METHOD

Citizens’ Assembly

First Submitted By Patrick L Scully, Participedia Team

Most Recent Changes By Scott Fletcher, Participedia Team

A Citizens' Assembly is a body of citizens who come together to deliberate on a given issue and provide a set of recommendations, options, or a collective decision to the convening body.

Problems and Purpose

The exact mandate of an Assembly varies in practice. Perhaps the most well-known case is the 2004 British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. In that case, the Assembly was established through legislation and formally mandated to provide a proposal on electoral reform, which was then put to a popular referendum.[1] Other Assemblies such as the Citizens' Assembly on Brexit were independent from government and provided a recommendation with no guarantee of any recommendations being carried through.[2]

Citizens' Assemblies also vary in their exact purpose. The British Columbia Assembly was tasked, by government, with investigating the possibility for electoral reform in the province. Their final recommendation was then put to referendum.[3] The National Assembly in Iceland was organised independently and its purpose was to develop community values and priorities following Iceland's collapse in the Global Financial Crisis.[4] 

The rationale underpinning a Citizens' Assembly is similar to that of a Citizens' Jury and other mini-publics (democratic innovations based on the principles of deliberative democracy): that a group of randomly selected citizens, when given the information, resources and time to deliberate on a given topic, can produce an informed public judgement.[5] Elected politicians may make decisions that favour their own political interests and are subject to pressure and influence from interest and lobby groups. Even if this is not the case, trust in politicians is low and declining. Decisions made a by a cross-section of society that the broader public can identify with may seem more acceptable or even more legitimate.[6] 

Origins and Development

Citizens’ Assemblies belong in the category of deliberative mini-public, defined by political scientist Robert Dahl as “an assembly of citizens, demographically representative of the larger population, brought together to learn and deliberate on a topic in order to inform public opinion and decision-making.”[7] While the idea for political decisions to be made through small group deliberations can be traced back to ancient Athenian popular assemblies,[8] mini-publics in their current form have only been in use since the second-half of the 20th Century. The first use of the Citizens’ Assembly model was in 2004 when a group of 161 people were randomly selected to deliberate on an alternative voting system in British Columbia.[9] While the Citizens’ Assembly model, like other mini-publics, embodies the principles of deliberative democracy, it can also be seen as sitting at the interface of deliberative and direct democracy since it is often followed by a referendum or popular vote.[10]

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The members of the Citizens’ Assembly are generally selected to reflect the variety of backgrounds and experience found in the wider population. Organizers typically employ some form of quasi-random selection mechanism like sortition to ensure the group is broadly representative of the population. The number of participants in the Assembly varies across cases, ranging from 30-160 people.[11] Citizens’ Assemblies typically involve more people than other mini-publics like Citizens’ Juries, but fewer than other deliberative exercises like Deliberative Polling.[12] For example, the BC Citizens’ Assembly had 161 members, a 2007 Ontario Citizens’ Assembly had 107,[13] and the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit had just 51.[14] In general, no politicians sit on the Assembly although there are exceptions such as the Citizens' Assembly Pilots in the UK where one Assembly included local elected politicians. Officials do, however, often play a key role during the learning or public commenting phase when they are called in for Q&As with Assembly members.[15]

The number of participants in the Citizen Assembly process - ie. those that interact with the Assembly through the learning or public commenting phases - vary greatly depending on the scope of the issue under consideration. The BC Citizens’ Assembly saw close to 400 people give testimony during public hearings which were attended by approx. 3000 people.[16] In contrast, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit heard presentation from just 10 experts during the learning phase and 2 elected officials during a Q&A before heading into the deliberation phase to make their final decisions.[17] Special attempts may be made to hear from hard-to-reach members of the public. The BC Citizens Assembly travelled around the province meeting with people while the 2007 Ontario Citizens’ Assembly held focus groups with “people who might not ordinarily feel that they had the skills and resources to participate in public consultations, such as people who are homeless or living on low incomes and people who have only basic literacy or English skills.”[18]

How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making

The following is a general overview of the process; each use of the Citizens' Assembly may vary in timeline and structure as well as the tools and techniques used during the various phases. 

Learning Phase

The members of the Citizens’ Assembly are generally selected to reflect the variety of backgrounds and experience found in the wider population. Often participants have varying degrees of knowledge and understanding of the issue, so a Learning Phase is used to prepare members for the tasks and challenges represented by the mandate.The length of the Learning Phase depends on the complexity of the issue under consideration but can last anywhere from four weeks - as was the case in the 1st sitting of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly[19] - to three months, as was the case in the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Learning sessions use a variety of communicative tools and techniques such as expert panels and Q&A sessions; ‘interactive lectures’ or presentations; and pre-session reading, audio, or video materials. Following each presentation, the Assembly will typically break into small, facilitated discussion groups which provide members with the opportunity to increase their understanding of the learning materials and the lectures, and to discuss in detail the specifics of the issue at hand. The Learning Phase may also contain a public component such as open forums or written submissions, or these may take up their own phase as discussed below. 

