The SNP has won another term in government on a manifesto that commits to annual citizens’ assemblies. This pledge has the potential to bring significant change to Scotland’s democratic system. Alan Renwick and Robert Liao discuss how the Scottish government should go about implementing its promise and how assemblies could be used as part of the independence referendum process.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has been re-elected to power in Holyrood. Most analysis of the implications of its victory rightly focuses on the future of the Union, and whether there will be another independence referendum. But another SNP manifesto commitment also deserves the attention of those interested in the operation of the democratic system: namely, the party’s plan for citizens’ assemblies. Such assemblies have already emerged as part of Scottish politics in the last two years. Two have been held: first the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, with a remit to set out a broad vision for Scotland’s future; then Scotland’s Climate Assembly, focused on the path to net zero carbon emissions. These have been well received by all Scottish parties. Now the SNP wants to go further. Its election manifesto pledged annual citizens’ assemblies and made a commitment to ‘genuine public involvement in decision making’. There will also be a further assembly ahead of any independence referendum to help shape an independent Scotland, and an assembly to represent those aged under 16. Though the SNP fell just short of an overall majority, its Green Party allies share a similar vision: they pressed for the Climate Assembly; and their manifesto pledged to ‘formalise citizens assemblies… locally and nationally’.
The SNP’s commitments are significant, because they propose not only more citizens’ assemblies, but also their institutionalisation as regular elements in Scotland’s democracy. Such assemblies will no longer be convened on a purely ad hoc basis, but will be embedded in the system as normal and expected.
But what form should this new system take? This post addresses three key aspects: How will the topics of citizens’ assemblies be decided? How will the recommendations of these assemblies be fed into the wider policymaking process? And what role would assemblies play in any second independence referendum?
How will assembly topics be decided?
The SNP manifesto pledges annual citizens’ assemblies, but does not say how their topics will be selected. One option is that politicians will continue to make these decisions. Indeed, the SNP’s suggestion of assemblies on ‘more complex issues’, such as council tax reform, assisted dying and decriminalisation of drugs, may imply this route. A precedent for that exists within the UK, as the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored Northern Ireland’s devolved government in January 2020 saw Stormont parties agree to annual citizens’ assemblies, on issues ‘identified by the Executive’. Yet whether that would secure the SNP’s commitment to ‘participative democracy’ is unclear. Sixteen months have passed since New Decade, New Approach, and yet no citizens’ assembly has been created in Northern Ireland. Some political scientists raise concerns that letting politicians decide whether, when, and on what issues to set up assemblies can leave these bodies as little more than rubber stamps for politicians’ objectives.
The opposite approach would be to introduce bottom-up citizen initiation by petition. In the Polish city of Gdańsk, for example, a local law allows citizens’ panels (panele obywatelskie) on specific issues to be requested (with 1,000 signatures) or demanded (with 5,000 signatures) by local residents. Similarly, citizens’ councils (Bürgerräte) in Vorarlberg, Austria can be convened by government, parliament or citizens, with 1,000 signatures. This approach would allow an independent, citizen-led deliberative process on issues of importance to voters. But such a process would risk being hijacked by special interests, particularly if it became effectively a referendum to decide the topic of an annual assembly.
A middle approach – and perhaps the best one – would be to follow the example of Belgium’s German-speaking community of Ostbelgien, with the choice of topics itself made through public deliberation. Since 2019, Ostbelgien has had a permanent citizens’ council (Bürgerrat) and a citizens’ assembly (Bürgerversammlung), both constituted through selection by lot. The former, a third of whose 24 members rotate out every six months to ensure a continuously changing composition, sets the agenda and determines the topic of the citizens’ assembly, following public consultation. The assembly, whose membership is reconstituted anew after each topic, then examines the issue and makes recommendations. Such a system would allow carefully considered topic selection and help address concerns about undue concentration of power in the hands of the executive.
How will assembly recommendations feed into decision-making?
The second, equally important, question concerns what happens once an assembly has made its recommendations. There is always a danger with citizens’ assemblies and other similar processes that their reports are met with warm words from decision-makers, but lead to little action. That can damage the reputation of assemblies themselves and of the governments that initiate them: it can appear that politicians have promoted a sham democratic reform rather than the real thing. If citizens’ assemblies are to be institutionalised in Scotland, mechanisms will be needed to avoid that outcome.
