Citizens' assembly members look at a document together
Opinion

Citizen's assemblies can help the next UK government tackle the big problems of our time, but only if they’re done right.

Published on

20 Feb 2024

Type

Yesterday, it was reported that Labour’s Chief of Staff and former senior civil servant Sue Gray would support exploring citizens’ assemblies to tackle major policy issues such as devolution and housebuilding, if Labour gets into government. 

This announcement builds on growing interest from across the political spectrum - just before Christmas, former Conservative Party Leader William Hague voiced his support. This is good news for the UK’s democracy. When done right, citizens’ assemblies can help rebuild trust in politics and deliver clear, practical ways forward on some of the major challenges people face.

However, if done wrong, they can fail to have an impact, and can even undermine the renewed trust built between citizens and their elected representatives. So, what are citizens’ assemblies? What difference could they make if used by the next UK government? And what’s needed to ensure they make a real difference?

What are citizens’ assemblies?

A structured way to engage the public to improve decisions and tackle policy challenges.

Citizens’ assemblies are groups of around 100 people, drawn to reflect the wider population, who work to create robust, effective proposals for how to tackle major, complex policy challenges. Assembly members gather to learn about the subject, hear balanced expert evidence and hold carefully structured deliberations on specific questions. They are supported by trained facilitators as they work together to find common ground. They don’t come to a woolly compromise, but to an effective consensus on what they can, and can’t live with. They summarise their proposals for a way forward – which decision makers receive, consider seriously and respond to.

They are becoming an established part of political and parliamentary decision making all over the world - and in the UK.

The OECD has counted almost 700 recent citizens’ assemblies around the world. And, they are increasingly being used in devolved administrations across the UK. Ireland consistently uses them to tackle big issues, ranging from Abortion to Drugs Abuse. The Scottish Government has already commissioned two - on climate and the country’s future - and is committed to more; West Midlands Combined Authority has commissioned a citizens’ panel of 30 to look at how to create a fairer, greener and healthier West Midlands, and the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority launched an assembly last year. From Camden to AntrimSelby to Tyneside these processes are increasingly used to tackle thorny local issues too.

NI Citizens' Assembly - assembly members raising their arms in response to a question
Members of the Citizens' Assembly for Northern Ireland raise their hands in response to a question.

How could citizens’ assemblies help the UK, if government backs them? 

Done right, these processes help governments deliver a more robust, effective, and public-backed policy agenda.

Citizens’ assemblies can help rebuild trust, empower citizens and highlight novel solutions to difficult problems. But, most significantly, at this point in the UK’s politics, they can open a new and trusted space for moving debate forward on morally challenging, intractable, or contested issues. Whether it’s abortion in Ireland, or Assisted Dying in Jersey, there is a growing number of examples where they’ve been used to develop an agreed way forward. This is why a new government, of whatever stamp, should take them very seriously.

Public Judgement vs. Public Opinion - exploring complex policy tradeoffs, not kneejerk reactions to single issues

Processes like citizens’ assemblies help tackle the gap between public opinion (captured in polling) and public judgement (a considered view that people come to, after engaging with trade-offs). Raw public opinion can get mired in sometimes contradictory wish-lists, and elected representatives can find it hard to know what the public really wants. But public judgement, explored and consolidated through processes like citizens’ assemblies, sees people confront difficult trade-offs and think more widely about systemic problems, rather than sharing their thoughts on separate policy areas. This means that the recommendations they propose are more likely to survive contact with the messy and contradictory demands of governing, and  therefore to be more helpful to decision makers. 

A tool well designed for the biggest, knottiest issues

In Involve’s experience of organising hundreds of processes like citizens’ assemblies over the last 20 years, some decisions lend themselves to such a process better than others. There needs to be genuine uncertainty about the way forward from decision makers, and the issue needs to affect significant numbers of people. 

