CASE

Sheffield Citizens' Assembly on Devolution

First Submitted By mbd1g17

Most Recent Changes By Scott Fletcher

General Issues
Governance & Political Institutions
Specific Topics
Regional & Global Governance
Tags
Democratic Innovation
Dialogue & Deliberation
Scope of Influence
Regional
Files
https://s3.amazonaws.com/uploads.participedia.xyz/14a98689-7533-4440-a13f-13540f956e05_Citizens-Assembly-on-Brexit-Report.pdf
https://s3.amazonaws.com/uploads.participedia.xyz/ec69ed04-0f41-49ae-a4de-17d19cf8f2e6_Assembly-North-Overview-Report.pdf
Links
https://citizensassembly.co.uk/democracy-matters/sheffield/
Start Date
End Date
Ongoing
No
Time Limited or Repeated?
A single, defined period of time
Purpose/Goal
Research
Make, influence, or challenge decisions of government and public bodies
Develop the civic capacities of individuals, communities, and/or civil society organizations
Approach
Research
Consultation
Spectrum of Public Participation
Consult
Total Number of Participants
32
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Limited to Only Some Groups or Individuals
Recruitment Method for Limited Subset of Population
random
Legality
Yes
Facilitators
Yes
Facilitator Training
Trained, Nonprofessional Facilitators
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
Face-to-Face
Types of Interaction Among Participants
Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
Ask & Answer Questions
Listen/Watch as Spectator
Information & Learning Resources
Written Briefing Materials
Decision Methods
Idea Generation
Voting
Communication of Insights & Outcomes
Public Report
New Media
Type of Organizer/Manager
Academic Institution
Non-Governmental Organization
Funder
Electoral Reform Society
Type of Funder
Government-Owned Corporation
Staff
Yes
Volunteers
Yes
Evidence of Impact
No
Formal Evaluation
Yes
Evaluation Report Documents
981f0ff0-0f6d-497a-a0d9-5d251ce2a264_Democracy-Matters-2015-Citizens-Assemblies-Report1.pdf

Assembly North brought 32 people together to discuss South Yorkshire’s devolution and resulting influence on the democratic system. Participants voted for two devolved regional bodies and a directly elected regional assembly, but no government action was taken.

Problems and Purpose

The Assembly North citizens’ assembly that took place in Sheffield across two weekends in October and November 2015. Comprised of 32 participants, the Assembly was created in response to a planned devolution of South Yorkshire’s government.[1] Assembly participants were asked to consider the questions facing residents and officials of the region, such as whether devolution of local governance would deliver public services more efficiently and effectively, what form the resulting devolved public body should take, and to what extent such devolution would strengthen democracy in the UK.[2]

Background History and Context

Assembly North was created in response to constitutional changes in the UK. The UK Parliament has been devolving powers of government to local authorities since the passing of the localism act of 2011.[3] After two-thirds of voters in Sheffield rejected the proposal for a directly elected mayor for the city in 2012, the City Region Combined Authority committed to public consultation on any new model of governance.[4] 

Prior to the assembly’s first meeting, the civic leaders of the Sheffield City Region had just agreed to a devolution deal outlined by Chancellor George Osbourne. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority had also agreed a devolution deal in 2014, which generated interest in Sheffield.[5] The Assembly also took place in the context of the 2014 Scottish Referendum on Independence which had challenged centralized government at the national level.  

