There has been growing interest in the idea of staging a ‘people’s’ constitutional convention in the UK over recent years, but little evidence for how one could work in practice. With this in mind a group of academics recently convened two pilot citizens’ assemblies in Sheffield and Southampton. The Unit’s own Alan Renwick, who was involved in running the Sheffield assembly, draws out eight lessons from two highly successful weekends.
Interest has been strong for over a year in the creation of a ‘people’s’ constitutional convention to examine some of the major questions of governance and democracy that face the UK today. I have pushed the case myself, as have many other academics, politicians, and activists.
This debate has drawn so far mainly on examples from other countries. Now, however, we have some home-grown evidence to learn from. I am part of a group – including also academics from the Universities of Sheffield, Southampton, and Westminster and a team from the Electoral Reform Society, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – who recently convened two pilot citizens’ assemblies to test out how the model of a citizens’ assembly works in the UK.
We trialled two versions: Assembly North, based in Sheffield, was a ‘pure’ citizens’ assembly, comprising 32 members of the public, chosen at random from the local population; Assembly South, based in Southampton, was a ‘mixed’ assembly, comprising both regular citizens and local politicians. Both assemblies dealt with questions concerning devolution of powers to their local areas. They met over two weekends each in October and early November, and brief summaries of their conclusions can be found here (for Assembly North) and here (for Assembly South). We will be writing up detailed reports shortly.
We gathered much material during the assembly meetings that will allow us to examine in detail how the discussions went and whether the model worked. But analysing that evidence will take time. For now, I offer some personal reflections. I was present only for Assembly North, so my comments relate to it. I draw out eight key lessons from the two weekends:
1/ Regular citizens are capable of high-quality deliberation.
I sometimes speak with politicians and others who are sceptical that ordinary members of the public can really engage effectively with complex policy decisions. The members of Assembly North clearly showed such fears to be misplaced. They built up great understanding of the issues, carefully weighed the strengths and weaknesses of different options, and came to coherent, grounded conclusions. Watching them at work was deeply impressive.
Putting the point in slightly less academic terms, this was an extraordinary experiment in democracy and a wonderful event to be part of. I came away reinvigorated in my wish to see democracy function more effectively and refreshed in my view – pending, of course, detailed scrutiny of the evidence – that holding deliberative events such as this could play an major part in achieving that.
2/ Quality reflection takes time.
The members of Assembly North could consider the issues so well because they had time to build knowledge and ideas. They worked through three distinct phases of discussion over the two weekends: learning about the options; consulting with diverse witnesses; and deliberating intensively before reaching conclusions. The two weekends took place three weeks apart, allowing further time for reflection and discussion.
Still, two weekends was a bare minimum: there were many issues that members could discuss only briefly. Similar citizens’ assemblies in Canada were spread over as many as twelve weekends, allowing much more time for ideas to be tested out and options pursued.
3/ Small-group discussion is where most of the deepest thinking happens.
Assembly North alternated in its work between plenary sessions and discussions in small groups of six or seven members. Some people are happy to speak up in front of forty others, while others are much less comfortable doing that. Working in small groups is vital for helping all voices and perspectives gain equal hearing.
4/ Downtime is essential too.
Downtime is essential partly because Assembly members need a rest: a weekend of lectures, small-group discussions, votes, and other activities is hard work. But it is important also because it is intrinsic to good deliberation. People discuss issues better if they are at ease with the others in their group. Sitting down to dinner with each other on the first Saturday evening helped the conversations flow much more easily the following morning.
5/ Good table facilitators are key.
Given the importance of small-group discussions, facilitators are needed on each table to help everyone enter the conversation, encourage members to listen to and reflect upon each other’s points, and keep the discussions on topic and on target. We were very lucky in Assembly North to have superb facilitators and other helpers – wearing their orange t-shirts, they were rapidly christened the Tango Team. They all developed great rapport with their groups and were crucial to the success of the event.
6/ Organisers need to be nimble.
We spent hours ahead of each Assembly weekend planning the schedule down to the last five minutes. That was very important for game-planning. But, when it came to it, our plans often had to change, sometimes because particular things took more or less time than we expected, but often because Assembly members had different ideas about how best to organise things. We were always clear with the members that this was their assembly: we were there just to help them come to a view on the issues in hand. When they wanted to do things differently, therefore, we discussed the matter to ascertain the view of the Assembly as a whole, and then we often changed tack. That kept us particularly frenetic on the final day, when we revised and re-revised ballot papers to ensure that members could vote on the options in a way they found meaningful.
7/ Recruitment must be handled with care.
Random recruitment is fundamental to the citizens’ assembly model. The alternative of allowing anyone to participate who wants to inevitably attracts an unrepresentative proportion of political junkies, many of them with particular axes to grind.
Our experiences with Assembly North show the importance of designing this recruitment process carefully. In some respects we did well: of the Assembly’s 32 members, 16 were women and 16 men; they had politically diverse views and came from very diverse backgrounds. But we could have achieved better balance in terms of age and ethnicity. We also saw a drop off from 45 people who initially signed up to 32 who actually arrived on the first Saturday morning.
Balance can be achieved through stratification – our challenge was simply that doing this well requires more resources than we had. Providing childcare facilities and other assistance also helps. Experience from citizens’ assemblies in Canada and the Netherlands suggests that the problem of initial drop-off in numbers can be addressed by inviting people first to a pre-meeting where they hear more about the process and the part they can play in it. Once people experience what is possible in a citizens’ assembly, they are generally very keen to take part: of the 32 who attended our first weekend, 31 returned for the second, and all of these said they would like to continue as part of the project. So the key step is to encourage people out of their initial scepticism about politics and enter the room in the first place.
8/ Assembly members deserve pampering.
We asked our members to give up two weekends of their lives debating what most people would think are pretty abstruse matters, with no guarantee that policy-makers will listen seriously to their conclusions. That they engaged with such enthusiasm and seriousness is a huge credit to them. Our budget didn’t allow us to pay them. But they still deserved some serious pampering. So we booked them into a good hotel for both weekends. We stretched the budget to give them the best food we could afford. We baked homemade cookies and smuggled them past the hotel’s health and safety tsars. We got a cake for a member who came along on her birthday. All of that helped give recognition to the enormous commitment that every member gave to the project.
About the author
Dr Alan Renwick is the Deputy Director of The Constitution Unit and was Assembly North’s Academic Director.