The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: how did it work?

The conclusions reached by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, composed of a politically and demographically representative group of 50 members of the public, were reported on this blog yesterday. In this post the Assembly’s Design and Facilitation Lead Sarah Allan tells the story of how the Assembly’s two weekends worked. 

Last weekend saw the finale of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) and the announcement of its results. By its end, 50 members of the public – broadly representative of the UK population in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum – had spent around twenty-eight hours considering what the UK’s trade and immigration policy should be post-Brexit.

The Assembly demonstrated not only that citizens can have a detailed and constructive conversation about options for Brexit, but also that they can enjoy doing it. Assembly members rated the Assembly an average of 5.5 out of 6 across the two weekends, with 86% of Assembly members saying they ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement ‘Assemblies like this should be used more often to inform government decision-making.’ A further 8% ‘agreed’.

So how did the Assembly work? This post tells the story of its two weekends.

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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: results and initial reflections

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit reached its climax yesterday. After two weekends of intense deliberation, the members voted on a range of options for the form they want Brexit to take in relation to trade and immigration. Their conclusions will surprise some, and they deserve detailed attention from politicians and commentators. Assembly Director Alan Renwick summarises these conclusions and reflects on the weekend as a whole. He argues that, while the Brexit debate is often presented in stark binary terms, the Citizens’ Assembly suggests that the British public are capable of much subtler thinking – if only they are given the chance.

In my last post on the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, I reported on a hugely successful first weekend of deliberations. In advance, we had, through stratified random selection, recruited a group of Assembly members who reflected the composition of the UK electorate in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum (25 voted Leave, 22 voted Remain, and three did not vote). We had also developed a programme and set of briefing papers that had been vetted by our advisory board, comprising supporters of both sides in the referendum, as well as experts in balanced communication. At the first weekend itself, remarkably, every Assembly member attended. They showed immense dedication, working long hours as they reflected on their own views, discussed ideas with fellow members, listened to experts, and quizzed those experts in depth. The experts presented diverse perspectives, some emphasising the benefits of single market membership or immigration, while others pointed out the costs of high immigration or argued for the advantages of cutting free from the single market and customs union. Our team of professional facilitators from Involve did a superb job of guiding proceedings and keeping the discussions on track.

This time I can report on an equally successful second – and final – weekend. Attendance was again astonishingly high: every member but one (who was ill) returned. Once again, all (and I do mean all) were tremendously focused and limitlessly good humoured. Members naturally did not always share each other’s views, but they listened and spoke respectfully and genuinely. Our facilitation and support teams were again inspirational. It was a privilege to be there.

While the first weekend focused on learning, the second was all about deliberation and decision-making. We began on Friday evening with short talks and Q&A sessions with two prominent politicians: Graham Brady MP, chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, spoke for leaving the single market and customs union; Labour MP Kate Green advocated the opposite. Thereafter, there were no more external speakers. The weekend was devoted to the Assembly members, who reflected on what they wanted post-Brexit policy-making to achieve and then on which policy options they wanted the government to pursue.

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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: reflections on the first weekend

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has just begun its work. The project’s director, Alan Renwick, here offers some initial, personal reflections on a highly successful first weekend.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has just completed its first weekend of deliberations. As an earlier post explained, the Assembly is a gathering of people from across the UK who have been randomly selected to reflect the make-up of the electorate. They are meeting over two weekends to learn about options for the form Brexit should take – focusing on the issues of trade and immigration – discuss what they make of these options, and draw conclusions. Their proposals will be written up in a report and delivered to policy-makers in parliament and government.

We knew by the start of the weekend that we had prepared well. We had selected a hotel at Manchester Airport with good facilities, a central UK location, and ready accessibility by road, rail, and air. Working with ICM, we had recruited the Assembly members. As we reported last week, that recruitment process went astonishingly well, allowing us to hit our targets for representing different parts of the population. To help guide our planning, we had gathered an Advisory Board who were superb in both their wealth of knowledge and their willingness to give up their time for the project, including academics and campaigners on both sides of last year’s referendum debate and people whose job it is to give balanced information on Brexit.

In consultation with the board, we had devised a plan for the Assembly and prepared briefing papers that set out the key issues in a balanced and accessible way. We had engaged Involve – perhaps the UK’s leading experts in facilitating this kind of event – to develop and deliver the programme of sessions for each weekend. We had assembled a line-up of speakers with vast experience and a healthy variety of perspectives.

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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: how were the members selected?

