In December 2022 we published a blog which explored the recommendations made by the Citizen’s Panel on Public Participation. This panel was formed as part of the Citizen Participation and Petitions Committee’s inquiry into public participation, which set out to understand how “to make sure that the views and opinions of everyone in Scotland are included in the work of the Parliament”.
That blog gave an overview of some of the models of citizens’ assemblies used elsewhere. This blog builds on that, looks at lessons learned from other legislatures, and raises some of the big questions the Scottish Parliament might want to address should the Committee recommend supporting the Citizen’s Panel’s recommendations with a move towards institutionalising deliberative democracy.
This might include understanding how to balance deliberative democracy with representative democracy, how to use deliberative models to best strengthen scrutiny of the Scottish Government, and how to ensure that using such approaches has cross-party support and isn’t tokenistic.
SPICe has launched a call for bids on two exciting academic fellowship opportunities to support this understanding – read on for more detail.
Because of the length of this blog, we’ve added a table of contents to make it easier to navigate.
Committee factfinding update
In February and March 2023, the Committee continued to gather views on how these recommendations could be taken forward.
- An open online consultation asking people to prioritise the recommendations made by the citizen’s panel. This was accompanied by outreach focus groups with groups that had been under-represented in the panel – young people and people with learning disabilities and autism.
- Internal consultation with MSPs and their staff, and staff in the Scottish Parliament at all levels, on how recommendations might be progressed. This included gathering information about current and past approaches to participation and engagement, and the actions linked to the Public Engagement Strategy.
- A fact-finding visit to the Houses of the Oireachtas in Dublin.
- A fact-finding visit to the Hôtel de Ville, home of Le Conseil de Paris (the City Council).
- A Zoom call with Magali Plovie, President of the French-speaking Parliament of Brussels.
These factfinding visits are what this blog will focus on.
The background overviews are based on SPICe briefings prepared for the visits, and points relating to lessons learned are based on notes taken by SPICe researchers attending the visits.
The Committee visited Dublin on 28 February 2023, where it met with former participants and organisers of Citizens’ Assemblies in Ireland, and elected members who had been involved in the Assembly process. Note that because translators were used, quotes used are paraphrased.
Background to Irish Citizens’ Assemblies
Irish Citizen’s Assemblies were inspired by a project based in British Columbia. We the Citizens, in 2011, tested the use of a Citizen’s Assembly in Ireland, and in 2012, the Irish Constitutional Convention (ICC) was formed to continue that work. Several of the Convention’s recommendations resulted in changes to the Irish constitution.
The elected representatives who had participated in the ICC became advocates for the next iteration: the Irish Citizens’ Assembly. First established in 2016, the Citizens’ Assembly is a deliberative standing body of 100 randomly selected citizens who serve for a pre-determined term to consider a specific issue (up to 2 years so far).
There have been four Citizen’s Assemblies to date, with the next one already planned:
- The Citizens’ Assembly 2016-2018 considered several constitutional matters, and led to a country-wide referendum on abortion rights (any constitutional amendments in Ireland must be endorsed by referendum).
- The Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality, which was established in July 2019.
- The Assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin, which reported in January 2023.
- The Assembly on the loss of biodiversity, which met for the last time in January 2023 and is currently drafting its report and recommendations for the Government.
- A Citizens’ Assembly on drugs use is expected to start in April 2023.
In 2019 the Citizens’ Assemblies Act 2019 was passed to facilitate future Assemblies. This legislation is simple in scope. It provides access to the electoral register for the recruitment of assembly members, though from 2022 onwards participants have been drawn from adults with Irish residency rather than solely those with citizenship and voting eligibility.
Lessons from Dublin
There were several points made during the visit that the Committee and Scottish Parliament might be able to draw on:
- Proposals to set up new Assemblies are now part of party election manifestos, reflecting that Citizens’ Assemblies are now seen as an established element of Irish democratic institutions.
- While parliamentarians represent the people and are elected under a proportional system, the makeup of the chamber is not representative of society at large in terms of gender balance, education, and ethnic background, etc. The Assembly on the other hand can reflect society more accurately as “Ireland in one room”. This diversity of perspectives can be a positive factor when contentious issues are discussed.
- There are two important lessons learned when it comes to elected politicians participating in assemblies
- When MPs participate in discussions, a ‘gulf in knowledge’ on the topic between them and ‘regular’ participants becomes clear. Politicians tend to know a lot about the issue that is being discussed.
- Politicians who participate usually give positive feedback of the experience – they feel acknowledged and treated seriously. But, due to competing commitments they often drop out or can’t attend meetings, which can impact on continuity and morale of other participants.
