How to hold a citizens’ assembly – the Greater Cambridge experience

By Isobel Wade

Head of Transport Strategy, Greater Cambridge Partnership

Published on

27 Nov 2019


Last week, Involve published the report of the Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly. The Assembly met in September and October 2019 to consider how to reduce congestion, improve air quality and deliver better public transport. Greater Cambridge is one of an early wave of places holding citizens’ assemblies, and this was the first in the UK to consider transport and air quality issues.


We certainly felt like pioneers. Taking the Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly from an idea to reality has been exciting and often inspiring, though with plenty of challenges along the way. As more and more places consider commissioning assemblies, we wanted to share some of the learning from our experience as an early adopter.

Congestion has long been a challenging issue in our area. Greater Cambridge is experiencing rapid growth, with an additional 44,000 jobs and 33,000 new homes coming in the next decade. This has put huge pressure on the transport system, particularly as people travel longer distances to new employment sites not well served by buses and trains. High levels of car use are contributing to poor air quality and significant carbon emissions, and long, unpredictable journeys are stressful and unpleasant for our communities trying to get around.

But deciding how to tackle these issues isn’t easy, particularly when many people have little choice at the moment but to use their car, and our growth is such that just keeping traffic levels at current levels is incredibly challenging. Internationally, citizens’ assemblies are often used for difficult, complex decisions where there are multiple trade-offs – our topic certainly seemed to fit the bill. We wanted to understand how a ‘mini-public’ would address the challenges of reducing car use, improving air quality and providing space and funding to deliver better public transport. It would create the opportunity for a representative group of people to hear from experts, interrogate the evidence and listen to each other as they form their views. Importantly, it would allow them to consider the situation as a whole, rather than just aspects of it. It’s a much more rounded way of getting feedback and recommendations on an issue which allows for the exchange of ideas and for opinions to form over time, so can be incredibly useful in policy-making for challenging issues. If you want to read more about this, my colleague, Lynne Miles, has written an excellent blog about using citizens’ assemblies in policy-making.

Things to consider

So what did we learn, and what should places thinking about holding a citizens’ assembly be considering? I’ve written some detailed top tips which you can find below, drawing on our experience and moving step-by-step through the different phases. It sets out some of the questions any commissioner of a citizens’ assembly needs to ask themselves, as well as some of the practical aspects like securing the right expertise and resourcing. With our assembly still relatively recent I’m sure there will be more to add as our Board considers the recommendations and how to respond. Before getting into the detail, I wanted to share my five key pieces of advice for places interested in citizens’ assemblies and who are thinking about how to use them to best effect for a local issue:

  • Pick your issue – a citizens’ assembly must be able to genuinely influence a decision, but the issue should be well defined so you can plan a programme around it. Set your question and make sure a citizens’ assembly is the right tool to consider this.
  • If you’re gonna do it…do it right – Citizens’ assemblies need the right expertise to work well, and they need to be designed and facilitated by people who know what they’re doing. They cost money and take time to deliver, and although there is a huge pay off in the quality of feedback you get, there are some things you can’t compromise on. The process needs to have a high level of independence built into it to be credible, which has implications for scope and delivery.
  • Make the most of external expertise – it’s a great opportunity to bring in experts, demonstrating independence and balance, but even more than that offering real value by bringing considered evidence and fresh thinking to a problem. 
  • Be transparent – in order to have trust in the citizens’ assembly people need to understand the process and how it integrates with decision-making. Plan to publish as much information as possible about the design, think about how to involve the wider public, and livestream the evidence presented to the assembly.
  • Create space – for assembly members to ask questions, discuss the issues with each other and come up with their own ideas. It’s tempting to pack in the evidence, but the real value of the assembly is in their discussions and feedback and they need time for this.

Watching the citizens’ assembly feedback their key messages on the final day was a real highlight of my career. It was inspiring to see the participants so clearly articulate their vision for the future of our place, and why they felt different measures to reduce traffic, improve air quality and fund better public transport would help to get us there. There was a real energy in the room, and that came through in the comments calling for ambitious, bold action.

Local government today is working on a huge number of incredibly complex issues, and for a long time now there have been no easy answers. Citizens’ assemblies have the potential to help places work these through, but it’s so important that they are done well so that our communities understand what they are and how they integrate with local decision-making. We hope our experience might help others thinking about holding a citizens’ assembly to take their next steps.

Top tips for commissioning a citizens’ assembly:


   Before you begin

Define your issue – It sounds obvious but this is perhaps your most important task, and one that you need to spend time on upfront. What is it that you want to ask people about? It needs to be something that you don’t have ‘the answer’ to already; something you genuinely want to offer people the opportunity to consider and shape. That said, you should be able to clearly articulate the issue, any objectives or key choices and what is up for discussion. This will help to shape a programme and channel the participants’ efforts effectively.


Consider your options – Citizens’ assemblies are becoming better known, but they’re not the only deliberative democracy tool available. Different issues work better with different methods and it’s worth understanding all your options and whether a citizens’ assembly is the right choice, particularly given the cost and time commitment (see below). Strategic, complex issues can work well, as a citizens’ assembly gives time for consideration of evidence and exchange of views, as well as thinking about something in a more rounded way. 


Be clear how a citizens’ assembly will integrate with your decision-making – It’s crucial to set out from the start how the citizens’ assembly works with your decision-making process. At a basic level, this means being clear which decision(s) the assembly’s work relates to, as well as where the recommendations will be reported to (i.e. who will have the final say and respond to the conclusions /recommendations) and setting expectations about responding. As a minimum, each of the assembly’s key points should be responded to within a reasonable timeframe. Choosing the right point in your decision-making for the assembly is important, ensuring an issue is sufficiently open for the assembly to influence (often in a strategic phase), but that you know enough about it to set the right question.


