Beyond the ballot: How citizens can lead the climate change conversation

Over recent months, as climate change has been propelled into the political mainstream, there has been an upsurge in interest in the role of deliberative processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Juries, too. An Assembly is a key demand of Extinction Rebellion, for example. Will action follow?

Research with MPs has shown that they are not sure whether there is a public mandate for action on climate change. So how can deliberative processes help to develop a more ambitious climate politics? Citizen-led deliberation has not just come to the fore on climate change. It has been suggested as a contribution to overcoming the Brexit impasse; Nicola Sturgeon has recommended an Assembly to consider Scottish independence, and Ireland has led the way, with its Citizens Assembly paving the way for their recent referendum on abortion rights.

How are the results of deliberation linked to decision-making by politicians? In other words, how can the hard work of the citizens and others involved in these processes lead to real change?

In attempting to answer this question it might be helpful to think of the informal and formal links to decision-making processes.

Informal persuasion can bring about a quiet revolution

Our own experience is that authorities that have a political and professional commitment to implementing the recommendations from a deliberative process can affect very real citizen led change. For example:

The Chief Medical Officer of the Scottish Government has committed to carefully consider each of the Citizens Jury recommendations on shared decision-making and ‘to reply to them all, either with a commitment to action or an explanation as to why that recommendation cannot be taken forward, by May 2019’, four months after their launch.
(See accompanying image of the launch event)

Shared Future’s Citizens Jury on mental health for the West Midlands Combined Authority (a strategic authority covering 18 local authorities, with powers over transport, economic development and regeneration). The recommendations of the Citizens Jury (composed entirely of people with lived experience of mental health problems) informed the authority’s subsequent action plan.  The action plan states that ‘Every one of our actions: has been cross-referenced and influenced by the Citizens Jury’.  Closer scrutiny reveals that the plan does include a significant number of the Jury’s recommendations but that there are some omissions.

Another Citizens Jury brought together a mix of survivors and members of the wider public to attempt to answer the question “How can the people of Jersey best remember the past abuse of children while in the Island’s care system?” It reported directly to the council of ministers (effectively the government’s cabinet) who subsequently ‘agreed in principle to the proposals’.

In Blackpool a series of Health and Well-being Inquiries reported directly to the local Clinical Commissioning Group’s governing body. As did the Forest of Dean Citizens’ Jury whose recommendation on the siting of a new community hospital  was unanimously backed by the local NHS Trust and CCG.

Likewise, the Citizens Assembly on Social Care (convened by Involve) fed directly into two House of Commons Committees and their First Joint Report of the Health and Social Care and Housing, Communities and Local Government Committees. The report contains numerous references to the work of the Assembly and concludes that the Assembly’s findings are ‘reflected throughout this report.’

The time is right to move the conversation to climate change

Another example of deliberative mini publics in Texas, on future energy requirements, with no legal obligation to implement the recommendations has had an impressive impact. Most significant was that future investment prioritise renewables. More than a whopping 1,000 MW of new renewables capacity was developed after the events.  Remember, this was the home of Gov George W Bush, and the US oil industry. The chairman of the Public Utility Commission came away from one of the sessions amazed at the eagerness for renewable energy in Texas.

The switch in support for conservation and renewable energy was just dramatic… It really opened my eyes.  More remarkable still, the clamour was not coming from ‘people in hoity-toity Austin, or, God forbid, people from the East Coast or West Coast.’ They were people from Corpus Christi, a port town serving the petrochemical industry, and they wanted big changes — changes that would green up the electric system… I was like, ‘Oh, that must be a mistake.’
Pat Wood, Chair of the Texas Public Utility Commission

Deliberative processes can also link in to wider media conversations, which helps to extend discussion and hold politicians to account.

Shared Future has experimented with linking Jury deliberations with local radio chat shows, inviting questions through social media and equipping Jury participants with conversation kits. The deliberations of a Citizens Jury in Mali on genetically modified crops enjoyed live coverage by seven local radio stations so reaching an estimated total of at least 1.7 million listeners. In a mini public on Re-offending organised by the French government a communications consultant was recruited to work full time in the three months prior to the public hearings to organise weekly interviews with the mainstream press.

Developing strategic partnerships with media outlets could be vital in enabling the wider public to consider what their role is in addressing the climate emergency.

Formally mandating citizens juries is not impossible

Blackpool Central South Health and Wellbeing Inquiry

In Gdansk a Citizens Assembly was selected to deliberate on the issue of flood mitigation. The mayor agreed that any recommendation with over 80% support from the Citizens Assembly membership would automatically be implemented by the City. A subsequent assembly focused on the topic of air pollution.

In Oregon, randomly selected panels consider draft legislation as part of The Citizens Initiative Review. In 2016 a panel met for four days to consider state legislation to revise the minimum level of corporation tax. After a period of deliberation the panel writes a citizens statement designed to give voters key facts to consider when deciding how to vote on the measure.
The booklet is sent to every registered voter in the state as part of the official voters guide. A state-wide telephone survey of Oregon voters found that 52% of Oregon voters were aware of the Citizens Initiative Review (in 2016) and that some 43% of Oregon voters read the Citizens’ Statements before completing their ballots, with the vast majority finding them ‘at least somewhat helpful and informative

Earlier this year, Madrid City Council passed legislation to establish a City Observatory as a permanent assembly of 49 randomly selected local residents.  The assembly’s agenda will be informed by the most popular proposals from a citywide digital participation platform.  The Observatory has the power to decide if a particular issue should be the subject of a local referendum.

Of course there is a myriad of factors that influence whether or not an authority adopts the recommendations of an assembly or jury.

Timing is one factor that is often the key to success. Julie Mellor from the Young foundation argues that “It is important to commission the juries early in the decision-making process”, “If you do it late, when political views are entrenched and the debate has become more toxic, then it all becomes far harder. Better, then, to use citizen juries at the start of policy development on complex issues and before viewpoints become too deeply rooted.”

As these examples show, deliberative processes can help politicians do their job better, and find a politically workable way through complex issues. It is essential, though, to make sure that there is a clear, shared understanding about how the results of any process will be used.

Pete Bryant is a SFCIC director and climate enthusiast. He has facilitated over 30 citizen inquiries on a wide range of topics. Read his related blog on the role of citizen inquiries in climate change.
Dr Rebecca Willis is a researcher with twenty years’ experience in environment and sustainability policy and practice, at international, national and local level. Her website and blog posts are available here.


  • Featured Image: members of the West Midlands Mental Health Commission Citizens Jury discuss their findings with the members of the Commission and its Chair Norman Lamb MP.
  • Second Image: a member of the Realistic Medicine Citizens Inquiry speaks at the launch of the Inquiry recommendations in front of the Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer.
  • Third Image: members of the Blackpool Central South Health and Wellbeing Inquiry discuss their recommendations on housing and Homelessness with Blackpool Council’s Head of Housing.