A deliberative body established to explore and suggest new and improved ways citizens can shape their future and have a greater say in democracy through the National Assembly of Wales. The National Assembly Commission w as to use the CA’s conclusions to inform its final decisions.
The National Assembly for Wales Citizens’ Assembly (NAWCA) was a deliberative body established to explore and suggest new and improved ways for citizens to shape their future and have a greater say in democracy. The National Assembly Commission was to use the Citizens' assembly and its recommendations to inform its final decisions.
Problems and purpose:
The problem in Welsh politics was that it lacked a direct method of engaging with citizens that enabled their specific opinions to be heard by the Welsh National Assembly. The solution was to establish a citizens’ assembly to analyse the question: How can people in Wales shape their future through the work of the National Assembly for Wales? The question was divided into what new instruments could be used to give Welsh citizens new opportunities to shape the future of Wales. Then there were specific discussions on how Welsh citizens could intervene in four areas of public action. These were the Assembly’s committees, questioning government, budget approval and agenda setting.
Background History and Context:
In 2019, the National Assembly for Wales celebrated its 20th Anniversary and the National Assembly Commission initiated a citizens’ assembly as part of these celebrations. The initiative was designed to provide a platform for Welsh citizens to express how they think the next 20 years politics should be carried out (Senedd.tv, 2019). To emphasise the look to the future, the method of choice was a citizens’ assembly because it is an increasingly popular and modern democratic innovation that had not been utilised in Wales before.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities:
The National Assembly Commission is a group of five Assembly Members from different political parties. It is responsible for ensuring the provision of property, staff and services needed for the National Assembly for Wales to do its job effectively. Therefore, it carried out the initiative to enhance the relationship between the National Assembly and Welsh citizens by gathering qualitative information including recommendations from residents which could potentially be implemented. The Commission enlisted the support from the Sortition Foundation, which promotes and institutes sortition in empowered assemblies. It helps run citizens' assemblies by providing selection and stratification services and accordingly it recruited the participants of the Welsh Citizens' Assembly. Furthermore, the Involve Foundation was the overall project lead in the citizens' assembly and provided the facilitation team, organised experts to educate participants and oversaw the initiative including discussion and deliberation. It is a registered charity that promotes and supports the use of participatory and deliberative decision-making among governments, parliaments, civil society organisations, academics and the public. These three supporting entities collectively chose Professor Graham Smith as the expert lead to advise on the subject matter covered by the citizens’ assembly. He then collaborated with the other expert speakers to curate the assembly’s content. The National Assembly Commission oversaw this process, including selecting the choice of speakers.
Participant Recruitment and Selection:
The recruitment process utilised a civic lottery to randomly select ten thousand households in Wales. Letters were then sent to these addresses inviting adults over the age of 16 to participate in the citizens’ assembly of which 331 people volunteered. Stratified sampling was then used to select sixty participants who together best reflected the population of Wales in terms of age, ethnicity, educational qualifications, residence, political activity and Welsh language skills (Involve, 2019, p.3). A specific effort was made to recruit participants who would create the most accurate microcosm of the Welsh population. In addition, it was decided that ethnic minority groups would be over-represented, and so ten out of the sixty participants were from BAME communities despite the overall minority population in Wales being only 4.4% (Citizens’ assembly: Information pack, 2019).
The initiative covered all the costs for participants attending the citizens’ assembly. This includes travel expenses, accommodation and meals. Participants also receive a thank you gift of £200 in order to encourage and support their participation (Citizens’ assembly: Information pack, 2019). Young participants said that they accepted the invitation because they felt marginalised in society regarding decision-making and this provided an opportunity for them to engage in politics. The citizens’ assembly provided an opportunity for people who do not ordinarily engage in politics, the chance to express their opinions and participate in a modern political exercise. Indeed, one participant said “Often you can feel very detached from the political process – but it was nice to be included and listened to” (Involve, 2019b).