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

Assembly North was organised by the project Democracy Matters, as well as support from the Electoral Reform Society and the University of Sheffield, the University of Southampton, University of Westminster and University College London. It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.[6]

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The project team drew participants from the four South Yorkshire authority areas; Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. They aspired to have 45 respondents who accurately represented the South Yorkshire population in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. Hotel accommodation and meals were provided as was compensation for travel costs.[7] 

Participants were chosen by random selection via a YouGov online panel. There were 5,000 potential participants. The first stage of the recruitment process involved a survey which asked basic questions such as if respondents knew what citizens’ assemblies were and whether they would be interested in taking part. Of the 650 people who completed this survey, 111 agreed to cooperate in the next stage. A second survey was distributed to those who expressed interest which asked questions about availability and was more specific about the topics that would be discussed. This produced a smaller group who were emailed information about the logistics of the event and finer details such as accommodation and catering. Two weeks before the first weekend, the research team contacted the respondents by phone to get confirmation of attendance and answer questions. Finally, a few days before the Assembly, a third survey asked participants if they still intended to take part and gave a phone number for any further questions.[8] Out of 43 people who indicated they would attend the first weekend, 32 did. 31 of them attended the second weekend.[9] This high retention rate reflected strong engagement among members.[10] 

It was difficult to include young people who had childcare difficulties or prior commitments on the weekends. 2% of participants fell in the 18-24 age bracket, and 13% were aged 26-35. By contrast, older age groups were overrepresented; 34% were aged 56-65 and 25% were 65+.[11] The older generation are likely to have more time. 

Methods and Tools Used

The public engagement process used the Citizens' Assembly method and deliberative tools and techniques included small-group discussions to whole-group debates, interactive presentations, Q&A’s, and expert ‘speed dating’.[12] The organisers opted for a citizens’ assembly as their method of research as it allows citizens to engage with a variety of perspectives and contemplate complex constitutional issues. They are also advantageous because they provide opportunities of engagement to typically marginalised groups who are hard to access through other means of public consultation and give an insight into their response to policies.[13]

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

On a basic level, Assembly North deliberated over the issue of devolution and how South Yorkshire should be governed. The discussion was divided into 3 sections surrounding the potential creation of a governing body above current local authorities; its scale, its structure and its powers.[14]

The academic researchers provided briefing papers on the issues to be discussed at the beginning of the first weekend. This team also conversed with Sheffield City Council and the House of Commons between the weekends about questions raised by the participants. Thirty of these questions were addressed, with the responses posted on the Facebook page or presented by representatives at the second weekend. The support team was also responsible for addressing concerns of assembly members.[15]

After the deliberation stage, a final vote was cast on the Sunday of the second weekend. The results are as follows:  

“Participants voted by majority:

· for the Yorkshire & Humber area to form the basis for regional devolution

· for a directly elected regional assembly

· for stronger powers for the area to include some tax-setting and law-making powers, so there is real power in the area over issues such as transport infrastructure, economic development and education

· if asked to vote today, to reject the devolution deal currently on offer for the Sheffield City Region, but to press local politicians to push for a better deal (stronger, more ambitious, more democratic and based on proper consultation) rather than walk away”[16]

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Assembly North members joined the Facebook group, and 52% contributed to discussions. This is well above the 20% that is the standard engagement result for other online communities.[17] This implies citizens’ capacity to engage in highly complex constitutional issues when given in-depth factual information (rather than the tabloid press and so-called ‘fake news’). They form constructive attitudes, and can have their opinions changed by partaking in debate and deliberation.[18] The high retention rate and strong civil engagement of the members of Assembly North has prompted Democracy Matters to hold other civil assemblies, notably the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit in September 2017.[19] It also has the potential of encouraging politicians to endorse methods of public deliberation when formulating future policies.[20]

Assembly North achieved political recognition but did not directly influence policy or government action. The Assembly was referenced in the Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry into the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. The researchers were asked to submit oral evidence of the deliberative discussions to the House of Lords Constitution Committee.[21] The Assembly has served as a case study of a democratic innovation that can positively influence British politics and reduce apathy.[22] 

