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What is a Citizens' Assembly?

What is a Citizens' Assembly?

Citizens’ Assemblies are having a bit of a moment in the UK, with Extinction Rebellion calling for them, and national governments, parliaments and local authorities commissioning them on subjects including the future of social care, air quality, transport and climate change. But what exactly is a Citizens’ Assembly?

For your comfort and safety, webcasting is in use during this workshop

For your comfort and safety, webcasting is in use during this workshop

As a participation professional who’s been lurking around NHS Citizen as it develops, one of the most exciting aspects has been the webcasting.  Even the debriefing team meeting at the end of the NHS Citizen Design Workshop in January this year (2015) was webcast.  This is a level of openness and commitment to transparent reflection that goes way beyond anything I’ve been involved with before.  I fell in love with NHS Citizen as I watched that. 

On the other hand, when I was sitting down to design the detail of the particular event I was brought in to facilitate - the Citizens’ Jury test in Hatfield on 3rd and 4th March 2015 - I had some reservations.

Some lessons from Citizens Juries enquiring into onshore wind in Scotland

I've been reading "Involving communities in deliberation: A study of 3 citizens’ juries on onshore wind farms in Scotland" by Dr. Jennifer Roberts (University of Strathclyde) and Dr. Oliver Escobar (University of Edinburgh), published in May 2015.

This is a long, detailed report with lots of great facilitation and public participation geekery in it.  I've picked out some things that stood out for me and that I'm able to contrast or build on from my own (limited) experience of facilitating a Citizens' Jury.  But there are plenty more insights so do read it for yourself.

I've stuck to points about the Citizen Jury process - if you're looking for insights into onshore wind in Scotland, you won't find them in this blog post!

What are Citizens' Juries for?

This report takes as an underlying assumption that its focus - and a key purpose of deliberation - is learning and opinion change, which will then influence the policies and decisions of others.  The jury is not seen as "an actual decision making process" p 19

"Then ... the organisers feed the outputs into the relevant policy and/or decision making processes." p4

In the test of a Citizens’ Jury that I helped run for NHS Citizen, there was quite a different mandate being piloted.  The idea is that when the Citizens’ Jury is run ‘for real’ in NHS Citizen, it will decide the agenda items for a forthcoming Board Meeting of NHS England. 

This is a critical distinction, and anyone commissioning a Citizens’ Jury needs to be very clear what the Jury is empowered to decide (if anything) and what it is being asked for its views, opinions or preferences on.  In the latter case, the Citizens’ Jury becomes essentially a sophisticated form of consultation. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be very clear from the start which type of involvement is being sought.

Having confidence in the Citizens’ Jury process

To be a useful consultant mechanism, stakeholders and decision-makers need to have confidence in the Citizens’ Jury process.  This applies even more strongly when the Jury has decision-making powers. 

The organisers and commissioners need to consider how to ensure confidence in a range of things:

  • the selection of jurors and witnesses,
  • the design of the process (including the questions jurors are invited to consider and the scope of the conversations),
  • the facilitation of conversations,
  • the record made of conversations and in particular decisions or recommendation,

The juries under consideration in this report benefited from a Stewarding Board.  This type of group is sometimes called a steering group or oversight group. It’s job is to ensure the actual and perceived independence of the process, by ensuring that it is acceptable to parties with quite difference agendas and perspectives.  If they can agree that it’s fair, then it probably is.  Chapter 3 of the report looks at this importance of the Stewarding Board, its composition and the challenging disagreements it needed to resolve in this process.

In our NHS Citizen test of the Citizens’ Jury concept, we didn’t have an equivalent structure, although we did seek advice and feedback from the wider NHS Citizen community (for example see this blog post and the comment thread) as well as from our witnesses, evaluators with experience of Citizens’ Juries. We also drew on our own insights and judgements as independent convenors and facilitators.  My recommendation is that there be a steering group of some kind for future Citizens’ Juries within NHS Citizen.

What role for campaigners and activists?