Methods and tools used:
The citizens’ assembly took place over the course of one weekend, Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. The preparatory phase occurred on the Friday evening and the citizens’ assembly focused on administrative tasks but also their hopes, concerns and conversation guidelines. Next, was the learning phase of the citizens’ assembly which started on Saturday morning with a background information panel and small-group deliberation followed by a question and answers session. Six expert speakers then presented ways that people in Wales could shape their future. Finally, discussion and decision-making occurred which were spread across late Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Participants looked at each theme – committees, questioning government, budget approval and setting the agenda. This was followed by voting in the form of a secret ballot to determine their overall views (Involve, 2019a, pp.2-7) The phases were conducted chronologically over the course of the weekend and complemented the overall aim to create recommendations for the National Assembly of Wales from a well-informed group.
Professor Graham Smith and Dr Huw Pritchard were specifically chosen by the Involve and Sortition Foundations’ for their expertise regarding democratic innovations. Dr Pritchard provided background information and explained the role of the National Assembly in Welsh politics and its powers. Many more experts provided information and interacted with participants in the deliberation phase by answering questions and having in-depth discussions. However, they were not directly involved in any decision-making (Involve, 2019, p.4).
The initiative is heavily reliant on a range of expert speakers who explain background information, answer questions and engage in discussion. This is positive as participants are well-informed of the political context of citizens’ assemblies, their role in it and are more likely to engage in reasoned deliberation. However, there is a trade-off with the independence of participants’ opinions as there are many experts engaging with them throughout the initiative. Therefore, there is a risk of them inadvertently convincing participants to agree with their views as opposed to thinking for themselves. The Assembly Commission anticipated this potential problem and employed the Hansard Society to provide impartial external critique of their information (Citizens’ assembly: Information pack, 2019).
Why were these methods chosen?
A civic lottery was utilised whereby participants were contacted by the Sortition Foundation and not the other way around. Consequently, this meant that the participants recruited would be less likely to engage in politics than if volunteers applied (Smith, 2009, p.83). This is beneficial because those recruited are more likely to be less involved in the political process and this provides them with an opportunity to have a say in the future of Welsh politics. Furthermore, the point of recruiting experts to heavily engage with participants was to educate citizens and encourage them to immerse themselves in political discussions. This was beneficial to the final recommendations because participants became well-informed about the specific pros and cons of the Welsh National Assembly and put forward reasoned proposals for reform. The use of small group deliberation helped to ensure that everyone’s voice was heard and this was more likely to be achieved in smaller groups rather than one large one because participants felt less intimidated. In addition, each table had a facilitator to ensure that participants respected what each other said even if they didn’t agree. Finally, voting was conducted anonymously in order to make participants feel safe to vote and avoid the potential pressure to vote differently by their fellow participants (Involve, 2019a, pp.3-7).
What Went On: Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction:
The learning phase of the citizens’ assembly started on Saturday morning with a background information panel. This panel featured Dr Huw Pritchard who explained what the National Assembly for Wales is, the budget it scrutinises, its powers and roles. Furthermore, Professor Graham Smith outlined the four areas on which the citizens’ assembly would focus. He also ran through considerations that participants might want to note when hearing about ways to shape the future. For example, their cost, who takes part and the depth of consideration given to an issue. Participants spent time questioning Dr Pritchard and Professor Smith. The citizens’ assembly then moved on to the second and most substantial part of the learning phase. A total of six speakers presented ways that people in Wales can, or could, shape their future through the work of the National Assembly. Participants then spent time questioning these speakers in depth at their tables (Ibid).
Discussion & Decision phases:
Debates occurred in small groups under the supervision of facilitators supplied by the Involve Foundation. Participants considered the themes of committees, questioning government, budget approval and setting the agenda. For each theme they discussed the pros and cons of each new democratic innovation and whether or not they should be available to people in Wales. Next, preferential voting was utilised to rank the democratic innovations on their popularity. Participants then voted by secret ballot to give their final view on the latter two of these questions. Participants then looked at all the potential new ways to shape the future and discussed which three they would most like to see available. Again, they then voted by secret ballot to give their final view. Lastly, participants discussed whether there was anything else they would like to say to the National Assembly for Wales on the topic of shaping the political future.
