face. Topics included barriers to employment, debt, in-work poverty, and funding for the voluntary sector.

During 2019 the Bank organised community forums with Depaul UK, a charity that helps homeless young people; the Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector; the Faith Centre in Bradford, which supports refugees in the city; the debt charity Christians Against Poverty; and a number of Community Foundations across the UK, which support thousands of grassroots organisations.

In April 2019 Deputy Governor Sam Woods attended a community forum in Dundee. The forum included a roundtable event with local charities that support vulnerable people in the city, plus a visit to a community garden project, and a church-based youth club.

‘We saw some vivid examples of how the most vulnerable people in our society are often most affected when the economy goes wrong, as happened with the financial crisis in 2008,’ Sam said, reflecting on his experience at the event. ‘More than a decade on, I got the clear sense that some people in Dundee are still feeling the effects.’

‘I heard about food banks, in-work poverty, fuel poverty, welfare reform, the premium poorer people pay for basic services like energy, and the insecure funding landscape faced by charities. Despite a host of worries the group was very keen to look forward, to explore solutions, and to commit to collaborate more effectively for the good of the city and its most vulnerable residents.’

The Bank is keen to have an ongoing relationship with the partners who host our community forums. This is often done through the Bank’s network of Agents. Following the Covid-19 outbreak, the Bank reconvened – in virtual form – this community forum to understand how different parts of society in Dundee have been affected by the crisis.

Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Sam Woods, centre, during his visit to the community garden project in Dundee.

The Bank sought advice from a number of experts in public consultation, including from the RSA, to design the citizens’ panels. A key aim was to have a wide and diverse mix of people, reflecting the public that the Bank serves. With this in mind, the Bank selected attendees from those that registered taking into consideration the age, gender, ethnic background and income mix of panels. Overall, panellist diversity broadly reflected the UK population but some groups were a little underrepresented (notably women, under 25s and those on lower incomes).[2]

Between November 2018 and February 2020, 23 panel events were held across the UK (Figure 1 - map).[3] The Bank decided to limit attendance for each event to about 24 people, to enable everyone to share their views. Representatives from the Bank of England Youth Forum attended some events to ensure the voices of those aged under 25 were heard (Spotlight: The Bank of England Youth Forum).

Feedback from panel members was very positive. Around 95% of attendees agreed that the events were interesting and relevant, increased their understanding of the Bank’s responsibilities and encouraged an open discussion. Seventy-five per cent agreed the event increased their trust in the Bank and over 90% wanted to find out more about the work of the Bank of England.

‘Very informative and enjoyable, a great idea’ – Lee, Leicester

‘The debate and content were great’ – David, Leeds

‘The people who attend tended to be older, it would be great to see more 18-25 year olds’ - Sara, Southampton

‘The Bank is genuinely interested in opinions of the general public’ – Caroline, London

Figure 1: Citizens’ panels were held in a wide range of locations

A senior member of Bank staff (either a Governor, Executive Director or Director) attended each panel.[4] During the pilot phase all Governors attended at least one panel event. Most meetings were chaired by an independent figure drawn from the local community.[5]

Spotlight: The Bank of England Youth Forum

In 2019 the Bank of England recruited its first youth forum as part of a pioneering partnership with the British Youth Council. This was partly in response to the low number of people aged under 25 applying to take part in the citizens’ panels. Comprising 24 young people aged between 16 and 25 who live across the UK, the group is working with the Bank for a year across a range of projects.

The Bank of England Youth Forum is helping the Bank to research young people’s experiences of the world of work and to assess the state of financial and economic education in schools. It is also providing a youth voice on a range of policy issues and helping the Bank to communicate its decisions in a way that young people understand. In April 2020 the youth forum ran a consultation with young people to learn about how they were being impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. This attracted almost 1,000 responses and members of the youth forum presented the findings to the Bank’s Chief Economist Andy Haldane via a conference call.

Members of the youth forum took part in some of the citizens’ panels to provide a young person’s perspective on the major economic and financial issues of the day. The youth forum will publish, via the Bank’s website, updates on its work.

Youth forum members at their residential induction weekend.

In September 2019, an online community was launched to enable the Bank to continue discussions with panel members. The community features a number of discussion forums on topics such as Covid-19, housing and jobs and pay. It has been used to host Q&A sessions with Bank officials. A monthly survey and forecasting challenge has run on the website since September 2019. By early May 2020, there were more than 550 registered users of the online community. This has enabled the Bank to continue engaging with panellists during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The 23 panel events and contributions on the online community provided insights on how people think about the economy and the challenges people face. Across the country, there were lively discussions on a wide range of topics, from inequality and income, to Brexit and the banks. In the following section, we explore the key themes that emerged.

Uncertainty, Brexit and Covid-19

A key word at all the panels was ‘uncertainty’. This related to the political and economic outlook, largely associated with the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Panellists also pointed to an uncertain work environment, brought about by changes in the labour market (see In focus: Jobs and pay). At the most recent panels, Coronavirus, or Covid-19, was flagged by attendees as an increasing worry and source of uncertainty. By the February online survey, which concluded in mid-March, Covid-19 was cited as the biggest threat to economic health (Chart 1).

The first round of panel events took place during a period of exceptional political turbulence. Brexit deadlines came and went and the country went to the polls in a general election in December 2019.

Brexit itself was not a major topic of discussion at most panel events, although it featured heavily in the online surveys. It is possible that panellists did not want to discuss a politically sensitive, and often divisive, topic in person. For many, other issues were more immediately relevant and important. Some saw Brexit as ‘just another thing’ distracting from the ‘real problems’ affecting people’s daily lives, such as the cost of living, transport, education and the NHS. Others reported that they felt ‘mentally worn down’ by Brexit. In contrast, Brexit was one of the most frequently mentioned threats to economic health on the citizens’ panel online surveys, although it declined in prominence in the later surveys (Chart 1).