Make sure members and officers understand how it works and the commitment involved – A citizens’ assembly is a significant undertaking for both members and officers, opening up decision-making and creating an expectation around action. The value of doing this can be huge – detailed feedback, views and insights on contentious issues, and clear recommendations for action – but there are risks involved. Some of this can be addressed in how you design the assembly (see below), but as a minimum everyone needs to understand how it will work. The commitment is not inconsiderable. Citizens’ assemblies take time and money to do properly, and shouldn’t be done half-heartedly or with very constrained resources. It took us around 4 months and significant staff time to plan our Assembly, and a further 5 weeks to undertake the assembly weekends, and that was a tight timetable.


   Getting set up

Ensure you have the right support to deliver the citizens’ assembly – Assemblies are not straightforward and there is plenty that could go wrong, from the recruitment to the design of the programme. Equally, most assemblies need independent oversight and delivery to be credible. Making sure you have the right expertise to design and deliver your assembly is crucial to its success.


Understand the risks and how you could address them – Each assembly will have its own risks, depending on the issue and your local context. This could include things like the risk of the assembly coming up with something that isn’t practically feasible, or of being challenged based on recruitment or selection of evidence. Think through possible risks and how you might respond to them through design and delivery.


Get an Advisory Group appointed and meeting quickly – Having an independent group to oversee the programme for the assembly will help you pull in the right evidence and demonstrate the independence of the process. It’s important to have a balanced membership and to get the group meeting as early as possible as decisions on the programme, speakers and evidence will flow from here. The assembly may need expert support throughout the sessions, so you may need to consider appointing an expert lead too.


Set your question – And more than that, decide who gets a say. Is it set by the ultimate decision-makers or do you want the Advisory Group or a wider set of stakeholders to input?


Agree clear responsibilities across partners – this helps to show where decisions are being taken independently and where the commissioner needs to retain control. Understand the linkages and constraints each partner needs to be aware of – for example, decisions on evidence may impact on the programme, which may impact on the length of the assembly and therefore the budget.



Think through the type of outputs you need from the citizens’ assembly – Both directly, and to support the process and any wider learning. Be clear what you need to know to support decision-making, so the design of the process gets that for you. Think about how you might get feedback from participants and others during the process so you can be responsive and to support any evaluation you want to do of the process.


Identify and secure your experts early – This is a great opportunity to bring in outside expertise to consider your issue, and is vital in showing independence and balance in the process. Equally, experts are busy people and the sooner you can secure them the better. Don’t undersell the opportunity to be involved – this is a chance to be part of something innovative, and to support assembly members to consider an issue and make recommendations with real impact and influence.


Make sure there’s time for the assembly to come up with its own ideas – It’s tempting to pull in as much evidence as possible, but easy to overdo it. Remember the assembly needs time to digest and discuss the issues, as well as formulating their views and recommendations, and this is vital to getting detailed, well-considered feedback and recommendations. Your advisory group can help identify the most valuable evidence to present and the right balance.


Be as transparent as possible and prepared for high levels of scrutiny – People need to understand how the citizens’ assembly works in order to have trust in the process and its outputs. Planning to publish as much as possible about the design of the assembly, as well as livestreaming and publishing the evidence, is vital to this. Think about who will be most interested and consider holding a session at an early stage for stakeholders and/or the public to come along and learn more.


Plan comms activities and how to keep the wider community up-to-speed or involved – Most people have never heard of a citizens’ assembly and will have lots of questions. They may mistrust the process or have concerns about how it fits with democratic decision-making by councillors. Regular communications throughout the set up process, as well as for the assembly itself, can help address this. Think too about what people can offer to the process – for example, we held an open call for evidence so local people could suggest topics, evidence and speakers for the assembly.


   During the citizens’ assembly

Promote the opportunity to observe the citizens’ assembly widely – There’s nothing like being in the room to experience the energy of a citizens’ assembly. Get your decision-makers, key stakeholders and press in the room to see it happen for themselves, as well as offering the opportunity to the wider public.


Be ready to flex the programme to respond to participants – The assembly members may want to hear more about something, or discuss a great idea they’ve had. Whilst there are certain questions you’ll need them to discuss, it’s crucial to the assembly’s independence to respond and give them time to use their energy on the things they think are important (within the scope of the question).


Take the opportunity to share learning from the assembly, but don’t overload it – Holding a citizens’ assembly is a great opportunity for officers and members across a local area to learn more about deliberative democracy and how it can be used in engagement and decision-making. Make the most of this by offering the chance to get people from other teams involved, but be careful not to go too far – the assembly still needs to be and feel clearly independent.



Brief your members and other officers quickly – Particularly if you have livestreamed the results, your members and other officers will want to understand the immediate outputs, when they’ll get a full report and the next steps.


Offer assembly participants the opportunity to present directly to the decision-makers –  Giving participants the chance to share their recommendations with councillors in person creates a direct link between their feedback and decision-making, as well as giving councillors’ the chance to ask any questions. It also recognises the commitment assembly members have made in taking part in the process.


Get going on your response – Holding a citizens’ assembly can create real momentum on an issue. Having been clear from the start how the assembly supports decision-making, get going on a response and make sure each key point is considered.


Think about the longer-term – The Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly’s key messages included wanting to be kept up-to-date with progress over a longer period, recognising that some changes could be made quickly but others would take time to implement. The idea of regular checks on progress has come up at other assemblies too.

Isobel Wade is Head of Transport Strategy at the Greater Cambridge Partnership, who commissioned the Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly. The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) is the local delivery body for a City Deal with central government. Decisions are made by an Executive Board with three voting members: Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council, and two non-voting members: University of Cambridge and a representative of the business community.