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Citizens’ Assemblies: can they help reverse the decline in public trust of key institutions?



By John Coss


John is Vice chair of Stockport Humanists. In this article he explains how citizens’ assemblies seek to combine two requirements: the experience and knowhow of “experts” and the considered views of ordinary citizens.



A citizens’ assembly is a deliberative democratic process that brings together a representative group of citizens to discuss, deliberate, and develop recommendations on a specific issue or set of issues. Unlike traditional forms of public consultation, citizens’ assemblies are designed to facilitate informed, thoughtful discussions among participants, leading to well-considered and balanced recommendations for policymakers. They can address a wide range of complex and controversial issues, for example:


  • Political Reform: Electoral systems, voting methods and democratic governance.

  • Social Policies: Healthcare, education, housing, welfare, drugs policy and social justice.

  • Environmental Issues: Climate change, sustainability, conservation and environmental policies.

  • Urban Planning: Transportation, infrastructure, urban development and community planning.

  • Public Services: Budget allocations, service delivery, and public sector reforms.

  • Ethical and Moral Issues: Bioethics, human rights, equality, assisted dying and abortion.

 

There are analogies with juries, in that both involve a random selection of ordinary citizens to deliberate on particular matters, intended to represent diverse perspectives and reach informed conclusions based on collaborative decision making. A major difference is that juries normally have 12 members, whereas citizens’ assemblies typically have around 100 participants.  Where the number of participants is materially lower, they may be called citizens’ juries. An example is the Jersey Assisted Dying Citizens Jury which had 23 participants and issued its final report in September 2019: 18 (78%) of the Jury members agreed that assisted dying should be permitted in Jersey:


  • where a Jersey resident, aged 18 or over, has a terminal illness or is experiencing unbearable suffering and wishes to end their life, and

  • subject to stringent safeguards including a pre-approval process; a mandatory period of reflection and consideration; with the direct assistance from doctors or nurses only, as opposed to non-medically qualified staff.


The Jersey States Assembly subsequently approved assisted dying “in principle” in November 2021, and is due to discuss detailed proposals in May 2024.


How citizens’ assemblies operate – key features

Participant Selection

Participants are usually selected through a process known as sortition, where individuals are randomly chosen with the aim of producing a diverse and representative sample of the relevant population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and other relevant demographics for the issues being considered.


Expert Input

Citizens’ assemblies typically include presentations on the chosen topic(s) from experts, stakeholders, and advocates of particular approaches, and often invite submissions from the general public, to provide participants with factual information, diverse perspectives, and context for their discussions.


Deliberation

Participants engage in structured deliberative discussions, debates, and collaborative activities over a series of meetings or sessions, guided by trained facilitators. The goal is to explore different viewpoints, evaluate evidence, and develop well-informed recommendations or solutions.


Decision-Making

At the conclusion of the assembly, participants may vote or reach consensus on a set of recommendations, which are then included in a final report or document, indicating the level of support among the participants for each recommendation. This report usually includes extensive discussion of how the assembly was organised and operated, and is presented to policymakers, stakeholders and the public for consideration and action. In some cases, an independent review of the conduct of the assembly is commissioned, with the findings made public.

 

There are of course a number of practical issues which must be properly addressed. For example, it is easier to specify the characteristics of a representative sample than to actually achieve it. Unlike juries, participation is voluntary in citizens’ assemblies, and may involve considerable difficulties and costs for some participants in addition to the directly related expenses for which they are normally reimbursed, for example as to child-minding and other caring responsibilities. And some meetings may be held remotely, which can raise issues of access and ability to participate fully. A good deal of attention is generally given to these aspects of participation, and considerable efforts made to minimise adverse effects. In addition, the expert input to the assembly should represent the whole range of opinions on the matters being considered, and the facilitators of the discussions should be well equipped for this important role. Finally, the conclusions of the assembly need to be properly carried forward and communicated to the relevant community, whether this is national, state or provincial, or a particular locality or interest group. Much of the criticism of particular citizens' assemblies is directed at perceived failure to address some or all of these issues.