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – a group of citizens that will consider options for Brexit – meets for the first time today. In this post Alan Renwick, Rebecca McKee, Will Jennings and Aleksei Opacic explain the process by which members were selected to be representative of the UK electorate, both demographically and in terms of how they voted at the 2016 EU referendum.

Over two weekends this month in Manchester, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – a group of around 45 citizens – will meet to learn about, deliberate on, and make recommendations relating to the options for Brexit. As we set out in a previous post, the Assembly follows a well-established model for fostering quality public deliberation around major policy decisions. One key feature of this model is the process through which the members are selected. They are not elected or allowed to self-select. Rather, they must be identified through a rigorous process of random selection designed to ensure that – so far as possible for a group of this size – they reflect the diversity of the wider population. This post sets out how we have done that for the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit and what we can say so far about the results.

Basic principles

Our goal has been to secure a broadly representative sample of the population. The relevant population in this case is the UK electorate: the people who are entitled to participate in public decision-making in the UK. It is their views that need to be heard by policy-makers involved in deciding the UK’s approach to Brexit.

Achieving a representative sample is far from straightforward. It relies on careful planning and design, as well as reflection, long before an assembly takes place. The first step is to decide what it actually means to be representative of the population at large. This is normally determined through stratification: you decide in advance what proportions of certain groups must be included, or set minimum levels for people from each group. Past citizens’ assemblies in places such as Ireland and Canada have used various stratification criteria, including age, ethnic background, geography, social class, and employment status. Each characteristic can be treated more or less strictly, depending on the context of the assembly. All official citizens’ assemblies have required equal numbers of men and women. In Canada, which has specific issues with ethnic inequalities, assemblies have required minimum numbers of people from the First Nations.

The stratification design is only the first step. Next comes the process of finding people to fill the stratification quotas. We know very clearly that one potential method – allowing people to self-select into the assembly, doesn’t work. Those who opt in are usually very different from those who don’t, most notably in terms of their levels of political interest and participation: they are more likely to have an interest in politics and to be already engaged in political activities. Self-selection may also attract people with particularly strong views about the topic of debate. Additionally, they are more likely to be people with plenty time to attend: those without caring or childcare responsibilities, those who are older and retired, and also people who can afford to take the time off work. To avoid the major issues of self-selection into a citizens’ assembly, some method of random selection is required.

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The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: design and purpose

The Constitution Unit is leading a team running a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, which will meet over two weekends, starting with the weekend of 8–10 September. The Assembly will consist of around 45 UK citizens, selected to reflect the diversity of the UK electorate. Alan Renwick and Rebecca McKee explain how the Assembly will work and what it is hoped will be achieved.

The Constitution Unit is leading a team of academics and democracy practitioners who will run a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit over the coming weeks. As the name suggests, a citizens’ assembly is a group of citizens who are chosen to reflect the diversity of the population at large and who gather to learn about, discuss, and draw conclusions on some aspect of public policy. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit provides an opportunity to shed light both on public priorities for Brexit and on the value of deliberative exercises in a polarised political context.

How the Assembly will work

The Citizens’ Assembly comprises around 45 UK citizens who have been selected through a stratified random sampling process to reflect the diversity of the UK electorate. Perfect representativeness is unattainable in a group of this size, but the members closely mirror the wider electorate in terms of sex, age, ethnicity, social class, region, and how they voted in the referendum last year. We will shortly publish a more detailed account of the selection process on this blog.

The Assembly members will meet over two weekends, starting with the weekend of 8-10 September. This is relatively short for a citizens’ assembly: some past assemblies have met for as many as twelve weekends. But it allows a structured approach to considering the matters in hand. During the first weekend, the Assembly members will hear about the issues from a diverse range of experts with widely differing views. They will be able to quiz those experts and begin to consider their own reactions to what they have heard. Between the weekends, the members will have the chance to digest this material and perhaps talk it over with family, friends, and colleagues. They will then return after three weeks for the second weekend, when they will deliberate in depth among themselves on the options and what they think of them. In all of this, they will be supported by professional facilitators from Involve, who will have a crucial role in keeping the discussions on track and ensuring that all members can take part fully.

The topic of discussion is the form that Brexit should take. The Assembly does not attempt to reopen the question decided by last year’s referendum: the presumption is that the UK is leaving the EU. The goal is to deepen understanding of informed public opinion on the kind of relationship that the UK should be seeking with the EU after Brexit. Not all aspects of Brexit can meaningfully be discussed in two weekends, so the Assembly will focus on two issues of crucial importance: trade and immigration.

