As the debate about the UK’s relationship with the EU continues to dominate the political agenda, citizens’ assemblies have been mooted by several high profile figures as a possible way to break the Brexit impasse. Here Sarah Allan and Rebecca McKee explain how and why citizens’ assemblies are able to assist and improve the policy-making process through engaging and informing ordinary members of the public.
Citizens’ assemblies have been gathering more attention amongst politicians, the public, and the media in recent weeks. For some this model of public engagement is entirely new. Yet, the history of citizens’ assemblies and methods like them extends back to the 1970s. Since then they have been used around the world to bring together representative groups of the public to deliberate on controversial and complex issues. Countries that have had citizens’ assemblies include Canada, the United States, Australia and Belgium. Most famously Ireland’s citizens’ assembly and constitutional convention played key roles in change on abortion and gay marriage.
The core purpose of a citizens’ assembly is to give decision-makers access to the informed and considered views of the public. A citizens’ assembly can be said to have worked when these three factors are delivered to a high standard. We use the examples of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) and the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care (CASC) to show that it is possible to deliver on these principles.
‘The views of those that took part in our citizens’ assembly have been vital in informing our thinking and the model also provides a possible route for further public engagement and building the support that any reforms will need.’ Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.
Is it possible to recruit a representative group of participants?
The primary goal of citizens’ assembly recruitment is to secure a broadly representative sample of the population as assembly members. The population of interest varies depending on the assembly topic. CASC was commissioned to look at the devolved issue of social care, so participants were only recruited from England. CAB dealt with the UK’s exit from the EU, so its membership was UK-wide. Both topics were issues of policy so participants were restricted to those eligible to vote in either general elections for CASC, or the 2016 European Referendum for CAB. Continue reading