I have provided links to reports giving detailed accounts of processes and outcomes for a number of citizens’ assemblies held in the UK and Ireland, which show how these issues and problems are addressed. My impression is that they are now generally recognised, and there is much good practice to draw on, notably in Ireland, where several national citizens’ assemblies have been held in recent years. The latest, on drugs policy, presented its final report including 36 recommendations in January 2024, advocating “A decriminalised model, put in place by a pivot from a reliance, in the first instance, on a criminal justice response towards a comprehensive health-led response”. Their recommendations accord well with the humanist approach I proposed in A Humanist Proposal in the April 2022 issue of Humanistically Speaking, and the approach advocated by the Global Commission on Drugs Policy.


Another useful source is a report to the Scottish Parliament on lessons to be learned from Ireland, Brussels and Paris. And in the UK, Involve and The Sortition Foundation offer advice and practical assistance. They have been involved in many citizens’ assemblies, including the Jersey citizens’ jury mentioned earlier. Their web sites provide a wealth of information about the development and potential use of citizens’ assemblies, see for example 10 good reasons to run a citizens’ assembly.  


Several hundred citizens’ assemblies (or juries) have now been conducted world-wide, with quite a number of these held in the UK, including Climate Assembly UK organised in 2020 by a number of House of Commons Select Committees, and The Citizens' Assembly of Scotland established in 2019 by the Scottish Government to deliberate on three broad issues of Scottish society:


  • 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 detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?  

Citizens’ assemblies have also been undertaken by or on behalf of a number of UK local authorities, for example on climate change in Camden, Lancaster and Kendal, and on air quality in Kingston, and also for some non-government institutions. Of particular note is the citizens’ assembly on democracy conducted by the Constitution Unit at UCL in 2021. It produced four kinds of outputs, all of which in my view merit serious attention:


  • a set of 16 core principles that members thought would characterise a good democracy in the UK

  • 8 resolutions summing up members’ conclusions in three areas of democracy that they focused on

  • 51 specific recommendations fleshing out the resolutions in detail

  • 20 overarching statements of members’ feelings about how democracy is working in the UK today.

 

There are good reasons why many decisions in the public sphere should be grounded in relevant experience and knowhow, but also reflect the considered views of ordinary citizens rather than left entirely to “experts”. Citizens’ assemblies seek to combine these two requirements. So they have the potential to make a useful input to policy making and help reverse the decline in trust of key institutions among the public. This view is shared by the Electoral Reform Society, and Matthew Taylor, writing in The Economist when he was chief executive of the RSA. It seems from recent reports that the Labour Party now shares this view too, so we may see more citizens’ assemblies at the national level in the UK in coming years. As stressed above, to achieve their potential requires appropriate design including support structures, and adequate funding. In this connection, there is much we can usefully learn in the UK from the Irish experience.   

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I quite like the idea of citizen assemblies, but as pointed out by Eric below, they would tend to be filled with ‘interested’ types. I accept the sortation system, and careful selection of experts, professionals and people in the know. In Bournemouth, 3,000 people stopped a wind farm happening. How did 3,000 over rule a population of 400,000? People interested in stopping it, got together and voiced such. Those happy for it to happen didn't attend or speak up. Should there have been a pro-wind farm rally? Does every free Palestine march need to be countered with a pro-israel one? Left leaners protest, right leaning conservatives don't. They still have an opinion, but are not public disruptionists.


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Eric Hayman
Eric Hayman
May 01

"A citizens’ assembly is a deliberative democratic process that brings together a representative group of citizens . . ."

 

How is such an assembly " representative" and “democratic” when only those who want to be part of the assembly put their names forward for membership? Just as with candidates to be local councillors and MPs, it is only those who want to tell others how they should live their lives that put their names on voting lists.

 

As for thinking a panel of such people would be better than one made up of "experts" – I prefer the word “professionals” – who would you rather operated on you to mend a broken leg?  An expert/professional or someone off…

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