Citizens’ assemblies are now being widely used in the UK and elsewhere to promote thoughtful policy discussion. But do they actually work in terms of delivering substantive policy change? In this post, Robert Liao addresses that question by looking at local citizens’ assemblies in the UK. He finds that the record is overwhelmingly positive: councils that have invested in running an assembly have generally followed through with action.
The past 18 months have seen a wave of citizens’ assemblies in the UK and beyond. At the national level, there have been assemblies on climate change in the UK, Scotland, and France, on constitutional issues in Scotland and Germany, and on gender equality in Ireland. This post focuses on the numerous assemblies convened by local authorities. Citizens’ assemblies are widely lauded for bringing together representative samples of the population to learn about and produce recommendations on difficult policy questions. As shown by the Constitution Unit’s 2017 Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, the deliberative conversations that they engender point to a better way of doing democratic conversation. But do they have a real impact beyond the people in the room? In particular, do elected officials really listen to them, and can they bring about substantive political change?
The table below summarises evidence from local citizens’ assemblies in the UK. By trawling through assembly and council websites and reports, alongside press releases, and news articles, I have identified 13 citizens’ assemblies convened by local authorities in the UK since the beginning of 2019 which have completed their work and published reports. Three of these – in Cambridge, Dudley, and Romsey – were supported by the UK government’s Innovation in Democracy programme, designed to enable assembly pilots (the IIDP’s work was summarised on the Unit blog, here). In others, local authorities acted independently. Reflecting perhaps campaigning for citizens’ assemblies by Extinction Rebellion, seven of the 13 assemblies focused on climate change, and another two on the related topic of air quality. Two looked at urban regeneration, one at hate crime, and one at social care provision. Each one has presented a report containing policy recommendations to its sponsoring council.Continue reading