What kind of country do you want Scotland to be? What should the UK’s future relationship with Europe look like? How should we address the climate and ecological crisis?
These are some of the big questions facing politicians and the public. They’re questions not easily answered with a binary choice in a polling booth. In a world of “fake news”, political slogans and social media tirades, how can the public make informed decisions and how can these decisions influence policy?
If you’ve been following the news at all recently, you’ll have likely heard the term ‘Citizens’ Assembly’. It’s the political buzzword of the summer, but what is a Citizens’ Assembly?
What are Citizens’ Assemblies?
“a form of deliberative democracy: a process through which citizens can engage in open, respectful and informed discussion and debate with their peers on a given issue.”
You may have also heard of ‘minipublics’, ‘citizen juries’, ‘consensus conferences’ and ‘deliberative polls’. All describe a form of deliberative democracy, but all have common principles, such as:
- using a random, or diverse, selection of participants to underpin the legitimacy of the process
- facilitated discussions
- experts providing evidence and advocacy of relevant information
- the outcome of participants’ deliberations is reported.
A citizens’ assembly is made up of a representative group of around 50 to 200 citizens chosen at random from the general public. The selection of members is stratified to ensure that participants are as representative as possible of the general population according to certain criteria – usually gender, age, ethnicity, geographical location, and social background.
The Electoral Reform Society’s briefing on citizens’ assemblies describes three typical phases:
- Learning phase: participants get to know each other, how the assembly works and what its aims are. 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.
- 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.
- Deliberation and discussion phase: the participants deliberate amongst themselves. Generally, assembly members will make recommendations to government or parliament at the end of this phase. In some cases, if these recommendations are taken up, they will be put to the people in a referendum (as in the case of Ireland). But it is usually up to elected politicians whether or not to follow the assembly’s recommendations.
Do Citizens’ Assemblies work?
Citizens’ assemblies in countries such as Canada, Belgium and Poland, and here in the UK, provide examples of how this form of deliberative democracy can be an effective way of finding policy solutions to complex issues.
Perhaps the most notable example is the Citizens’ Assembly of Ireland. The Assembly was formed in 2016 to consider a number of political questions. These were abortion, fixed-term parliaments, referendums, population ageing, and climate change.
After detailed deliberation of the abortion issue (consideration of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution), a series of Assembly ballots were held. The outcome was that the Assembly recommended the Eighth Amendment should be replaced with a Constitutional provision explicitly authorising the Oireachtas to address termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn and any rights of the pregnant woman.
The Irish example has become an exemplar for deliberative democracy due to its ability to reach consensus on a socially divisive issue. But critics question whether citizens’ assemblies are representative of the wider population.
A Citizens’ Assembly for Scotland
On 24 April, the First Minister announced plans to establish a Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland to consider the following broad questions:
- What kind of country are we seeking to build?
- How can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit?
- What further work should be carried out to give people the information they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?
- independence from government
- cumulative learning
More information on these principles is available on the Assembly website.
The Cabinet Secretary also confirmed David Martin MEP as one of two co-conveners of the Assembly.
Questions from Scottish Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members following the statement indicated that they would not support the Assembly. This is because, in their view, its remit focusses on the question of Scottish independence and not other challenging policy issues facing Scotland.
This may be a sticking point for the Citizens’ Assembly because cross-party support was key to the success and legitimacy of the Irish example.
Scottish Labour and Green Party Members were broadly supportive of the Assembly in principle. However, Members raised concerns about a lack of time and parliamentary scrutiny for determining the Assembly’s remit and flexibility for considering other topics such as climate change.
Deliberative democracy in the Scottish Parliament
In the Scottish Parliament, the value and increasing importance of citizen participation in decision-making processes was a key theme raised by the Commission on Parliamentary Reform.
The Commission recommended that the Parliament create a Committee Engagement Unit (CEU) which was established in 2018. The main purpose of this unit is to support (and challenge) committees to undertake more innovative and meaningful engagement, including the trialling of ‘mini-public approaches’.
In March 2019, the Scottish Parliament hosted its first ever Citizens’ Jury to support the work of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, with 21 randomly selected people from across Scotland brought together to consider how funding and advice for land management should be designed to help improve Scotland’s natural environment.
The report from the Unit’s first Citizens’ Jury will be published in July.
The Unit has also recently completed a series of three deliberative public panels, to support the Health and Sport Committee’s inquiry into the future of primary care.
The report on the public panels is due for publication in July and the committee are keen that the participants from these deliberative events remain involved as the inquiry progresses.
These initial efforts into mini-publics and deliberative engagement are being independently evaluated by deliberative democracy experts from the University of Newcastle.
The CEU will be making recommendations in the Autumn about how the Parliament should use and embed deliberative approaches to engagement and committee work in the future.
Deliberative democracy is gaining momentum and it’s likely to be at the heart of significant policy decisions ahead. A bigger question is to what extent will it transform our current democratic system?
Damon Davies, Researcher, Brexit, Environment and Rural Affairs, SPICe
Alistair Stoddart, Senior Participation Specialist, Committee Engagement Unit