The learning phase is also dedicated to teaching Assembly members how to work together, often through the development of a set of “Shared Values”[20] or ‘conversation guidelines’[21] and approved policies to guide their work and the deliberative decision-making processes following the learning phase.

Listening Phase: Public Hearings, Consultations, and Submissions

Following the learning stage, the Citizens’ Assembly process often - but not always[22] - enters a phase of invited- and open-comment and discussion. Public hearings, written or in-person (oral) submissions, and meetings with stakeholder and non-governmental groups ensure the Assembly hears from a broad range of opinions on the issue under consideration. During public hearings, only those invited by organizers are allowed to formally testify; however, hearings can be open to the public and leave time for questions, comments, and discussions with members of the Assembly. Summaries of the formal presentations may be posted to website to inform and translate complex issues to members of the public.[23] Meetings with community members[24] or focus groups with hard-to-reach individuals may also be organized.[25] 

Deliberation Phase

The deliberation phase is key to the Citizens’ Assembly process: facilitated dialogue and debate it allows members to critically engage the information received during the learning and listening phases before coming to a shared, workable decision.[26] Deliberations are often a mix of open plenary and small-group work. The 103 member 2007 Ontario Citizens’ Assembly included 48 plenary sessions and just 15 small-group discussion over its six week (12 day) deliberation phase. In contrast, the 51 member Citizens Assembly on Brexit relied almost exclusively on small-group work in roundtable discussions. In their final report, organizers stated that “[s]ome people are comfortable speaking up in front of a large room full of people, while others are not, so properly inclusive discussion amongst fifty people is hard to achieve without splitting the group in this way.”[27]

Almost all Citizens’ Assembly include some form of facilitation or moderation, and other tools and techniques may be employed to aid the discussions. A 2017 Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care in the UK, for example, used the following techniques to ensure members were able to engage with the material from the learning phase, and were equally capable of expressing their views and opinions during discussions: 

  • "Using small group and individual work to ensure that all participants were able to contribute and have time to reflect and develop their own opinions, particularly those less confident in public speaking;
  • Using exercises that supported Assembly Members to engage with complex information and feel able to put forward their opinions, with no prior knowledge needed;
  • Changing the seating plan at the beginning of each day in order to expose Assembly Members to a range of views and prevent dominant narratives developing; and, 
  • Designing the seating plan to, as far as possible, provide a balance of gender, age and attitudes to a big/small state at each table”[28] 

The deliberation phase of the BC Citizens’ Assembly is characteristic of most deliberations on technical or complex topics: moving from “a discussion of fundamental principles to an examination of the specific issue at hand, including, for example, legal or technical details.”

The final sessions of the deliberation phase are typically dedicated to arriving at a final decision through a careful and systematic comparison of one or more alternatives. Roleplaying or scenario-workshopping may be used to allow participants to fully consider the implications of the options. A decision is generally made through voting or consensus and may come in the form of a single recommendation or a set of workable options.[29] 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

In general, Citizens Assemblies bring together a broadly representative group of citizens to deliberate in an informed and facilitated manner on an issue of public relevance. The conclusions or recommendations reached by the Assembly are rarely binding, but are communicated to public officials and the electorate to provoke a more informed consideration of the issue before making a final decision.[30] 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Citizens’ Assemblies have the potential to signal real public opinion on policy issues. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly’s ruling on the 8th Amendment to the Constitution (decriminalization of abortion) was thought to be overly-liberal, but was confirmed when the public voted in favour during the referendum. Because the Assembly accurately captured public opinion almost a year before the issue went to popular vote, the method is a valuable way for politicians to gauge public opinion and to proper action before a decision is made.[31] Comparing it to the referendum on Brexit which was not preceded by a Citizens’ Assembly or deliberative consultation, Jack Bridgewater of the University of Kent concludes that “Serious consultation, via sortitions, would have increased our knowledge of public preferences about the EU. Was this an issue that public wanted a referendum on for example, and if they did want one, what questions would have most accurately captured their preferences? Equally, knowing that there was this system in place beforehand would have placated the fears of politicians and the public, as we would have had a better understanding of our democratic choices, rather than having to project our own individual preferences onto the result.”[32] Presumably, the same holds for other cases of contentious public policy issues: it is preferable to consult a randomly selected group of individuals through deliberation at least before a referendum is held or an executive decision is made. 

Online Public Commenting as a form of Deliberation

Organizers of the BC Citizens Assembly observed that, as more submissions were made to the open online forum, individuals began to refer to previous posts, creating a running dialogue.[33] While not intended, the BC Citizens’ Assembly thus created another space - albeit online - for dialogue among members of the public on an important yet complex political issue. 