Did the techniques serve their expected function?
The techniques used had their desired effect and functioned well, this is evident as the participants filled out a feedback form at the end of the citizens’ assembly weekend. 92.9% said they ‘strongly agree’ that there was enough information in order for them to participate effectively (Involve, 2019a, p.56). Therefore, the expert speakers succeeded in providing participants with specific information regarding citizens’ assemblies to the extent that the vast majority felt confident to engage in discussion. In addition, 92.9% strongly believed that they had plenty of opportunities in the group discussions to express their views (Ibid). Evidently, the small-group discussions were effective in providing an opportunity for everyone to engage in the discussions and have their voices heard.
The process was designed for participants to produce a set of recommendations to the Welsh National Assembly as to how it should operate in the future. Participants voted anonymously via a secret ballot in order to allow participants to cast their vote without being influenced or pressured by their peers. There was also preferential voting which meant that the choices were ranked. The votes were then counted which provided results that showed the opinions of participants which were converted into recommendations. As a result, every vote counted to determine the most popular recommendations and so all the participants’ opinions were considered through voting. The recommendations came from the most popular choices that were voted for. In addition, participants were given the opportunity to provide written advice and recommendations individually. The final vote saw participants consider which three of all the new ways to shape the future they would most like to see available. The most popular option was the citizen assembly with 24 votes and the least popular was social media with 0 votes. Furthermore, a large majority of participants (71.4%) felt that citizens’ assemblies to inform committees’ work should definitely be available to people in Wales (Involve, 2019a, p.16).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects: Did the initiative have its intended results?
The Welsh Citizens’ Assembly achieved its fundamental aims and engaged the public in an innovative democratic innovation. It intended for participants to hear evidence about how they could influence decisions of national importance through the work of the National Assembly for Wales. Furthermore, it was commissioned to allow citizens the ability to express their opinions, ideas and engage ordinary citizens in politics who would not normally be involved. The success of the initiative is evident because the vast majority of participants (91.1%) strongly believed that citizens’ assemblies should be used more often to inform the National Assembly and help make decisions (Involve, 2019a, p.58). The participants’ recommendations were compiled into a 69 page report which detailed the most popular suggestions made during the citizens’ assembly. As a result, it succeeded in directly acquiring the ideas and suggestions of citizens as to how they think policy making should be conducted in the future.
The planned theory of change was a success and identified the necessary procedures that were needed to ensure that participants were able to effectively discuss how the people of Wales can shape the future of Welsh politics. The recruitment process was conducted by the Sortition Foundation which utilised a civic lottery and stratified sampling to produce a microcosm of the Welsh demographic. This in turn, legitimised the initiative because all demographics were represented fairly. The lead organiser ‘Involve’ identified that participants needed to be educated by experts before discussions in order for them to engage in intelligent and purposeful deliberation. Furthermore, the utilisation of small groups ensured that everyone on the tables had an opportunity to have their voices heard (Involve, 2019b). Consequently, these procedures contributed to the success of the long-term goal of the Welsh Citizens’ Assembly. This was for a diverse group to be educated, deliberate and then provide recommendations as to how ordinary people can influence the decisions of the National Assembly for Wales.
Impact on government
The full report of the Welsh Citizens’ Assembly influenced the deputy leader of Plaid Cymru, Siân Gwenllian, to propose to the Welsh Parliament the idea of convening a citizen's assembly. The proposal was part of a broader motion to propose steps to recovery for the Welsh economy after the impact of Covid-19. The motion was not agreed, and it had 10 in favour versus 47 against its implementation, primarily due to funding being prioritised for supporting businesses during the pandemic (Senedd.Wales, 2020). Consequently, the Welsh Parliament voted against the recommendation put forward by the Citizens’ Assembly and Gwenllian’s proposal that the democratic innovation should be utilised again. However, it did promote the idea of citizens’ assemblies being implemented in the future when the economy recovers from the impact of the pandemic. The Welsh government, therefore, has rejected the recommendation for there to be a citizens’ assembly established. This includes the proposal for a citizens’ assembly to prioritise public expenditure. In addition, the recommendation for a closer link between the electorate and the government to be established through a specialised online platform to question the government has not been implemented. Consequently, it has had limited success in influencing public policy as the Welsh government has rejected its recommendations.
