What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 24th January 2019

Citizens’ Assemblies are often in the news, from the assemblies that led to the referendums on equal marriage and abortion in Ireland, to the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland and local council climate assemblies.

While the Electoral Reform Society has helped run two citizens’ assemblies, and political scientists have been studying them for years, for most of us the phrase ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ means little.

Isn’t Parliament a Citizens’ Assembly?

Firstly, Parliament is not a citizens’ assembly. Rather than elections, the members of a citizens’ assembly are typically put together like a jury, where we all have an equal chance of joining. It is still up to elected politicians whether or not to follow the assembly’s recommendations.

The aim is to secure a group of people who are broadly representative of the electorate across characteristics such as their gender, ethnicity, social class and the area where they live.  The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit that the ERS helped run also selected participants on the basis of whether they voted to leave or to remain in the EU referendum.

Citizens’ Assemblies can come in any size, but the larger they are the more representative of the electorate they will be.

Are Citizens’ Assemblies just focus groups or consultations?

These aren’t just focus groups or consultations though. The goal isn’t to just hear what people already think – but for the members to engage in serious, informed reflection on important policy matters with people they may never normally meet.

Assemblies are generally set a clear task. The Irish Convention on the Constitution of 2012–14, for example, was asked to deliberate on a set list of eight constitutional proposals, including allowing same-sex marriage and removing the offence of blasphemy from the constitution. In British Columbia, the mandate of the Citizens’ Assembly was to “assess models for electing Members of the [province’s] Legislative Assembly”.

Participants will typically have a set time to complete this. They may meet for one weekend a month for a year, or every weekend for a few months – or just a few times. The Irish Convention on the Constitution met for 10 weekends from December 2012 to March 2014. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit ran for two weekends in late 2017.

In order to ensure that people from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible can attend (e.g. those with dependent children or relatives, or just people who wouldn’t usually get involved can attend), participants are typically paid for their time.

What happens at a Citizens’ Assembly

A citizens’ assembly will typically go through three phases: learning; consultation; deliberation and discussion.

Firstly, a learning phase where participants get to know each other and how the assembly works and what its aims are. In this phase, relevant facts about the issue at hand are presented to the participants, who get to ask questions of experts and access background and contextual information.

Secondly, during the consultation phase, campaigners from each side get to present their arguments, and be questioned on them. Sometimes, the assembly might run a public consultation during this phase to understand what the broader public thinks about an issue.

Thirdly, the participants deliberate amongst themselves – discussing which arguments they found convincing and which they saw straight through. Generally, assembly members will make recommendations at the end of this phase.

Deliberative processes emphasise the importance of reflection and informed discussion in decision-making. This allows people to adopt more nuanced positions on the issues at hand, with a better understanding of the trade-offs inherent in a given decision.

It is essential for a Citizens’ Assembly to be balanced in terms of the information presented to participants.

Generally, the organisers will build an Advisory Board comprising of independent experts and campaigners from both sides of the issue to vet the information given to the participants. The assembly’s speakers will be carefully chosen to give equal representation to all sides of the debates. Participants will be carefully seated to ensure a balance of views and perspectives on each table. The table discussions will also be facilitated to ensure that everyone’s views are heard, but the facilitators are barred from discussing the issues raised.

What is the point of Citizens’ Assemblies?

One of the problems with popular self-government, is that we are all far too busy leading our lives to also govern. The only way the ancient Athenians managed it was by excluding all the women and the massive slave population from the process. While the men informed themselves on the issues of the day, the women and slaves did all the work.

We could have rule by direct democracy with regular referendums, but only a small percentage of the population can or want to spend all their spare time learning about fishing quotas one month, then social security rules the next.

Representative democracy is a way around this problem. We vote for a small group of people to work full time on getting themselves informed on important issues, and then let them get on with it – throwing them out if they do anything too wrong. But, this can lead to the formation of a political class with interests of their own.

Citizens’ Assemblies are a way around this problem. By assembling a representative group and giving them the tools and time, you can create a proxy for what it would be like if everyone had the tools and time to discuss and debate the important issues.

Around the world, people are innovating with new forms of democracy. Drawing from traditional juries and modern institutions such as citizens’ juries, more deliberative and participatory forms of democracy are taking shape. With our long democratic heritage, it is an area where Britain can take the lead.

Follow @UKassemblies for updates on Citizens' Assemblies

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