Author: Gavin Barker
Citizen assemblies and citizen juries (sometimes called mini-publics) are made up of five stages:1
Usually, a Stewarding Committee oversees the process to ensure its quality and fairness. For instance, in the Canadian Citizen Assemblies on Electoral Reform, the Committee included academics and public figures from a range of backgrounds and opposing views. Often, mini-publics (citizen assemblies, panels and juries) deal with divisive topics, and thus their legitimacy and impact hinge on the buy-in from a range of voices across divides – as well as the public standing of their guarantors, stewards and funders. Recruiting members of the assembly (or jury/panel) is done through a process called ‘stratified random sortition’ a sampling technique used to select a group of participants that reflect the demographic makeup of a target population (a town, city, region or country).
Participants are supported to learn about the topic from diverse perspectives. This can be done by combining time for individual learning (e.g. citizens receive background information packs agreed by the Stewarding Committee), with time for group learning. During the latter, they are exposed to a range of evidence, views and testimonies covering the topic from various angles. Depending on the topic, this may include experts, officials, politicians, activists and stakeholder representatives of various sorts (e.g. business, third sector, local communities). Participants are empowered to interrogate these ‘witnesses’, and sometimes to choose them from a list of speakers prepared by the Stewarding Committee – who oversees that the mini-public is exposed to a balanced range of evidence and views.
Aided by impartial facilitators, participants then engage in small group face-to-face deliberation where they reconsider their initial ideas on the topic in the light of the evidence and testimonies from the learning phase, but also with respect to the arguments and experiences of their fellow deliberators.
The learning and deliberative work from previous stages enables participants to engage in considered judgement and informed decision-making.2 Depending on the topic, and the type of mini-public, this may lead to a particular recommendation, set of recommendations or decision, which must be articulated through reasoned arguments in the final report or statement. That is the case in consensus-oriented mini-publics such as Citizen Juries – which, like court juries, respond to a ‘charge’– as well as Consensus Conferences and Citizen Assemblies. In research-focussed mini-publics, such as Deliberative Polls, the aim is not to reach consensus, but to measure through pre- and post- surveys how citizens’ preferences may change through learning and deliberation.
The focus in this stage is impact. Ideally, the mini-public has already been in the ‘public eye’ from its inception. One way to ensure impact is to involve key public figures and broadcasters in the process and Stewarding Committee. In this final stage, the outcomes and outputs of the mini-public are shared through all relevant networks, thus informing broader public deliberation and decision-making.
Involve - How Do I Set Up a Citizen Assembly? This gives a more detailed step by step process. Involve are experts in this so it is well worth a look.
Brexit - Citizen Assembly on Brexit. This was a project by UCL Constitution Unit
Irish National Citizens Assembly on Abortion - A summary in The Guardian and an explanation of why this process should have been used to explore the value of Brexit.
British Columbia Citizen Assembly on Electoral Reform - See this article on Participedia Website
Citizen Assemblies on English Devolution - A report from Democracy Matters
Sortition Foundation - A key organisation to assist in the process of Stratified Random Sortition is the Sortition Foundation using a community tariff.
A common concern about citizens assemblies is cost. A national citizens assembly may cost £150,000 to £250,000. One conducted by a local authority can be around £60,000. Yet these costs pale into comparison to other forms of consultation practised by local and national government. The 2015 Airports Commission on the Heathrow-Gatwick expansion cost £20 million – the same price tag for consultancy fees paid out by Hampshire County Council in the same year.3 Birmingham City Council paid out £8 million in consultancy fees, Bristol City Council £2.59 million also in the same year.4 On the whole citizens assemblies are far cheaper and more effective forms of consultation that add democratic legitimacy to the difficult decisions elected representatives have to make.
1. See Forms of Mini-publics by Dr Oliver Escobar, a lecturer at University of Edinburgh and co-director of What Works Scotland. https://www.newdemocracy.com.au/2017/05/08/forms-of-mini-publics/
2. See Deliberation a research note by New Democracy https://newdemocracy.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/docs_researchnotes_2017_March_nDF_RN_20170322_Deliberation.pdf
3. The Peoples Verdict by Claudia Chwalisz
4. County tops table with £20m consultancy spend. Local Government Chronicle 12-Oct-2016
Constitutional Reform, local government, Neighbourhood Democracy, politics, England, Handbook