On the other hand, the Assembly did not have any direct policy outcomes. Prior to the first weekend, the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority (SCRCA) had agreed to the outline of a devolution deal proposed by Chancellor George Osbourne. The majority of the Assembly rejected this deal: the participants were asked to vote on whether the council leaders in South Yorkshire should accept the deal in its current form, try to push for a better deal, or walk away from the idea of a devolution deal. The majority of assembly members (68%) voted to push for a better deal, 10% opted to stick with the deal as it is and 19% chose to walk away.[23] Overall, the Assembly recommended that the council leaders appeal for a more ambitious devolution agreement in the form of a directly elected Yorkshire Assembly, with tax-raising and law-making powers for economic development, transport and communications and education, similar to the Scottish Assembly.[24] In spite of this, the deal was not amended. The Assembly also rejected the implementation of a mayoral position for South Yorkshire. MP Dan Jarvis was elected the first Mayor of South Yorkshire in May 2018. Presently, there are no concrete plans for the establishment of a Yorkshire Assembly.[25] 

In terms of media attention, between 11th September and 2nd December 2015 there were 82 recorded ‘media hits’ such as blog posts (notably from ‘Open Democracy’), newspaper articles, and television and radio discussions. The event was reported on by national newspapers including the Financial Times and The Guardian.[26] The Assembly was also chaired by BBC Yorkshire political editor, Len Tingle.[27]

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Assembly North illustrated the capacity of citizens to engage and deliberate on highly complex governance issues when given the time and information. It also demonstrated the level of public interest in regional affairs and matters of local governance.[28] 

The event highlighted the fact that quality deliberation is expensive and time-consuming. According to official calculations, Assembly North cost £32,000.[29] This total does not include the payment of assembly members, facilitators or assistants, who all volunteered their time for free. The recruitment of staff and training of facilitators is costly. Other costly features of the project include transport, catering and refreshments, composing information packs, website design, and securing participants.[30] In terms of time consumption, the organisation and preparation for one assembly can require anything above 650 hours.[31] The researchers of Assembly North contacted potential participants 3-4 weeks prior to the first weekend. It would be advised to organisers of other assemblies to allow 6 months for the recruitment process in order to achieve greater diversity of participants. 

Although the 32 members were made up of an equal number of men and women, there problems of representation. According to the Assembly’s final report, “because the response rate to the filtering survey was low, it was not possible to meet quota targets to ensure that the assembly was representative in terms of age or ethnic background. Members also displayed, on average, higher levels of political interest than the general population, although the group included many who were not already engaged in formal party politics.” 

The social diversity of the Assembly did not represent wider society. Only 1.8% of the participants were of a non-White background. This did not accurately reflect the ethnic composition of South Yorkshire.[32] This could be overcome in future citizens’ assemblies by targeted over sampling for minorities, or drawing from a larger sample in general. 

As well, a greater proportion of members of the assembly were politically active than is true for the local population. This was, perhaps, a result of using major polling and survey companies (such as YouGov) to recruit participants. Survey company contact lists are often made up of people who are highly attentive to politics,[33] thus the overrepresentation of ‘politically active’ individuals on the assembly.[34] If researchers aim to include citizens who are usually marginalised in the political sphere in their deliberative discussions, an alternative to polling companies to recruit participants may be necessary.[35]

On average, the participants regarded themselves as a 9.5 on a scale of 1-10, compared to 7.4 for the participants of South Yorkshire who were invited but declined to attend. Furthermore, 94% of participants had voted in the 2015 general election. This contrasts with the official national turnout of 66.1%.[36] If the Assembly was repeated, to achieve a greater level of diversity researchers could include a monetary incentive to participants. According to Flinders et al.’s final report on the “Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assembly,” monetary incentives could attract “citizens that are less interested in the topic and hence improve the overall diversity of the participants.”[37] The citizens’ assembly on Brexit in 2017 offered £200 to each person who participated.[38] This group who deliberated in this Assembly constituted a more accurate representation of the population. Another solution to overcome the problem of representation in other citizens’ assemblies would be to make assemblies larger. This could attract more funding and more publicity which would reach apathetic citizens and entice them to participate, thereby increasing accurate representation.[39] 