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The EU referendum, one year on: public debate

Today is the first anniversary of the EU referendum. To mark this the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative and Political Studies Association have published a collection of essays titled EU Referendum: One Year OnAlan Renwick‘s contribution, focusing on the continuing weakness of public debate around Brexit and how it might be strengthened, is re-produced here. 

This month’s general election was supposed to be about Brexit. In her Downing Street statement on 18 April announcing her intention to seek the dissolution of parliament, Theresa May spoke of little else. She suggested that, without an early election, her opponents would have both the will and the ability to disrupt her efforts to negotiate the best possible Brexit deal. The vote, she hoped, would deliver a secure majority for her favoured Brexit plan.

Brexit’s low profile

In the end, however, Brexit did not dominate. It was mentioned on average 580 times a day in the main UK-wide newspapers in the week following May’s statement. But that fell below 500 for the following two weeks, then below 400 for the four and a half weeks between then and polling day – dipping to just 155 a day in the sixth week of the campaign, immediately following the Manchester bombing. When the BBC’s Andrew Neil interviewed the Prime Minister on 22 May, his questions turned to Brexit only in the last few minutes. Interviewing Jeremy Corbyn four days later, he asked nothing directly about Brexit itself, though he did enquire towards the end about immigration. The other main television debates and interviews gave Brexit more attention, but still it did not dominate.

There were at least three reasons for this. One, as just suggested, was the unforeseen and tragic eruption of terror into the campaign caused by the attacks in Manchester and London. This inevitably shifted the agenda towards the terrorist threat. It raised deep questions about both Theresa May’s record on police funding and Jeremy Corbyn’s record of opposition to counter-terrorism legislation and seeming friendship with certain terrorist organisations.

A second reason was the spectacular misfiring of the Tory campaign. Conservative strategists intended to focus on one core message: that Theresa May, not Jeremy Corbyn, was the person to provide the ‘strong and stable leadership’ needed for successful Brexit. But the Conservative manifesto introduced controversial policies – most notably on social care – that distracted attention away from that core message. The Prime Minister’s forced u-turn on social care undermined the credibility of the message. Veteran election watcher Sir David Butler tweeted (sic) that ‘In the 20 general election campaigns I’ve followed, I can’t remember a U-turn on this scale’.

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How can we improve discourse during elections and referendums?

The Constitution Unit has recently launched a year-long project, which seeks to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In this blog post, Alan Renwick and Michela Palese set out the motivations and plan for their project, along with some initial findings.

Following the 2016 EU referendum campaign, concerns over the quality of political discourse have been raised by people of all political persuasions. For example, the Electoral Commission’s report on the EU referendum found that only 34 per cent of respondents agreed that the campaign had been conducted in a fair and balanced way, with 52 per cent disagreeing and 34 per cent disagreeing strongly. The most common reasons given were that the campaign had been ‘one-sided/unbalanced/biased/partial’ and that the information provided was ‘inaccurate and misleading’. Similarly, the House of Commons Treasury Committee reported that ‘The public debate is being poorly served by inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’. Efforts to tackle the spread of misleading statements and so-called ‘fake news’ have recently been increasing in the run-up to the UK general election on 8 June.

Despite such widespread concerns over the prevalence of misinformation and the need for fair and balanced debate, little research has been conducted on the quality, as opposed to the quantity, of electoral participation and deliberation. Our project, which is generously funded by the McDougall Trust, aims to fill this gap by examining measures for improving the quality of public discussion during election and referendum campaigns. If appropriate, we will conclude by making reform proposals for the UK.

We have begun our work by surveying existing practice across a wide range of democracies, which will allow us to identify areas and options deserving of more detailed investigation. Through this preparatory research, we have tentatively identified three sets of options:

1/ Interventions designed to prevent misinformation by directly banning campaigners from making false or misleading statements. 

So far as we are aware, the most developed application of this approach is in South Australia, where the Electoral Act of 1985 states that ‘A person who authorises, causes or permits the publication of an electoral advertisement … is guilty of an offence if the advertisement contains a statement purporting to be a statement of fact that is inaccurate and misleading to a material extent’. Similar measures can also be found in New Zealand and some US states, such as Oregon. This option gained some traction in the UK after the EU referendum. Last July, for example, 50 MPs signed an early day motion calling for the establishment of an ‘Office of Electoral Integrity (OEI) to factually verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns, with powers to issue clarifications and fines where appropriate’.

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