Scotland’s first Citizens’ Assembly, a deliberative body made up of 100 citizens reflecting the country’s demographics, concluded in January and published its visions for the future of Scotland.
Citizens’ Assemblies which aim to create ‘mini-publics’ are increasingly being utilised across the world; part of a rise in deliberative and participative tools aimed to innovate democratic processes to include citizens’ in decision-making processes.
The report comprised of 60 recommendations, responding to the remit set by the Government in May 2019. It lays out ambitious objectives for the Scottish Government, Parliament, Local Authorities and civil society to work towards, together, in the wake of Covid-19.
The members, from all ends of the political spectrum, have delivered a wide range of recommendations – from tax and the economy to health, wellbeing and sustainability, as well as actions to tackle poverty and inequality, such as rent controls and an end to Zero-Hour contracts.
The first seven recommendations speak to how citizens are involved in decision-making as well as further powers for the Scottish Parliament; proposing a second citizens’ chamber as well as more local assemblies to support people and communities to rebuild from the pandemic.
These are important ideas for further democratic innovation which ERS Scotland is playing a part in campaigning for at the national and local level. The methods and processes employed by the assembly have delivered not only great solutions but trust and understanding between citizens and a knowledge of the trade-off required. The experience of the assembly, alongside the Covid-19 crisis, has served to underline and strengthen the case ERS Scotland and Our Democracy coalition has long been making for a revamped local democracy.
Moving online and completing the assembly virtually due to the pandemic shows that we don’t have to wait for restrictions to ease to legislate and begin to implement reforms. Scotland hosts a wealth of expertise in participative and deliberative practice, and the recent experience has provided institutional learning of online deliberation which can be carried over into future projects.
The launch of the report was rightly celebrated and momentous; however, it is worth bearing in mind that this is not the end of the process. A key question for Citizens’ Assemblies is how their recommendations are integrated and actually acted on by political institutions.
On this front, the early signs are encouraging. Five Scottish ministers met with the members (online) to listen to their experience and have taken the report and recommendations to discuss at the full weekly cabinet meeting. Michael Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, Europe and External Affairs has praised the members, pledging to advocate the Assembly, and the report, with key stakeholders. Scotland’s Assembly has made a strong case for institutionalising citizens’ centred processes in national and local decision making.
Yet there is still a way to go. The Scottish Government’s action plan and parliamentary debate in response to the report will be instructive. Experience of Citizens’ Assemblies around the world teaches us that the process requires strong political will, continuous scrutiny and holding politicians to account.
But the process has shown people want democracy on the agenda and should be a core topic for the May elections. This is a prime opportunity for parties to listen to the people of Scotland by including the suggestions and the continuation of processes like it, in their manifestos.
Without a doubt, by placing citizens front and centre, the Assembly marks an important chapter in Scotland’s political history, as well as putting it at the forefront of democratic innovation globally.
The Assembly’s aim to ‘do politics differently’ raises the vital matter of evolving our democratic structures and institutions to make them fit for purpose in a period of advanced technological and societal change. While the argument that people don’t want political transformation or power doesn’t hold up anymore, meaningful reform also takes time, commitment and calibration.
The effects of Covid-19 also demonstrate how now more than ever we need ordinary citizens involved in rebuilding thriving, empowered communities that can develop the foundations for long-term security and prosperity. Through their hard work, the members of Scotland’s Citizens’ Assembly have provided a blueprint for true citizens’ participation, showing what can be achieved when ordinary people are given the time and space to deliberate on important issues.
In order to rise to the fundamental challenges of our time, politicians should look to the Assembly – and listen.
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