Issues that could work well range from assisted dying - whether those with terminal illnesses should be able to choose to die - to how to tackle polarising issues such as immigration. Engaging how best to achieve net zero, (a  commitment already made by the UK) is already being used across all four nations; and could be established centrally too. Here are two further examples of issues that are currently bogged down, and with a bit more on why citizens’ assemblies might help:

Housing & planning – Building affordable and sufficient houses is politically difficult - voters want their own houses to grow in value, and houses for their children to fall to an affordable price. To do this, we need to increase the supply of homes. And yet, despite regularly having targets to deliver hundreds of thousands of homes each year, since 1977, successive governments have failed to deliver the often cited target of 300,000 homes per annum. The practical realities of where the homes go, what they look like and who they are for, hampers local delivery, leading to missed targets overall. Involving the public in forging a way forward could be a means to unlock challenges around local planning and consent by identifying what people see as fair and what trade-offs they can and can’t live with to resolve this complex problem. This could also help understand how “losers” locally should be fairly compensated for contributing to solving national-level problems.

Justice & sentencing - Public debate on sentencing is ‘stuck in a dysfunctional and reactive cycle’ the Justice Committee has warned. Polling consistently shows public desire for harsher sentencing, but no appetite for more money to be spent on prisons. But yet other ways of engaging the public, such as focus groups, arrive at more empathetic approaches. Which should politicians listen to? This challenge was explored by the Justice Committee, with Involve recently - deliberation revealed a nuanced understanding of sentencing and the Committee recommended deliberative public engagement should be used more frequently in future inquiries.

What’s needed to get citizens’ assemblies right?

The OECD study cited above showed that in 76% of the 55 assemblies they found data for, over half the recommendations were subsequently implemented by decision makers. So, clearly, they can make a difference.  That said, 11% saw no recommendations implemented at all, and it’s not always clear whether there is a causal link between recommendations being made, and that policy being implemented by government. In the UK, recent work from organisations like KNOCA (the Knowledge Network on Climate Assemblies) suggests their impact can vary too, with some appearing to make a major difference, and some less so.

Our experience suggests four factors determine when citizens’ assemblies can have an impact, but it’s an ongoing democratic innovation, and good practice is improving and being adapted to new contexts all the time:

  1. Real power and timely agency: Firstly, the process should be integrated into the existing political system. This means those in government with the power to make decisions should commit to running the Assembly at a point where there are real decisions to be made - scheduling it so it can have a real effect, it’s in sync with other key moments like budgets and spending reviews. The sponsors must commit to taking action on the recommendations - there is no requirement to be bound by them, but they cannot be kicked into the long grass.

  2. A sound process: How the process is set up and delivered has to be robust. The right question needs to be chosen - one where there’s something at stake, the wording is clear and the focus is specific. Assembly members need to be selected to accurately represent the right demographics, and this isn’t just about selection; the people who attend need to be supported so that a genuine mix of people from all walks of life can be present. If not, then only those with the time, resources and energy will take part - and that won’t include everyone. The members need support to engage effectively, which includes being provided with good, balanced information and enough time. They also need expert support to deliberate and, where possible, find common ground and propose ways forward.

  3. Communication: Citizens’ assemblies are a new(ish) way of helping to make decisions. If they’re to help find solutions to major policy challenges, and build public support around those solutions, they need to be discussed intelligently by decision makers and the press. This means having a well-resourced and professional communications strategy, for both individual Assemblies, and for the process as a whole  as  a way of expanding our governance and supporting representative democracy.

  4. Part of a wider move towards a participatory culture: This is a slightly different condition for success. If the aim is to simply tackle a single issue, then the above three points may be enough. But, if we’re to be ambitious, and aim to build a new, more trusting, and effective politics, citizens’ assemblies alone are not enough. They are not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a wider cultural shift towards democratic reform and public participation, at local, regional and national levels.

It's great that Labour’s Chief of Staff has added to the momentum in favour of citizens’ assemblies. Whatever the make-up of the next UK government, there are so many issues that are in desperate need of calm, considered attention. From social care to housing, immigration to artificial intelligence, there are big decisions to be made that will affect millions of people’s lives. But there’s always a risk that, in the hurly burly of politics, good ideas don’t get done right in practice. Luckily, the UK has a vibrant, deepening democracy sector, of which Involve is just one member, dedicated to working hard with governments to ensure that doesn’t happen. Let’s use citizens’ assemblies to help tackle some of the big problems we face as a country, and let’s get them right.