Scotland’s Citizens’ Assembly: What can it do to be a success?

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Posted on the 22nd October 2019

This piece is a guest post from Conor Black. Conor is a former student of the University of Glasgow who wrote his MRes dissertation on ‘Mini-Publics in the Deliberative System’.

 The first meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland is scheduled to take place in Edinburgh this weekend. 

This group of randomly selected citizens will meet intermittently over six months to consider the trajectory of Scotland’s future, and produce a report of its recommendations for the Scottish Parliament to consider.

Citizens’ Assemblies can help to establish a more direct link between ordinary citizens and the policy-/decision-making process than currently exists in our political system. Click To Tweet

Citizens’ Assemblies can help to establish a more direct link between ordinary citizens and the policy-/decision-making process than currently exists in our political system. Importantly, Citizens’ Assemblies are grounded in the ideals of deliberation – that is, meaningful communication between informed individuals working towards reaching a mutually beneficial and collective decision.

If done correctly, the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland has the potential to redress some of the democratic deficits that plague our political system, as well as signalling a shift away from adversarial politics.

If done correctly, the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland has the potential to redress some of the democratic deficits that plague our political system, as well as signalling a shift away from adversarial politics. Click To Tweet

The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland has been heavily influenced by the highly regarded – and widely successful – Irish model. There are nonetheless lessons to learn.

Here are four areas where action can be taken to ensure the success of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland and the wider project of deliberative democracy in Scotland.

The Media

It is rare that in any political endeavour the media do not play an integral role, and the Citizens’ Assembly is no exception. A well-funded and concerted media campaign is necessary to ensure the forum’s success and to raise public awareness of the presence, function and purpose of the Assembly. This is integral if the process is to be repeated.

Reporting on the Assembly during the deliberation phase could be in the form of a brief segment to accompany the news showing a snapshot of the deliberative process, or vox pops with participants to be broadcast on both TV and radio.

Ultimately, the success of any citizens’ assembly is reliant on a willingness of parliamentarians to listen to the demands of citizens and to respect the recommendations of the assembly, even if they contradict/go against their political agendas. With this in mind, it is necessary to increase the accountability and democratic pressure of our elected officials. A media campaign that makes clear the recommendations of the assembly – and the need to listen – has the potential to achieve this.

High-Quality Information

Our current political eco-system is awash with misinformation and highly charged rhetoric.

When engaging in political decision-making, citizens tend to rely on cognitive shortcuts such as partisan cues. This is an accepted phenomenon and only becomes an issue when there is a lack of high-quality information.

In contrast, citizens’ assemblies rely on high-quality information in order for participants to make informed decisions. High-quality information should be similarly disseminated to the wider public, in order to inform and enhance public debates and aid decision-making processes.

This could be achieved by ensuring that every citizen has access to/is provided with the substantive policy information on the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and at a level that enabled all members of the public to engage with it meaningfully.

In the lead up to the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, a white paper was produced and distributed to all Scottish households. It does not seem impossible for something similar to be repeated with the assembly, helping to establish a direct link between citizens and the deliberative process.

The purpose of this approach would be to bypass traditional institutions, and allow citizens to pursue the Assembly’s recommendations in a way that is not reliant on a governmental response to initiate the discourse.

Making deliberation the norm

Unfortunately, deliberative initiatives tend to be deployed in an ad-hoc fashion.

In order to realise their full potential they must be systematised and institutionalised at both national and local levels.

Doing so has the potential to inculcate a culture of political participation, which extends beyond the simple casting of votes, and would foreground citizen engagement as central to the political decision-making process.

A promising sign is that the Scottish Government has already made tentative references to further Citizens’ Assemblies – but whether they materialise remains to be seen.

Funding

While it may seem to be an obvious consideration, a secure funding stream is often treated as an afterthought. In fact, it is perhaps the most important factor.

This is particularly apparent if we look at the fate of the Scottish Civic Forum, which facilitated a variety of forms of deliberation in the early days of Scottish devolution. Despite its successful and integral role in Scottish politics, the Forum was disbanded due to questions over how it should be funded. Given this historical perspective, adequate and secure funding is of particular importance. If we understand that the aim of a Citizens’ Assembly is to work towards creating a better society, what real hope is there of achieving this if we cannot learn from our mistakes?

Ultimately, although presented separately, these recommendations should not be viewed as mutually exclusive – and if they were implemented would work well alongside each other.

ERS Scotland has been involved in multiple deliberative democratic processes in Scotland, including Democracy Max – a programme to involve Scottish citizens in a conversation about what makes good democracy. ERS Scotland is now involved in the ‘Act As If We Own the Place’ project, exploring new methods of collective decision-making.

The ERS have been central in promoting deliberative forms of democracy across the UK, and ERS Scotland director Willie Sullivan is on the 13 strong stewarding group for the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland.

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