- The ICC had a mixed parliamentarian-citizen membership. Subsequent assemblies have moved away from this because of the challenges noted above. Instead, an ad-hoc, cross-party committee of MPs considers the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations and produces a formal response to feed in the political perspective. This might include recommendations for implementation, such as specific wording for any referendum questions that may be needed.
- There were some concerns raised that the Assembly process could be used by the government to push agenda items through the legislative process that would not otherwise have won cross-party political support. However, the cross-party ad-hoc committees and use of referendums to support constitutional changes were seen as effective and sufficient ways of addressing this criticism.
The Committee visited Paris on 10-11 March 2023 and met with members of the Assemblée citoyenne de Paris, a citizens’ assembly linked to the Paris City Council. They also spoke with elected officials (including Vice Mayor Anouch Toranian), and the secretariat of the Assemblée. During this, members were able to observe and attend a Plenary of the Assemblée.
Background to Parisian model
President Macron launched a series of public consultations, the “Great Debate”, following several weeks of “yellow-vest” unrest in 2019. As part of that process, a group of 30 Parisians (randomly selected but representative of the population) developed recommendations for how Paris could improve citizen participation.
One of their recommendations was to create a permanent Citizens’ Assembly, which the Paris City Council voted to accept in September 2019 (but work was then delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic). The Assemblée citoyenne de Paris, formed in November 2021, is 100 randomly selected citizens of Paris over the age of 16, who serve for the lifespan of the Assemblée (roughly 2 years for the first iteration).
The following graphic, from the OECD’s 2021 publication “8 ways to institutionalise deliberative democracy”, sets out the structure and process of the Assembly.
The Committee’s visit coincided with the very last stages of the first Assemblée. The final plenary, on 11 March, was an opportunity for the Assemblée to agree its finalised wishes before they could be presented to, debated, and agreed by the Conseil de Paris. The Conseil voted to adopt these wishes, on the Paris Reading Plan, energy efficient upgrades to homes, and a Paris Street Code, on 16 March 2023.
Lessons from Paris
The final plenary included a discussion on what the participants thought had gone well, and what could be improved for the next Assemblée (recruiting in June 2023). These included:
- Having a balance between topics chosen by the executive and ones chosen by citizens (rather than all being chosen by the executive), though the challenge of keeping focus on topics that were within the powers of the Council was noted.
- Considering how changing the structure of the workstreams and timeline might be beneficial. For instance, by speeding up the process of factfinding/gathering information by narrowing down the focus of discussions early on, or by splitting working groups into purpose instead of topic to give a clearer sense of purpose to each group.
- Drop-out rates were high. 20 participants never attended at all, and some moved, became ill or pregnant, or dropped out for other reasons. 66 people attended the first plenary. In the end, there were around 40 dedicated and consistent attendees. Whilst the secretariat suggested this remained representative of Paris’ different districts, the diversity in terms of age and ethnicity, at least based on plenary attendees, was reduced. The secretariat reflected that having more time to talk to participants at the outset, and to be clearer about the timelines of the work and the role of participants might help.
- There was a culture of feedback gathering throughout, including checking in with participants and using surveys to understand their experience. This approach supports a continuous improvement culture – the expectation of citizens, politicians and officials was that the Assemblée should always be evolving.
- Participants thought that having employers allow people time off work to take part and educating people more on what it meant to be involved would help in recruitment.
From the wider discussions on the visit, the benefits that individual participants spoke about experiencing were wide-ranging. They spoke positively about the respectful and collegiate approach, and of the importance of the support given by the secretariat. One participant said:
‘I feel free – I got to meet the mayor of my district, I got to discuss a topic I would have been able to otherwise, I shared ideas. I learned how to complain when I had an issue, because you understand more about the issues that your problem can cause and how to raise that in context with officials.’
On the political side, it was clear that the process and topics were driven from an executive level, but this had been based on a manifesto commitment giving the process a public mandate. Not all parties had engaged in the process, but the feeling from both politicians and citizens was that having a public decision-making process subsequently ratified by elected members was an effective balance of power within the cultural and legislative context.
As highlighted in our last blog, Brussels is one of the frontrunners in institutionalising deliberative processes. The Committee had a Zoom meeting with Magali Plovie, President of the French-speaking Parliament of Brussels, who was one of the key instigators of this initiative within her institution. The Committee also met with practitioners supporting the various processes in Brussels whilst in Paris.
