Could a citizens’ assembly help set out a post-pandemic recovery plan for Wales?

Nia Thomas, Research and Campaigns Officer

Posted on the 9th July 2020

ERS Cymru has advocated for the use of deliberative democracy and citizens’ assemblies for many years. But it’s an idea that has renewed importance when it comes to the Covid pandemic.

Our manifesto published ahead of the 2021 Senedd Elections specifically calls for the use of citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting to create a society where ownership of political decisions is shared – with the public directly involved in finding ways forward. 

As Wales eases its way out of lockdown, now is the perfect time for commitment to a collaborative future. Deliberative practices result in a more engaged and democratic society

This is vitally important in rebuilding trust with politicians in a system where people largely don’t see their votes as counting, and where power too often feels distant. The complex nature of the challenges faced by countries across the world in the 21st century – from climate change to economic pressures – needs input from the wider public to ensure policies are produced that work for everyone. 

This input can’t be distilled down into simple referendum questions, but must encompass full and open discussions of the issues along with their potential solutions. What better place to start that deliberation in Wales than with a citizens’ assembly focused on our post-lockdown economic recovery?

The pandemic has fundamentally altered the way we’ve been living and interacting over the past three months. It has highlighted many things, including: the fragility of our consumerist economy, the need for strong local food networks and the importance of our key workers in society, to name just a few. A citizens’ assembly on Covid recovery planning could help us rebuild in a way that is more resilient and able to respond to these realisations. 

Learning from experience

Citizens’ assemblies are formed using a cross-section of society, a ‘mini-public’, that is selected to encompass the demographics across a whole population (gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic background). For the recent ‘Climate Assembly UK’, members were also balanced to take into account ‘level of concern over climate change’, to ensure fair representation across this spectrum too. 

Over a given timeframe the assembly meets to engage in open, respectful and informed discussion and debate with their peers on an issue before providing recommendations. 

Their structure uses three phases: learning, consultation and deliberation/discussion, which gives the participants the time and resources to move beyond newspaper headlines and political slogans on an issue. Time to dig much deeper allows appreciation of the complexities of an issue, often altering personal opinions in the process. This empathy is vital for democracy to work.

Citizens’ assemblies are already in use in response to pressing contemporary issues. In France the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate was set up in the wake of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests, sparked due to rising fuel tax and social inequalities. It offered a way to ‘co-produce’ policies around climate change with the French public. It is in these thorny moments that citizen’s assemblies shine. Their deliberative approach is particularly suited to complex problems and can be used as a uniting tool in polarised societies.

The Republic of Ireland’s use of citizens’ assemblies allowed it to discuss controversial topics, such as abortion, in a measured way. The resulting call for a referendum on the issue and eventual legalisation change is an example of how even those with opposing views can come to a shared and more nuanced conclusion through the process.

We’ve seen the continuation of some of these citizens’ assemblies despite lockdown restrictions, with a move to online platforms. The French Citizens’ Convention on Climate produced their 50 priorities to tackle economic recovery and greenhouse gas emissions while improving health and well-being in early April via Zoom. Similarly Climate Assembly UK recently published its interim briefing on post-lockdown steps to aid economic recovery, with nearly 80% of assembly members agreeing that these steps should be designed to help achieve net zero.    

A Welsh Citizens’ Assembly

Wales is a diverse nation with a similarly diverse set of needs. A citizens’ assembly will help ensure that post-Covid economic recovery works for the whole of Wales, whether that be rural areas with poor broadband speeds or the urban South-East with its congestion issues.

Many feel cut off from Cardiff and disengaged with the Senedd, so there is a direct need for these practices to build communities and provide more effective links between the people and decision-makers.

Deepening our democratic processes could be crucial to rebuilding in an inclusive and participatory way. The type of recovery a citizen might want to see could be influenced by one of more demographics including their location in the country or age. We need to lean into these differences, learn from them, deliberate on them and collectively construct solutions for all. Citizens’ assemblies provide the perfect tool for this.

Let’s move away from the centralised approach we’ve seen in Westminster, and find a way forward together.

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