There’s now a fair bit of experience with citizens assemblies or juries, in a range of formats, nationally and more locally based. What have we learned? Here’s one recent summary of how to do it from the Democratic Society. This third session on engagement heard additional reflections from several people closely involved in some of the UK’s efforts.

Rebecca Willis, Lancaster University. A citizens assembly selects participants to be representative of a population as a whole, so you have the (city) or country “in miniature, in a room”.

So: Climate Assembly UK recruited 110 citizens representative of the country as a whole in age, social background, ethnicity, educational level and views on climate change. This makes it different from a people’s assembly, which is typically open to anyone.

An assembly also about deliberation – with three phases: learning, deliberation, recommendations – each with a designed process.

This is a very good way to get a real understanding of how people think we should respond to the climate crisis. This is crucial because, as her own research has shown, politicians are very prone to underestimate public support for climate action. Even those who want to act on climate change worry about lack of public support.

Also, the climate community are good at saying what needs to be done, but bad at working out implementation. Item: how will you get a democratically elected government to back your plan? They seem to hope for a magic wand that will translate their technically argued solutions into action.

Without such a wand the challenge is to develop approaches to climate strategy that work with the grain of people’s lives and have a chance of winning support. Citizens’ assemblies can help.

For a longer view of the argument, see Becky’s new book, Too Hot to Handle: The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change.

In practice, it has been very encouraging to see the level of detail at which people engaged with very complex issues, which adds to the conviction that citizens’ assemblies are a good way of contributing to policy development and decision-making. “When MPs come along and see this process happening, they’re really bowled over by it”.

It is also useful that citizens, as non-experts, bring different, and often challenging, thinking to the problem. For example, during the Leeds citizens’ jury discussion, it was suggested that money earmarked for building a new link road to the airport could be diverted to finance improvements to housing instead – something normal policy discussion might not envisage.

The crucial thing is how this all links back into democratic decision-making, locally or nationally. In the national case, the assembly is feeding back to a clutch of select committees. Then, who knows? But there is a chance they can make representative democracy work better. The interim recommendations, relating to post-COVID recovery, are already posted on the website, and the full report is due in September 2020.

Bear in mind, though, that this is an example. There are other, smaller (and cheaper) deliberative processes that can also be set-up to be representative.

Peter Bryant, of Shared Future described one such effort.

SF have run citizens’ juries in Leeds, Lancaster and Kendall. Juries are smaller (20-40 people), but the process is similar. Used to be meetings, but now moving online, for obvious reasons.

In Leeds, the jury was designed to allow deliberation, which takes time – perhaps 30 hours in total (this is not a focus group). It involved 30 randomly selected members of the public, recruited by letter (4,000 sent out), with final participants chosen to fit a roughly representative profile of the city. Jurists were paid for their time – £250 in vouchers – and there was a budget for other support as needed.

With facilitators, they heard from witnesses/commentators on each topic, and produced recommendations. There was an oversight group for the whole process, allowing local stakeholders to approve the recruitment, the overall question, and identify the commentators who made presentations. It can also be used to help take the recommendations to decision-makers.

The sessions are tailored to the needs of the group, and involve plenty of ice-breakers, warm-ups, simple mapping exercises, and discussion in subsets large and small, both to come up with questions after witnesses’ presentations and for the recommendations. (That is, it is nothing like a jury in a courtroom).

The information-gathering ran over 8 evenings, with 2.5 hour sessions each time. Later sessions accommodated topics selected by the jury.

Rough cost for the whole exercise – £30-35k

Anonymous prioritisation of the recommendations, which is this case were presented to the city Council’s Climate Emergency Advisory Committee and are helping guide the work of the Leeds Climate Commission.

One result of all this is a group of people with a lot of knowledge and commitment, who can then take on a role in further policy discussion and review (and will probably want to).

Louise Crow from MySociety talked about the technology in all this.

Citizens assemblies need digital tools (now especially). These have to be set up to offer the essential attributes already noted – allowing representative input into a properly organised deliberative process. COVID aside, digital tools can offer some advantages, in terms of impact, transparency, visibility, openness to input and including a wide range of views. All of these can help build public support for the process and the recommendations for exercises that otherwise only involve a small number of people.

Specific possibiities. Before an assembly, there are digital routes to:

– Telling people it’s happening;

– Shaping the questions;

– Allowing submissions

(using web forms, free survey tools, and clustering tools).

During the assembly, you can go digital to

– help inform members

– manage attendance

– allow voting

– group participants

– access a wide range of experts

– assist deliberation

– represent arguments.

And evidence sessions can of course be broadcast.

Note, though, that Assemblies that went online in midstream because of COVID had to work hard to make sure people had the right kit and knew how to use it. Representative participation has to cross the digital divide to be meaningful.

Results and evidence can also be shared, by publication online or live streaming, as well as offering samples of participants’ experiences to a wider audience. And online offerings can help track implementation of recommendations and allow feedback from non-participants.

Note that the qualities sought in deliberative processes are not generally a feature of social media channels! So any social media accounts linked to assemblies and the like are probably best kept at a distance from the process.

Adopting digital tools, in general, is not rocket science. For most organisations it means extending things they already have some experience of, such as websites, blogging tools, email newsletters and surveys. But don’t forget the basics:

– Clear design;

– Discoverability;

– Accessibility;

– Plain language;

– and Archiving.

MySociety has a detailed report on Digital Tools for Citizens Assemblies, which is available here. (among other resources). This whole array of tools was discussed in more detail in the previous week’s meeting, including a talk and detailed slides from Louise’s colleague Alex Parsons.

Additional Resources

How to run a citizens’ assembly: Handbook from the Innovation in Democracy Programme