The NAWCA may have had a limited impact on the government officially. However, it arguably inspired the establishment of the Blaenau Gwent Climate Assembly of March 2021. It focussed on a community approach to tackle climate change and promoted environmentalism however, it was conducted by local government through the Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council. The similarities are numerous for example, they both used the Sortition Foundation to manage recruitment which led to 50-60 participants being selected. Furthermore, participants were paid a similar stipend between £200-250. The only significant differences in their procedures were that the Climate Assembly was conducted online rather than face-to-face and was reviewed by a local council rather than the Welsh National Assembly.
The NAWCA influenced the individual attitudes of those who participated. For example, one member said “Some people only ever engage with the process when they go to vote but this an effective way to reach people who wouldn’t normally be involved in the political process” (Involve, 2019b). This point about a lack of engagement between the government and Welsh citizens was a commonly held belief by the end of the assembly. Indeed, 71.4% of participants felt that citizens’ assemblies to inform committees’ work should definitely be available to people in Wales (Involve, 2019a, p.16). Consequently, the assembly influenced the attitudes of members and participation impacted their views that a stronger link between the government and the public is needed and can be achieved via citizens’ assemblies.
Impact on non-governmental organisations:
The NAWCA has provided inspiration for the activism of environmentalist group ‘Extinction Rebellion’ in Cymru, who have since promoted the idea of a citizens’ assembly on the climate and ecological crisis. As a result, the initiative has influenced non-governmental organisations to believe that citizens’ assemblies are the answer to address issues that the government has failed to respond to. Consequently, it is has contributed to popularising and promoting the potential success of citizens’ assemblies and has already motivated the setting up of other assemblies.
Graham Smith’s Democratic Goods:
Graham Smith was the lead expert in the NAWCA and his criteria for democratic goods was consistently met throughout the initiative. Firstly, the use of a civic lottery and stratified sampling ensured that the sixty participants selected acted as a microcosm of the wider Welsh demographic. Furthermore, despite BAME communities representing only 4.4% of the Welsh population, people from these backgrounds constituted 20% of participants (Citizens’ assembly: Information pack, 2019). This is significant because historically, minorities in British politics have been neglected which has led to an inequality of opportunity (Fisher, et al). As a result, the process ensured the presence of a diverse range of social groups. Most importantly, it provided the opportunity for ethnic minorities to voice their ideas during deliberation and ensured an important stake in decision-making via voting. Therefore, the initiative meets the criteria for Smith’s democratic good of inclusion (Smith, 2020, pp.6-7). Indeed, this positive impact on inclusion had a domino effect and enhanced the efficiency by making the pool of participants and their decisions more legitimate as they fairly represented entire communities. This made expenditure on recruitment, hiring experts and completion of the final report worth it as the benefits of participation are significant. This includes enhancing social cohesion, providing equal opportunities to previously marginalised social groups and the empowerment of the electorate.
Participants had a significant degree of popular control regarding the decision-making process. This included formulating ideas via discussion and deliberation, voting on the most popular ones and then submitting these as recommendations to the Welsh National Assembly. This was effective because the significant influence that participants had on decision-making meant that they were more invested in discussions and more likely to share their ideas as it could have been implemented into public policy (Fournier et al, 2011, p.79). As a result, discussions were more engaging and it was a process of learning and being receptive to the perspectives of others in the community that they would not usually engage with politically. This element of social learning meant that the effectiveness of popular control created stimulating discussions that led to success regarding considered judgement. Indeed, participants were satisfied because 94.6% of participants strongly agreed that they had learned a lot during the Assembly about shaping the future of politics through the work of the National Assembly for Wales (Involve, 2019a, p.56).
