In October and November 2015, Democracy Matters conducted an experiment in deliberative democracy by convening two pilot citizens’ assemblies in Sheffield and Southampton. On 10 February, Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, presented preliminary research findings from the project at the Constitution Unit. Adem Ruggiero-Cakir and Johnny Runge report.
The idea of holding a constitutional convention in the UK has gained prominence since the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, and the dominant proposal for the design of such a convention has been some kind of ‘citizens’ assembly’. Citizens’ assemblies have been used in other countries, but the UK had not experienced one. That has changed with the convening of two pilot citizens’ assemblies in a project conducted by Democracy Matters and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Two models of citizens’ assemblies were tested: Assembly North, based in Sheffield, was a ‘pure’ citizen assembly (drawing on the Canadian model) comprising 32 members of the public; Assembly South, based in Southampton, was a ‘mixed’ assembly (drawing on the Irish model) comprising 23 ordinary citizens and six local councillors. Both assemblies met over two weekends to explore questions concerning devolution of powers to their local areas. The project had two main aims: 1/ to assess whether citizens’ assemblies can strengthen democracy in the UK, and build knowledge on how best to structure and organise such assemblies, and 2/ to investigate what members of the public think about devolution when given the opportunity to learn about and debate the issues in depth.
Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, both members of the Democracy Matters team, presented their preliminary findings on 10 February. In assessing assemblies’ impact on democracy the speakers evaluated four areas: the representativeness of assembly members, the quality of discussions among assembly members, the impact of the experience of taking part on assembly members, and the impact on the wider political process. There was then a briefer discussion about what the assemblies revealed about public opinion on devolution.