Background to Belgian approaches
In December 2019, following the establishment of a permanent Citizens’ Council in the Parliament of the German-speaking Ostbelgien Community in Belgium, both the Brussels Regional Parliament and the French-speaking Parliament of Brussels amended their rules of procedure to establish Deliberative Committees.
Deliberative committees are made up of a mix of 15 elected parliamentarians and 45 citizens. The following graphic, again from the OECD’s 2021 publication “8 ways to institutionalise deliberative democracy”, sets out the structure and process of the deliberative committees.
Lessons from Brussels
Through its factfinding, the Committee found out some interesting detail on the models used in Brussels:
- In the French-speaking Parliament, both legislation and changes to standing orders were considered when setting up the deliberative model, with a decision to use the latter.
- In all models the Committee explored, there had been some tentativeness at first among the citizens and MPs as they worked together, but the learning from the process had led to a broadly more interactive political culture in the cities and communities represented.
- Ostbelgien is starting its 5th cycle of the Citizens’ Council, so the model is well established, but practitioners suggested that the time has come for some evaluation and adaptations. How to set the agenda and choose the topic will be one aspect of evaluation. So far, the agendas set by the Citizens’ Council have come through a public petition model, but with the process established the Council is now more willing to allow the agenda to be set in discussion with Parliament. This is because Parliamentarians may be more aware of the policy context and areas which may lend themselves best to a deliberative committee.
- In the French-Speaking Parliament, there has been a public petitions function for decades, but this was little used before. The engagement from the public and number of petitions coming in has increased. This is separate to the deliberative process, but the systems are seen to increase the credibility and visibility of one other.
- Anthony Zacharzewski, President of the Democratic Society suggested that it was important to consider how to make people feel like they could have been involved even if they were not – there should be transparency about the recruitment process (as well as the wider deliberative process) to reassure the public that this is open and fair.
- Magali Plovie explained that in the French-Speaking Parliament, the final decision on moving recommendations forward lies with elected officials, not citizens. The vote amongst citizens is consultative, but it is the vote of the parliamentarians that carries weight. To even the balance of power, the citizens vote first so the parliamentarians can see and reflect this decision in their own voting. This creates a symbolic pressure on MPs, making it difficult to not follow the recommendations from citizens, but also avoids a situation where MPs are being asked to move forward recommendations that they themselves have not had a part in forming (which would come from a citizen only model).
The big questions
The visits helped to illustrate and demonstrate how different models of deliberative democracy work, and some of the benefits and challenges in using them. A lot of questions were answered, but almost as many might have been raised, for instance:
- All the models examined were established and driven from an executive level. How might a deliberative model originating in a Parliament, as opposed to in Government, look different?
- The Committee heard about the challenges of gathering legitimacy for deliberative models, and the decisions made, and in establishing cross-party support. How could the Scottish Parliament best balance deliberative democracy with representative democracy?
- If the Parliament has a different deliberative role to the Scottish Government, how do the two sit together, and how can the Scottish Parliament best scrutinise the deliberative work of the Scottish Government?
- The topics in Paris and Dublin were chosen by the executive, which meant they were within the powers of the executive and linked to policy. In Brussels, they were suggested by the public through petitions, but having elected members on the deliberative committee provided a link to policy expertise. How might the Scottish Parliament set topics in a way that balances public will with keeping discussions relevant to the powers of the Scottish Parliament?
- Practitioners and participants alike emphasised the importance of allowing flexibility in deliberative models and making each citizens’ panel better than before – how can the Scottish Parliament (and indeed, the Scottish Government) make sure it maintains flexibility and a culture of continuous improvement in its approaches to deliberative democracy?
- The Committee heard the good points, the challenges, and the lessons learned across a range of models, and from varying perspectives – can the Scottish Parliament use this learning to help to build and institutionalise its own bespoke and unique model?
One of the participative experts that the Committee spoke to in Paris emphasised the importance of the Committee’s final recommendations:
‘The Scottish Parliament is the heart of Scottish democracy, and deliberative democracy could open up opportunities for different levels of government to work together. There should be a focus on the positive role of the Parliament for building better democracy and building better policy.’
The Committee has now finished gathering evidence and will be working on its final report and recommendations in the coming months.
SPICe will continue to explore this work and see whether the answers to any of these big questions start to become clear in time. To support this, we’re currently inviting bids for two academic fellowship posts, on tracing the impact of public engagement, and on understanding the core principles of participative democracy and a framework for measuring impact. Further detail on these opportunities and our fellowship scheme can be found on the SPICe Academic Fellowship Scheme page.
Ailsa Burn-Murdoch, Senior Researcher, SPICe