Citizens’ assemblies are suddenly in vogue. National, devolved and local bodies (including several Commons committees) have held or are intending to make use of citizens’ assemblies to seek guidance on topics such as climate change and social care. At the same time, senior politicians are now advocating for an assembly on Brexit. However, citizens’ assemblies are not a miracle cure: like any method of determining the public will, they have limitations. In order to explore the benefits of citizens’ assemblies, the Unit organised a seminar to discuss how they work, best practice and when they should be used. Lucie Davidson summarises the main contributions.
On 1 July, the Constitution Unit held an event entitled ‘Citizens’ Assemblies: What are they good for?’. Speaking were Joanna Cherry QC MP, SNP Justice and Home Affairs Spokesperson at Westminster; Sarah Allan, Head of Engagement at Involve; Lilian Greenwood MP, Chair of the Commons Transport Select Committee; and Professor Graham Smith, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. Chaired by the Unit’s Deputy Director, Alan Renwick, the event discussed past use of assemblies, what they can be best used for in the future, and what constitutes a ‘good’ citizens’ assembly.
Joanna Cherry offered an overview of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, which was announced by Nicola Sturgeon in April. Just as Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly and Constitutional Convention were born out of a time of crisis following the financial crash in 2008, the constitutional crisis caused by Brexit stimulated the political interest necessary for the creation of Scotland’s own assembly. The Brexit process has reignited debate about the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK; Scotland voted to remain in the EU but has had ‘no say’ in the Brexit negotiations. In addition, if Brexit happens, Scots will lose their EU citizenship, despite the argument that independence was a threat to Scotland’s place in the EU being a prominent part of the 2014 ‘No’ campaign. A recent poll by the Sunday Times has indicated a majority of Scots would vote for independence if faced with a ‘no deal’ Brexit or a Boris Johnson premiership.
On 26 June, Mike Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, updated the Scottish parliament on the progress made in establishing the assembly. 120 citizen members are to be selected at random from the electoral register. Stratification by age, ethnic group, socio-economic background, geography and political attitude will ensure that the assembly is representative of Scotland’s adult population. Legislation to extend the Scottish franchise to refugees and asylum seekers will widen the pool that assembly members will be drawn from. The assembly will sit for six sessions from autumn to spring. In addition, the assembly will be entirely independent from the executive; its secretariat will be located outside the Scottish government. The intention is that the process will be transparent: deliberative sessions will be live-streamed and the public will be able to see and comment on each stage of the process.
As for its remit, the Assembly will look at three broad questions:
- What kind of country is Scotland seeking to build?
- How can Scotland best overcome the challenges it faces, including those that arise from Brexit?
- What further work needs to be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about their future?
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Scotland have declined to support the assembly, on the basis that it is part of the project of furthering independence. Nonetheless, it enjoys the backing of over two thirds of MSPs, as both the Greens and Scottish Labour have pledged their support. The Scottish government has committed to ensuring the recommendations are fed back to the Scottish parliament through a proper process.
Concluding her remarks, Cherry said that if the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland could resolve the difficult and controversial issue of abortion, she had ‘very high hopes’ that an assembly in Scotland could deal satisfactorily with a topic as important as Scottish independence.
Sarah Allan began by outlining the key characteristics of a citizens’ assembly – a type of public engagement process known as ‘a deliberative mini-public’. Mini-publics bring together a representative sample of the population, usually in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, social class and place of residence, and often in addition, in terms of attitude. They involve a three-step process of learning, deliberation and decision and generally involve 50–150 participants. They generally take place over multiple weekends but some have been as short as three days.
Civic lottery is considered the ‘gold standard’ in membership recruitment. This involves selecting a number of households, usually from the postcode database, and sending them a letter inviting them to take part. In the case of the 60-member Citizen’s Assembly on the future of Wales organised by the Welsh Assembly, 10,000 households were sent an invitation letter. A stratified sample is then taken from the pool of respondents. In order to ensure accessibility, participants are generally financially compensated for their attendance, and childcare, disability and other care requirements are often covered.
As for the assembly process itself, the ‘learning stage’ has two parts. During the first part, members engage in background learning about the topic. During the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care (CASC) for example, this involved questions such as ‘What is social care?’; ‘How is the current system funded?’; and ‘Why are people saying there is a crisis?’. The aim is to ensure ‘a level playing field’ on which everyone has a certain level of knowledge of the issue.
The second part involves hearing different answers to the problem posed. Participants will hear from and be able to question a range of people, who together represented the different answers to the questions being posed. In order to ensure balance, several layers of checks are put in place. An advisory panel of key stakeholders and individuals with differing opinions check the work of the expert leads, the information provided to the assembly, list of individuals giving evidence, and length of speaking time. The commissioning body will also check these things.
The next stage is ‘structured’ deliberation. Participants are given tasks such as writing pros and cons for different options and ranking their preferences, mainly as a means of stimulating thought and discussion. Finally, comes the decision process, which usually culminates in a simple vote.
Trained facilitators oversee the process to further ensure balance. A seating plan ensures participants from different backgrounds mix, and facilitators on each table ensure members can participate equally. During the questioning process for example, members write down questions, feed them back to their table, and then prioritise the questions before they are posed to the speaker by a facilitator. Analysis of the conversations that took place at the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit found there was no correlation between a member’s speaking time and any particular personal characteristic.