Participants however, lacked the ability to implement their recommendations and subsequently, this reinforces the arguments of critics that citizen participation fails to achieve its aims (Smith, 2009, p.33). The problem was exacerbated because the Welsh Parliament voted against the motion that would have implemented a citizens’ assembly like the NAWCA. Therefore, while participants were empowered with a stake in decision-making through voting, they lacked the power to assist in implementing their recommendations which were not granted by the Welsh political elite.
The assembly was highly transparent, and this was because participants were well-informed during the recruitment process and any questions were answered by a background information panel before the discussion and decision phases. Therefore, participants had been well-informed and understood the format of the citizens’ assembly that they were taking part in. This includes the powers that they exercised via voting and formulating recommendations. Indeed, the clarity of their powers and role is evident because 85.7% of participants said that they understood almost everything that was presented by the speakers (Involve, 2019a, p.56). In addition, the assembly’s activities and its outcomes have been made clear to the wider Welsh community via a 69-page report that details the processes, votes and recommendations of the assembly.
In terms of transferability, the format of the NAWCA is adaptable and in theory could be utilised by any democratic government. This is because the initiative itself was an adaption of the successful Irish Citizens’ Assembly of 2016 called ‘We the Citizens’. In addition, similar projects extend all over the globe including the Oregon Citizens’ Assembly on Covid-19 Recovery. As a result, citizens’ assemblies like this all over the globe have had success and an impact on public policy. Therefore, citizens’ assemblies such as this are highly transferable to other democracies around the globe. The concern is when to implement one, citizen's’ assemblies are expensive, the NAWCA cost £84,925.80 in total (Citizens’ assembly: Information pack, 2019). Therefore, citizens’ assemblies are only appropriate when answering controversial or long-term problems that the government has struggled to solve because politicians can become focussed on short-term goals while they are in office (Senedd.tv, 2019).
Comparing to other CAs:
NAWCA differs from the British Columbia's Citizens’ Assembly (BCCA) which had an integrated approach through open meetings with the public and randomly selected groups, whereas NAWCA only had a small randomly selected group. Many scholars consider that diversifying a democratic innovation with different methods of participation helps to reduce the risk that one sole procedure may be ineffective (Spada and Allegretti, 2016). In addition, the BCCA ended with a public referendum which provided a significant degree of both popular control and transparency. This is because the wider community was aware of the assembly's work and was included in the decision-making process. In contrast, the NAWCA had no decision-making process that involved a region wide referendum, this was evidently a weakness because its recommendations were briefly discussed and ultimately rejected by the Welsh National Assembly. Despite the referendum of the BCCA achieving 57.4% of the total votes cast, it failed to acquire the 60% majority required and the proposal to change the electoral system was rejected (British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, 2011). However, by including a referendum and enhancing popular control, it has had much more of an influence in British Columbia than the NAWCA had in Wales.
The BCCA went through a similar learning phase to the NAWCA which included presentations by experts, group discussions and question and answer sessions. The key difference is that in British Columbia, learning alone occurred over twelve weeks compared to a single weekend in Wales (Ibid). Evidently, regarding considered judgement participants became much more educated and knowledgeable of other peoples’ ideas during this stage in British Columbia because there was much more time to develop. Indeed, Graham Smith himself said that “One weekend is not enough” for a citizens’ assembly and he advised at least two weekends to enable personal reflection on discussions in-between sessions (Senedd.tv, 2019). Consequently, the NAWCA revealed some flaws in its procedures which can be learned from and implemented in a future citizens’ assembly. I agree with Smith and recommend that a citizens’ assembly requires at least two-weekends to effectively achieve considered judgement (Ibid). In addition, I would suggest a referendum be compulsory after the assembly to ensure that there is more of an impact and increased popular control among the wider population to be involved in the process.
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