Citizens' Assemblies: the future for complex policy issues?

By Lynne Miles

Associate Director at Arup

Published on

21 Nov 2019


Today Involve has published its report of the Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly on congestion, air quality and public transport. For the last few months, I have been seconded into the Greater Cambridge Partnership as its interim Lead for Growth and Economy and so I had the opportunity to be directly involved with the Assembly process.

And what (exhausting) fun it has been. Citizens’ Assemblies have received a lot of attention recently. The UK Parliament has just announced a national citizens' assembly on climate change policy to be held next year. The Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly was the first in the UK to address issues of transport and congestion and, for me, it has been a brand new way of engaging the public in policy making.

For Cambridge, the question was: how to deal with the congestion that threatens this growing city with grinding to a halt? How to improve air quality and deliver public transport that can be a genuinely competitive alternative to car?

The Greater Cambridge city deal was signed in 2014, with a commitment to support the economic growth of Greater Cambridge through investment in transport, skills, smart cities and housing – but with the lion’s share of the £500m devolved government funding to be allocated to transport investment. The target of reducing traffic on the roads to 15% below 2011 levels – even as the city creates 44,000 new jobs and 33,000 new homes – is really ambitious. Plans for public transport infrastructure are being finalised and moving into delivery phase but even so, most recognise that delivering mode shift away from the private car on that scale needs not just infrastructure, but an improvement in bus services (that feed and fill gaps in the fixed infrastructure network); demand management (to create the road space to reallocate to public transport, walking and cycling); and revenue (to provide ongoing support for the operating and maintenance costs of the network). Easy to say; harder to deliver.

The Assembly ran over two weekends in September and October. We wanted to gauge their appetite for achieving that goal of substantial mode shift away from car and, if they wanted it, their preferred ways to deliver it. It comprised 53 participants drawn from Greater Cambridge and the wider travel to work area. Invites went out to 10,000 randomly selected people from the electoral register. Of those that wrote back to express interest, the Sortition Foundation curated an Assembly that represented the local population in terms of age, race, socio-economic and travel characteristics: a ‘mini public’ for the area. 

The first weekend focused on evidence and visions. It heard from an array of technical and academic experts about the current situation and future trends in growth, traffic, air quality, carbon, public health and more. Then they heard what’s currently planned in terms of infrastructure investment, and various peoples’ visions of a better future for Greater Cambridge as a springboard to developing their own vision as an Assembly.  That felt to me like a great way to start: not asking people to be responsive to a set of proposals but to get to the point where they had defined for themselves what they wanted to achieve. It set the context for weekend two, which got into the details of the different policy levers at our disposal and asked the Assembly: ‘how do you want to get there’? It gave them something to test their emerging proposals against: ‘if this is where we say we want to be, do we think this mix of interventions can deliver it? If not, do we amend the vision, or do we change the recommendations’? It was a hugely iterative and dynamic process.

The content, running order, and facilitation was organised by Involve and I was overwhelmed with their skill and professionalism. Immense attention to detail; a real respect for the independence and rigour of the process; and an ability to flex and respond to what the Assembly was asking of them. Involve were supported by the Sortition Foundation, an independent academic expert lead, Professor David Metz of UCL and an Independent Advisory Panel, who worked with Involve to review the programme and evidence provided. We aimed for total transparency: the evidence sessions were livestreamed and the resulting videos, along with all the evidence presented to the assembly and information about the process are available online.

From an officer and a politician’s point of view, I know it felt like a bold step into the unknown. GCP has been carrying out technical analysis and shaping policy options for some time now but these remain difficult questions and controversial policy options. Consensus has not been easy to achieve. The team setting the process up genuinely had no idea how the Citizens’ Assembly might behave and what it might recommend. But they put their trust in the process and I’m glad they did.

What I loved most about the experience was watching the Assembly form its opinions. Some of the members came with strong views already, some had never really thought about these questions. All of them listened respectfully to one another and to the experts, modifying their opinions as they heard new perspectives and new evidence. They kept us on our toes: challenging us when they felt they hadn’t been given information in the right way, and asking us to come back to them with new evidence or clarifications.

For me the strength of the Citizens’ Assembly process lies in two things. It brings new and representative voices into the conversation, that are different to those you might often hear through traditional consultation and engagement mechanisms. And, it gives time, space, and skilled facilitation to allow the citizens who are not technical experts to hear evidence, debate, and draw conclusions on complex issues. It won’t substitute for traditional consultation mechanisms, but it’s a fantastic complement; especially in the early stages of policy development. It has such potential to help policy makers take an early steer on decisions on principles, direction of travel, and scale of ambition.  

You can read the full report of the Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly here. Because of the pre-election period, the GCP’s Executive Board has postponed the meeting at which they would have considered them, alongside the technical work on the various policy options. The meeting will now take place in the new year and, shortly afterwards, the Board will publish their response. Irrespective of where they decide to go next, the value of this process has been immense. In my view, Citizens’ Assemblies have real potential to help us not just develop technically sound policy, but to garner the public support needed to deliver them.  


This article was originally published on 20 November 2019, here.