Gdańsk again offers the most radical solution: citizen panels there have the power to decide policy, with proposals reaching 80% support among panellists being binding on city authorities. Yet that approach raises serious concerns. One of the core features of citizens’ assemblies is that their members are accountable to no one. That is a great advantage when it comes to addressing complex issues with open minds and reaching recommendations that are unconstrained by any need to play a bigger political game. What is an advantage for formulating recommendations turns into a disadvantage, however, for decision-making: in a democracy, decision-makers must be not only representative, but also accountable to the political community as a whole. Otherwise, as political theorists such as Cristina Lafont have pointed out, voters’ ultimate control is lost, and their confidence in the system risks being undermined.
A middle approach is again preferable. In Ostbelgien, after a citizens’ assembly concludes its deliberations and presents its findings to parliament, parliamentarians are obligated to consider the assembly’s suggestions, and provide justifications where they opt not to implement a proposal. To that extent, the system is similar to emerging practice in Scotland: once the full report of Scotland’s Climate Assembly is published, ministers will legally have six months to respond. But Ostbelgien goes further: to guard against the danger that parliamentarians might not treat citizens’ recommendations with due seriousness, parliament holds a follow-up session with assembly members one year after an assembly’s conclusion to review the response and any progress towards implementation. If designed well, such a session should enable constructive dialogue between citizens and decision-makers, with listening taking place in both directions. The quality of democratic engagement and of policy outcomes could be enhanced as a result.
What role would assemblies play in an independence referendum?
The SNP promises to consult a citizens’ assembly on ‘key issues about the kind of country we want Scotland to be’ – such as social security and migration – prior to a second independence referendum. Such a referendum, whatever its outcome, would be a momentous occasion for Scotland and the future of the Union as a whole. Care in designing a process that enables the people of Scotland to make a genuinely democratic choice would be paramount. Within that, the roles that citizens’ assemblies and other similar processes might play should be carefully considered.
In fact, there are potentially at least two such roles. First, citizens’ assemblies could be used in the process of developing the plans that are put to voters. The SNP manifesto envisages they would help devise plans for aspects of an independent Scotland. Likewise, they could potentially be convened to examine an even more basic question: whether there is a credible alternative beyond independence and the status quo. Here, one crucial point to consider is the scale of the task. The manifesto speaks of an assembly in the singular, to examine multiple issues. That is close to the Irish model: the 2012–14 Constitutional Convention and 2016–18 Citizens’ Assembly were each asked to address diverse topics, sometimes devoting just a single weekend to each. Yet each of those bodies is best known for the one topic that it gave more lengthy attention: same-sex marriage for the first, and abortion for the second. It would be much better for multiple assemblies to address one issue each than for one body to attempt to cover all.
Second, citizens’ assemblies – or perhaps smaller citizen panels – could be helpful not only in developing proposals for putting to voters, but also in enabling effective scrutiny during a referendum campaign. The Unit’s 2019 Doing Democracy Better report explored this approach, which was first piloted in Oregon on the basis of proposals by the political scientist John Gastil. A small panel of randomly-selected citizens are tasked with examining a ballot initiative that is being put to voters. After hearing evidence from experts and campaigners and deliberating amongst themselves, they set out their key findings, which are included in a statement in the election pamphlet sent to all Oregon voters with their ballot papers. In an age of rising concern about misinformation, such a process could help to protect the quality of public discussion. Indeed, as the Unit’s report suggested, Scotland could be creative in developing Oregon’s approach to promote thoughtful analysis of proposals and pledges throughout the campaign, and enable Scotland’s voters to make a truly informed choice.
Scotland is at the vanguard of deepening the democratic process by using citizens’ assemblies to enable thoughtful public discussion of complex policy choices. The SNP’s proposals have the potential to carry that progress significantly further. To fulfil this potential, it will be important to address the three issues examined here. Citizens’ assemblies could indeed help to build a more participatory democracy in Scotland, but only if they are embedded effectively into the rest of the decision-making process.
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About the authors
Dr Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit and the co-author of Doing Democracy Better: How Can Information and Discourse in Election and Referendum Campaigns in the UK Be Improved?
Robert Liao is a research volunteer at the Constitution Unit.