Finally, Allan addressed the effectiveness and use of citizens’ assemblies. She cited three types of issues that might benefit from this type of deliberation; issues that are politically ‘stuck’ (such as social care funding); moral issues (such as abortion and equal marriage in Ireland); and constitutional reform. Citizens’ assemblies produce multiple outputs and are thus well suited to tackling complex issues. Crucially however, ‘political appetite’ is necessary — and cross-party support preferable — in order to ensure that the recommendations are acted upon. A clear question, sufficient time and a large enough budget to cover the topic in the appropriate detail are also important.
Lilian Greenwood began by explaining why interest in citizens’ assemblies had grown in Westminster over the past year. She said that a number of her colleagues consider deliberative processes a partial solution to the perceived breakdown of trust in politicians, because they encourage understanding across partisan divides and bring the public back into policy formulation in a systematic and intensive way. The Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care — run jointly by the Health and Social Care Committee and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee — was well received by MPs who recognised that it had provided valuable evidence on a complex, long-standing issue.
Greenwood argued that assemblies provide an effective means of ‘confronting people with hard choices’ and getting the public to engage with the issues ‘from an informed perspective’. As part of the evidence-gathering process, they can help government ministers make tough choices by giving them a sense of what an informed public want, what they feel is fair, and what they could accept, thus potentially unlocking politically difficult issues.
She conceded that citizens’ assemblies aren’t panaceas – government has to pick up on recommendations. However, drawing parallels between the process of citizens’ assemblies and the work already undertaken within parliament, Greenwood suggested that they could fit relatively comfortably into the work of select committees. Indeed, thanks to the success of deliberative processes abroad and growing familiarity with them domestically, citizens’ assemblies could be one way of improving ministerial uptake on committee recommendations.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change, jointly commissioned in June by six Commons committees (including the Transport Committee, which she chairs), will address the question of how to combat climate change in the UK and reach the net zero carbon target announced by the government on 12 June. Committee members hope the process will help establish consensus and public support around the radical changes required to reach the target and help ministers make the case for those changes. The Assembly will be part-funded by parliament but the committees hope that funding will be matched by third sector organisations. The six committees will have input into selecting questions but will not be involved in running the Assembly once it is established. An accompanying online consultation will attempt to capture wider public views on the matter. She concluded by observing that this is ‘new territory’ for committees and that the current and past assemblies are part of ‘a learning process’ about how parliament can and should use such a method of citizen engagement.
Professor Smith began by noting that interest in citizens’ assemblies has grown exponentially over the past few months. In the last two weeks alone, the Irish government responded to citizens’ assembly recommendations on climate change, and Extinction Rebellion have been campaigning for their own assembly on the same topic. For Smith, citizens’ assemblies ‘bring the considered judgement of citizens into the political process’, often breaking political deadlock. Ireland’s experience has illustrated this and been a ‘game changer’ in driving acceptance of deliberative processes among the political class.
Although assemblies have been the subject of much recent ‘hype’, they are only one type of deliberative mini-public; citizens’ juries, consensus conferences and deliberative opinion polls have been running since the 1970s. Practitioners have significant experience of running them, but Smith expressed caution about the fact that some politicians have been rushing to organise their own assemblies without clarity about their purpose, remit or questions.
Smith went on to highlight three key factors for a successful citizens’ assembly. Firstly, its task must be clear. It may be complex and possibly controversial, but must engage citizens and enable them to make meaningful trade-offs. Secondly, it must have sufficient time to answer a question. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly, for example, spent six weeks discussing abortion but only two on climate change. With an issue as complex as climate change and with so little time, Smith argued, it was understandable that their recommendations had had a lesser impact. Thirdly, deliberative processes need to be formally tied into the political process to ensure they have real impact. He cited innovative examples from abroad of how this has been done.
For example, activist Marcin Gerwin has run citizens’ assemblies in partnership with Polish city councils. Crucially, he asks the mayor to agree, ahead of the assembly’s sitting, to commit to implementing any proposal that receives more than 80% support from the assembly.
In the parliament of the German-speaking community of Belgium, citizens’ assemblies have been ‘institutionalised’ through a ‘Citizens’ Council’. Made up of a small group of randomly selected citizens, the Council hears evidence from parliament, government and citizens before deciding what issues should be dealt with by a citizens’ assembly.
In Madrid, citizens can submit propositions for consideration by a citizens’ assembly. The proposition with the highest number of signatories is considered by the assembly, which then makes recommendations to the city council.
Finally, deliberative mini-publics in Oregon have been integrated into to the existing citizens’ initiative process in order to improve the quality of information provided before referendums. The Citizens’ Initiative Review Commission considers a proposal, hears from the relevant groups involved, and provides a recommendation to citizens about the credibility of arguments made before a policy proposal is put to a referendum.
Smith’s concluding thought was that as good as citizens’ assemblies are, they are not a ‘silver bullet’ and politicians should consider carefully whether one is actually beneficial before committing to such a process in relation to a particular issue.
This blog post is a brief summary of the main speeches made during the event, and does not summarise the contributions during the ensuing Q&A. The full event video is available on YouTube and does include the lively discussion period following the main contributions.
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About the author
Lucie Davidson is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit. Most recenly, she has been undertaking an impact assessment of the Unit’s research into citizens’ assemblies and House of Lords reform.