What is a Citizens' Assembly?

Involve Practitioners’ Meeting: Tim Hughes, Involve.

Involve Practitioners’ Meeting: Tim Hughes, Involve.

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?

Citizens’ Assemblies in a nutshell

A Citizens’ Assembly is a coming together of members of the public, selected rather than self-selected or elected, who have extended conversations about a particular topic facilitated by independent facilitators and informed by carefully selected experts or witnesses. The Citizens’ Assembly will generally make recommendations – although sometimes they are mandated to take decisions.

Defining features

Let’s look at some of those defining features in a bit more detail:

Members of the public – rather than people who work for organisations with a stake in the topic or are activists or campaigners.

Selected – this could be completely randomly from a source such as the electoral register (the way a jury is), or there might be some criteria applied so that the assembly as a whole reflects particular demographic features such as age, gender, previous views expressed e.g. voting one way or another or not at all in a previous ballot. Sometimes, groups which are often underrepresented may be deliberately over represented in the assembly, such as people with disabilities or homeless people.

These two features together make Citizens’ Assemblies a ‘mini public’ process.

Extended conversations – often called ‘deliberation’, these long conversations may extend over two or three weekends. So the recommendations are made following in-depth conversation where people get a chance to really listen to each other’s perspectives.

Particular topic – whoever commissions the Citizens’ Assembly will be doing so in order to help it solve a knotty problem which it hasn’t been able to solve up to now. The framing of the topic is very important: if the recommendations are going to inform the work of a local authority, is there any point asking the assembly to consider what national government should do? How do you ensure that the questions are not ‘leading’ or seen as so by different groups of stakeholders?

Independent facilitation – professional, independent facilitators are used to ensure that the process doesn’t favour a particular interest and that everyone gets a good opportunity to speak and be heard, and that the record is fair and accurate.

Experts or witnesses – the citizens’ deliberations are informed by written and live evidence from a range of people with expertise (including expertise derived from personal experience as well as more academic or professional expertise).

Carefully selected – who selects? Who decides the criteria? Who decides the framing, the questions, the evidence? There will be some kind of multi-stakeholder oversight group who ensure that the process – from framing the initial questions, to selecting the participants and experts, to ensuring everyone is able to take part (think access, interpretation, child care, travel costs etc).

Make recommendations, or take decisions – the status of the conclusions (are they decisions or recommendations) varies from case to case.

Citizens’ Assemblies vary in size, length, manner of selecting participants, weight given to their conclusions and how transparent their deliberations are.

To find out more, there are great resources on the Involve website, Electoral Reform Society, and there are some interesting project examples on citizensassembly.co.uk

And thank you to Involve who convened a really productive afternoon for practitioners on how we might collectively respond to the upsurge in demand for this kind of deliberative process.

Making the Path by Walking

This post was first published in my Making the Path by Walking newsletter, June 2019. For practical tips on facilitation, organisational change and sustainability to your inbox each month, scroll down to the footer to subscribe.