Despite problems of representation, a high level of quality deliberation was achieved with 100% of participants self-reporting that they had plenty of opportunity to express their opinions and that they felt respected by others when debating ideas. However, note-takers and facilitators contended that 75% was a more accurate figure.[40] Moreover, 9% of the participants of the first weekend and 19% of the second weekend felt discussions had been dominated by one person. This has been corroborated by note-takers and facilitators.[41]

Of note is Assembly North’s lack of government mandate. The Assembly had no commitment from the SCRCA to implement or respond to the recommendations. As a result, the Assembly was a purely academic exercise and had no direct impact on policy-making which may have been frustrating to researchers and participants.[42] In this sense the Assembly was an academic project with no meaningful outcome on policy. It would be interesting to see what could occur following future citizens’ assemblies on devolution if they have government support.[43] 

Overall, if Assembly North was repeated, organisers could allow more time to prepare and fundraise, accurate representation could be increased by using alternative polling companies, and government backing would give the Assembly’s recommendations greater legitimacy in policy decisions.[44] 

See Also

Citizens' Assembly

Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit

References    

[1] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North (Online, 2016), ii, https://citizensassembly.co.uk/assembly-north-overview-report/#Assembly.

[2] “Sheffield Assembly,” UK Citizens’ Assemblies, January 1, 2017, https://citizensassembly.co.uk/democracy-matters/sheffield/.

[3] “Localism Act 2011.” Legislation.Gov.Uk, January 1, 2011. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/20/contents/enacted.

[4] “South Yorkshire Citizens Want Stronger Northern Powerhouse.” UK Citizens’ Assemblies, April 20, 2017. https://citizensassembly.co.uk/south-yorkshire-citizens-want-stronger-northern-powerhouse/.

[5] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North. 

[6] Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (London: University College London, 2017), 1, https://citizensassembly.co.uk/full-report-citizens-assembly-brexit/

[7] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North. 

[8] Flinders, Matthew, Katie Ghose, Will Jennings, Molloy, Brenton Prosser, Alan Renwick, Graham Smith, and Paolo Spada, Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution (London: University College London, 2016), 13-14, http://citizensassembly.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Democracy-Matters-2015-Citizens-Assemblies-Report.pdf. 13-14.

[9] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North, 4.

[10] Citation needed.

[11] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 4.

[12] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North, 5.

[13] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North, 2.

[14] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North, 7.

[15] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North, 5.

[16] “South Yorkshire Citizens Want Stronger Northern Powerhouse.” 

[17] Citation needed

[18] Citation needed

[19] “About the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit.” UK Citizens’ Assemblies, January 1, 2017. https://citizensassembly.co.uk/brexit/about/.

[20] Citation needed

[21] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 51. 

[22] Citation needed

[23] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North, 18.

[24] “Case Study: Assembly North.” Local.Gov.Uk. Local Government Association, January 1, 2018. https://www.local.gov.uk/case-study-assembly-north.

[25] “Where next for Yorkshire Devolution?, The British Academy, accessed Jan 24, 2019, https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/where-next-yorkshire-devolution.

[26] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 51.

[27] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 48.

[28] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 51.

[29] “Case Study: Assembly North.” Local.Gov.Uk. Local Government Association, January 1, 2018. https://www.local.gov.uk/case-study-assembly-north. [BROKEN LINK]

[30] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 46.

[31] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 47.

[32] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 15.

[33] Citation needed. 

[34] Democracy Matters, Revitalising Democracy in South Yorkshire: The Report of Assembly North, 4-5.

[35] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 55.

[36] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 15.

[37] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 37.

[38] Renwick, Alan, Sarah Allan, Will Jennings, Rebecca McKee, Meg Russel, Graham Smith, A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, 23. 

[39] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 45-46.

[40] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 38. 

[41] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 40.

[42] Citation needed

[43] Flinders et al., Democracy Matters Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution, 56.

[44] Citation needed

External Links 

Citizens' Assembly North: https://citizensassembly.co.uk/democracy-matters/sheffield/

Notes

Lead image: Citizens' Assembly on Brexit Project and Democracy Matters Project https://goo.gl/16oW9E

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