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Are citizens’ assemblies in Scotland “here to stay”?

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On 23 November 2021, Minister for Parliamentary Business George Adam MSP made a statement in the Parliament on the Scottish Government’s response to the report by the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland. This blog summarises the work of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland and the Scottish Government’s response to its report. This blog also sets out examples of how citizens’ assemblies have been used in international legislatures and organisations.

What is a citizens’ assembly?

Citizens’ assemblies are becoming an increasingly popular policy innovation and scrutiny method at all levels of government and in countries around the world. The OECD described the trend in public authorities to use representative deliberative and participative processes, like citizens’ assemblies, as “the deliberative wave”.

A citizens’ assembly is a form of deliberative democracy where a representative body of citizens come together to deliberate on a given set of issues and provide a set of recommendations to the convening body. Other forms of facilitating deliberative and participative democracy include citizen juries, and deliberative polling.

The Citizen’s Assembly of Scotland

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP announced plans for a citizens’ assembly in Scotland on 24 April 2019. This announcement was made amidst ongoing political and policy questions regarding the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and wider constitutional issues.

The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland convened on 26 October 2019, and was tasked with considering three broad questions:

  • What kind of country are we seeking to build?
  • How best can we overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit?
  • What further work should be carried out to give us the information we need to make informed choices about the future of the country?

Recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland

The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland published its final recommendations in its report “Doing Politics Differently: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland” on 13 January 2021. The report of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland agreed a 10-point vision for the country and a set of 60 recommendations. The recommendations were grouped around the following broad topics:

How is the Scottish Government taking forward the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland?

On 23 November 2021, Minister for Parliamentary Business, George Adam MSP made a statement to the Parliament on the Scottish Government response to Doing Politics Differently – The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s response linked its current policy actions and plans to recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland. Several of the key commitments the Scottish Government detailed in the response were previously announced in the Scottish Government’s Shared Policy Programme with the Green Party and the Programme for Government 2021-22:

  • commitment to future Citizens’ Assemblies
  • a Citizens’ Assembly for under-16s.
  • working with the Scottish Green Party to develop deliberative engagement and a citizens’ assembly on sources of local government funding.
  • report of the Participatory Democracy Working Group (expected later this year) setting out recommendations on making participatory processes routine and effective.

The response was limited in its announcements of new policy and areas for further action where work was not currently underway. However, one of the areas of further action identified in the Scottish Government’s response was on ensuring standards and accountability within public institutions in Scotland. As part of the statement to the Parliament, George Adam MSP said:

“Given recent events in the Westminster Parliament, the importance of integrity in our political representatives can hardly be overstated. Those challenges should be of concern to everyone in the Parliament and in Government. We will be working with the Parliament to address them, and we will seek cross-party involvement in that.”

The Scottish Government also set out a range of specific actions across the broad themes, including actions on sustainability and the environment, related to the work of Scotland’s Climate Assembly. Additionally, the response stated that recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland were used to inform the Scottish Government’s Covid Recovery Strategy.

The Citizens’ Assembly made five specific recommendations in areas of policy that are fully or partly reserved to the UK Government (Recommendations 50 to 54). However, the Scottish Government’s response indicated two of these recommendations are being recognised with actions within devolved powers. The actions associated with these two recommendations were announced in the Programme for Government.

  • Recommendation 51 for a feasibility study on the four-day work week: The Scottish Government will establish a £10 million pilot fund to support companies wishing to adopt a four-day working week.
  • Recommendation 54 for greater powers over immigration: The Scottish Government is developing the Migration Service for Scotland to support people who have migrated to the UK and live in Scotland.

The remaining three recommendations were regarding further powers over the tax system and negotiating trade deals for Scotland. Responses to these recommendations referred to Scottish Government publications setting out its current position on the issues. The Scottish Government’s response notedthere seems little realistic prospect of the current UK Government agreeing to the devolution of further tax powers to Scotland.”

How are forms of deliberative and participative democracy used elsewhere?

The Scottish Government has committed to future citizens’ assemblies in their domestic policy programme and provided assurances in the Parliament they are “here to stay”. A SPICe research briefing on international comparisons of citizens’ assemblies will be published later this year. Some brief examples of international legislatures and organisations using forms of deliberative and participative democracy are set out below:

Deliberative polling for energy transitions – Texas, USA

Texas, widely known for its oil and natural gas production, also produces the most renewable wind energy in the United States. The extent of renewable energy generation in Texas is often credited to the use of deliberative polling prior to the passing of Senate Bill 7 by the Texas State Legislature in 1999. The bill allowed for a more favourable regulatory environment for wind power by requiring all for-profit energy providers to generate a proportion of their energy supply from renewable sources.

The deliberative polling process used in Texas focussed on making participation as accessible as possible and fully informing participants before assessing public opinion. Research using the Texas deliberative polls data has indicated that the process increased “public spiritedness” for renewable energy, support for changes in consumer behaviour, and willingness to ensure others’ basic needs are met.

Citizens’ assemblies for constitutional reform – Ireland

Ireland is one of the most well-known examples of using citizens’ assemblies to consider and reach a consensus on constitutional and socially divisive issues. Previous citizens’ assemblies in Ireland (The Convention on the Constitution 2012-2016 and Citizens’ Assembly 2016-2018) considered proposals on a range of issues, including Presidential elections, abortion and fixed-term parliaments. SPICe discussed the outcomes of these assemblies in a previous blog.

The most recent Citizens’ Assembly of Ireland (2019-2021) laid its final report on advancing gender equality in the House of the Oireachtas on 2 June 2021.

Institutionalising citizens’ assemblies – Ostbelgien, Belgium

The Parliament of Ostbelgien (the German speaking community of Belgium) voted to establish a permanent Citizens’ Council on 25 February 2019. The role of the Citizens’ Council is to set the agenda for ad hoc and temporary Citizens’ Panels (akin to citizens’ assemblies) that then submit recommendations to the Parliament.

This combined model of a permanent Citizens’ Council with temporary citizens’ panels was designed to ensure that the Executive and Legislature could be held accountable for acting on the recommendations of a citizens’ assembly.

Source: Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave (OECD, 2020)

Courtney Aitken

SPICe Research