See Also

Grandview-Woodland Citizens' Assembly

Citizens' Assembly on Brexit

The Irish Citizens' Assembly

British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform

References    

[1] Making Every Vote Count: The Case for Electoral Reform in British Columbia, (Online: Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, 2004), https://citizensassembly.arts.ubc.ca/resources/final_report.pdf

[2] A Considered Public Voice on Brexit: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, (Online: The Constitution Unit, 2017), 45, http://citizensassembly.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Citizens-Assembly-on-Brexit-Report.pdf

[3] Statement of Votes Referendum on Electoral Reform, (Online: Elections BC, 2005), 1, https://www.elections.bc.ca/docs/rpt/SOV-2005-ReferendumOnElectoralReform.pdf

[4] Alda Sigmundsdóttir, “The People of Iceland Have Spoken,” The Guardian, November 16, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/nov/16/iceland-national-assembly.

[5] A Considered Public Voice on Brexit, 11. 

[6] Patrick Chalmers, “Tapping the Will of the People – a Route to Radically Better Democracy?,” OpenDemocracy, December 12, 2017, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/tapping-will-of-people-route-to-radically-better-democracy/

[7] Oliver Escobar, “What Are Mini-Publics?,” Citizen Participation Network (Citizen Participation Network, September 13, 2017), https://oliversdialogue.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/what-are-mini-publics/.

[8] Chalmers, “Tapping the Will of the People.”

[9] Escobar, “What Are Mini-Publics?”

[10] John Ferejohn, “The Citizens’ Assembly Model,” in Designing Deliberative Democracy, ed. Mark Warren and Hilary Pearce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 6. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258925465_The_Citizens'_Assembly_Model

[11] A Considered Public Voice on Brexit, 10. 

[12] Ministry of Attorney General, “Designing the Citizens' Assembly: Initial Discussion of Issues,” Government of British Columbia, October 17, 2002, http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/public/PubDocs/bcdocs/356873/designing.pdf

[13] Democracy at Work: The Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, (Online: Publications Ontario, 2007), 46.

[14] Making Every Vote Count, 10

A Considered Public Voice on Brexit, 25.

[15] A Considered Public Voice on Brexit, 45.

[16] Making Every Vote Count, 12. 

[17] A Considered Public Voice on Brexit, 44-45.

[18] Democracy at Work, 90. 

[19] “Final Report on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution,” The Citizens’ Assembly, June 29, 2017, https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/The-Eighth-Amendment-of-the-Constitution/Final-Report-on-the-Eighth-Amendment-of-the-Constitution/Final-Report-incl-Appendix-A-D.pdf

[20] Making Every Vote Count, 11. 

[21] A Considered Public Voice on Brexit, 37. 

[22] Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care: Recommendations for Funding Adult Social Care, (Online: Involve UK, 2018) https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcomloc/citizens-assembly-report.pdf

[23] Central European University's School of Public Policy, “The Irish Citizens’ Assembly,” Heinrich Boll Stiftung North America, May 4, 2018, https://us.boell.org/deliberative-democracy

[24] Making Every Vote Count, 11. 

[25] Democracy at Work, 90. 

[26] “What Is a Citizens’ Assembly?” UK Parliament, Nov 27, 2018. https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/housing-communities-and-local-government-committee/citizens-assembly-faq-17-19/

[27] A Considered Public Voice on Brexit, 36. 

[28] Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care, 8.

[29] “What Is a Citizens’ Assembly?” UK Parliament, Nov 27, 2018. https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/housing-communities-and-local-government-committee/citizens-assembly-faq-17-19/

[30] Ferejohn, “The Citizens’ Assembly Model,” 9-10. 

[31] Jack Bridgewater, “The Irish Citizens’ Assembly on the 8th Amendment Is a Model for Participatory Democracy, Which Other Democratic Countries Should Follow,” Democratic Audit, January 6, 2018, http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/06/01/the-irish-citizens-assembly-on-the-8th-amendment-is-a-model-for-participatory-democracy-which-other-democratic-countries-should-follow/

[32] Jack Bridgewater, “The Irish Citizens’ Assembly on the 8th Amendment Is a Model for Participatory Democracy, Which Other Democratic Countries Should Follow,” Democratic Audit, January 6, 2018, http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/06/01/the-irish-citizens-assembly-on-the-8th-amendment-is-a-model-for-participatory-democracy-which-other-democratic-countries-should-follow/

[33] Making Every Vote Count, 12. 

External Links

 UK Parliament: “What Is a Citizens’ Assembly?" https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/housing-communities-and-local-government-committee/citizens-assembly-faq-17-19/.

Forms of Mini-Publics: An introduction to deliberative innovations in democratic practice https://www.newdemocracy.com.au/2017/05/08/forms-of-mini-publics/

Notes

Lead image: Maxwell's/The Irish Times "Members of the Citizens’ Assembly vote on the wording of the ballots that were to be subsequently voted on, in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, Co Dublin." https://goo.gl/VTv9EG