The report contains some interesting reflections on the relationship between deliberative conversations in ‘mini publics’ and citizens who have chosen to become better informed and more active on an issue to the extent of becoming activists or campaigners.  (Mini public is an umbrella term for any kind of “forum composed of citizens who have been randomly selected to reflect the range of demographic and attitudinal characteristics from the broader population – e.g. age, gender, income, opinion, etc.” pp3-4)

The report talks about a key feature of Citizens’ Juries being that they

“...use random selection to ensure diversity and thus “reduce the influence of elites, interest advocates and the ‘incensed and articulate’”

(The embedded quote is from Carolyn Hendriks’ 2011. The politics of public deliberation: citizen engagement and interest advocacy, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.)

So what is the role of the incensed and the articulate in a Citizens’ Jury?  The detail of this would be decided by the steering group or equivalent, but broadly there are two roles outlined in the report: being a member of the steering group and thus helping to ensure confidence in the process; and being a witness, helping the jurors to see multiple aspects of the problem they are considering.  See pp 239-240 for more on this.

Depending on the scope of the questions the Citizens’ Jury is being asked to deliberate, this could mean a very large steering group or set of witnesses.  The latter would increase the length of the jury process considerably, which makes scoping the questions a pragmatic as well as a principled decision.

The project ran from April 2013 to May 2015.  You can read the full report here.

Thanks very much to Clive Mitchell of Involve who tipped me off about this report.

See also my reflections on the use of webcasting for the NHS Citizen Citizens' Jury test.

What's up for grabs?

Spurred on by discussions over at the Involve blog, I want to share a really useful framework for those of you who are thinking about engaging stakeholders or (sections of) the public while you decide what to do about something. At the start, discussions within the organisation which is asking for input need to establish clarity about what's alread fixed, what's completely open and what there are some preferences about but where there is room for change.


Pie Chart: Lindsey Colbourne

Not negotiable - At the start of your engagement process it is likely that what's decided (and thus not negotiable) may be at the level of overall objectives, and timescales.  For example, a Government department may have a policy objective and a legal deadline to meet.   A local council may know that it wants to revamp a local park, and have a potential funding source whose criteria it needs to meet.

Negotiable - You may have some existing preferences, ideas or initiatives which have been piloted and could be rolled out.  There may be some technical information which will inform the decision or be used to assess options.  There may be criteria which you are bound to, or want to use, but haven't yet applied to the options.

Open - There will be aspects of the decision which you have no preference about and where the decisions can in effect (even if not in law or within your organisation's own rules) be delegated to others.

Remember that you will also have decided-negotiable-open aspects to your engagement process - the people you talk to, the points at which you engage them, the methods and channels which are used.

The conversation you have internally with your team about what goes in each slice of the pie can often be dramatically useful: flushing out assumptions which have hitherto been hidden, and exposing disagreements within the team in the safety of your planning conversations rather than in the less forgiving gaze of stakeholders.

The pie slices shift over time

At the start of the process, it's likely that the 'decided' slice is slimmer than the other two.  As the process unfolds, things usually shift from 'open' to 'negotiable' and from 'negotiable' to 'decided'. Principles and assessment criteria get agreed. Ways of working are negotiated. Working groups or consultation processes are established. Exploratory conversations crystalise into options which get fleshed out and then assessed. Some options get discarded and others emerge as front-runners.

Sometimes, things can move in the other direction: when opposition is so strong that you have to think again, or when new information emerges which shows that ways forward which had seemed marginal are now much more likely to work.  In extreme circumstances, this may lead to the initiative being abandoned altogether. The debacle over England's publicly-owned forests is an example of this.

Tell people what's 'up for grabs'

There's no point asking people what you should do about something if you have already made up your mind.

By all means ask for feedback which will help you communicate your decisions more clearly. Understanding people's concerns and aspirations means you can address them directly in your explanations about why you have made a particular decision and how to expect to implement and review it.

Do people the simple courtesy of letting them know which aspects of situation you are most keen to get their feedback and ideas about - which information will most helpful in informing the decision, the dilemmas you'd like to think through with them, the innovative ideas you'd like to test out.

That way, everyone's time is spent where it can make the most difference.

Simples.

Thanks to...

Acknowledgements to Lindsey Colbourne and others at the late lamented Sustainable Development Commission, InterAct Networks, Sciencewise-ERC and the Environment Agency who have been developing and working with this framework over the last few years.