Citizens Assemblies have gone mainstream, no longer are they the preserve of those democracy geeks who have the Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy on their bedside tables. Climate activists, politicians and health professionals are excited by their potential.
Labour MPs’ Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy’s amendment for using a Citizens Assembly to break the Brexit deadlock has raised the profile of this well tested approach, as has the impact of the Irish Citizens Assembly which brought together randomly selected citizens to deliberate on the repeal of the eighth amendment prohibiting abortion. Even the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (Yellow Vest) protesters of France are in on the act, demanding that we take the methodology seriously.
The potential of such ‘mini publics‘ in bringing together a diverse group of citizens, randomly selected, to deliberate, reach consensus and deliver a mandate for action to their local and national politicians is fascinating. Especially, when we consider the nature of so many problems that our elected officials must grapple with, from Brexit to artificial intelligence to climate change.
As of February 1st 2019, twenty two councils in the UK have declared a climate emergency and many more look set to follow suit. The impetus has come from the Extinction Rebellion network who are pushing for ‘legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025’. One of their key demands states:
‘We do not however, trust our Government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians. Instead we demand a Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes, as we rise from the wreckage, creating a democracy fit for purpose.
This is exciting and the potential impact huge. Research conducted by Rebecca Willis for Green Alliance based around interviews with 23 current and former MPs, found that politicians understand the need for action on climate change, but that it is not straightforward for them to make the case for it. They do not currently know whether there is a public mandate for action on climate change.
The report concluded ‘one practical way in which politicians could explore the public mandate for action and develop meaningful policy solutions is through greater use of deliberative processes such as citizens assemblies’.
Mini-publics offer practical solutions to complex problems
Citizens Assemblies (of 50-160 people) come from a rich tradition of deliberative democracy, but they are not the only ‘mini public’ in town.
Citizens Juries’ (of 20-30 people) are another similar, but smaller and therefore cheaper approach, which is worthy of attention especially when we consider the role of such processes at a local not national level.
But to realise their potential both approaches must be done well and we must learn from their past use. Our experience of running over thirty Citizens’ Juries suggests their legitimacy and impact will be strengthened if they have the following features:
- Participants are randomly selected. This is usually stratified, meaning the population is divided into a number of separate social groups (reflecting the diversity of the local population) and a random sample is then drawn from each group using the electoral roll, knocking door to door etc. They aim to be demographically diverse.
- The right question: Carefully worded, easy to understand and broad enough to empower participants to think creatively, such as ‘how should Burnley respond to climate change?’
- Incentives: To show we value their commitment participants are paid to attend (we usually pay Citizens’ Jury members £20 per 2.5 hour session).
- Duration: Each jury should be at least twenty hours in length. This is not a focus group. Time is essential if we want to enable participants explore the complexity of the issue, to understand the opinions and experiences of other jury members, to challenge each other, to disagree, to ultimately strive (where possible) for consensus and to write a set of recommendations.
- ‘Expert input’: Members of the jury or assembly are helped in their deliberations through the input of outside experts who are invited to present and then be questioned or ‘cross-examined’.
- Facilitators: Who can ensure the process is not dominated by a vocal few and that everyone is able to have a fair say.
- An oversight panel: Key influential and powerful stakeholders meet regularly to check the legitimacy and robustness of the process. For example, for a constituency-based process it may include the MP, leaders of local authorities, chamber of commerce, relevant academics, senior business/third sector representatives etc.
‘According to Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts and former prime ministerial strategist, Citizen’s Assemblies could help orchestrate a properly informed public debate and give “politicians the courage to make the right decisions for the long-term.” Prospect magazine (2018)
To have legitimacy and power a Citizens Assembly or Citizens Jury is not a light undertaking.
Like any democratic process it has risks. It’s members may write a set of recommendations that some climate change activists may feel are not the ‘right answers’.
However, the potential benefits are huge. For the national or local politician unable to identify a mandate for action on climate change mini-publics provide a way of finding out what an informed public think. They allow citizens to navigate the complexity of possible responses to climate change considering the role of the individual consumer, government and corporations and everything in between, before reaching their conclusions on what action is best for the greater public good.
In Gdansk Poland a 60 strong Citizens Assembly was selected to deliberate on the issue of flood mitigation. The mayor Pawel Adamowicz (who was tragically assassinated in January 2019) agreed that any recommendation with over 80% support from the Citizens Assembly membership would automatically be implemented by the City authority.
The Green Alliance report mentioned above noted that politicians see climate change as an ‘outsider issue’, ‘many MPs identified a particular group of voters, mostly affluent, educated city dwellers, who are vocal advocates of climate action. But for the overwhelming majority of people climate change is a nonissue’. However, the MPs interviewed expressed an interest in hearing what their constituents feel about the issue.
A mandate expressed through the deliberations of a robust Citizens Jury style process is much more difficult to dismiss as little more than the ideas of a group of left-leaning environmental campaigners. It is an effective riposte to the negative stereotyping of those frustrated by the inaction of politicians such as members of Extinction Rebellion who are described in a Spectator blog as ‘a wannabe Marxist revolution in disguise’, ‘raggle-headed eco warriors’ and ‘terribly nice middle class students’.
When trust is fractured, legitimacy becomes the holy grail for hard pressed politicians
A Citizens Assembly style process may not only give MPs the mandate to push for national legislation but also for local politicians to do the same at a local level.
The UNDP estimates that local authorities are responsible for more than 70% of climate change reduction measures. Local politicians (especially those with devolved powers) are able to influence transport systems, efficient homes, land use, local energy generation, air quality and economic development. Bristol’s ambitions to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 is an example of the importance of a locally defined vision irrespective of what is happening on a national and international stage.
Locally elected officials that are arguably more nimble than their national counterparts still need to work from a mandate. A Citizens’ Jury or Assembly can provide such a vision, indeed it can go further. Without fail at the end of each Citizens’ Jury style process I have run over the last fifteen years, after the recommendations have been launched, a significant proportion of each jury vows to continue to meet and push for change.
In Blackburn the randomly selected members of an Obesity Citizens Jury took action on one of their own recommendations and set up a food co-op in their neighbourhood. The co-op staffed by jury members and fellow residents was still running some eight years later with a membership of over 400 families. Let’s see what could come out the similar process working on climate change.
Read more about Shared Future’s work on Citizen Inquiries
Peter Bryant is a director of Shared Future and ex-board member of Global Justice Now. He has run Citizens’ Juries on a range of topics from fracking to alcohol harm.