So, you ran a citizen's assembly... top tips from local authorities

By Juliet Swann

Published on

9 Dec 2021


Putting deliberative process recommendations into practice and demonstrating impact  - top tips from local authorities

Juliet Swann, Suzannah Lansdell (Involve) and Anna Colom, Democratic Society 

There has been a plethora of citizens’ assemblies, juries and other deliberative processes in the last couple of years - from borough, city, county, district and town Councils.  Whilst practice in terms of how to run high quality processes is developing well and experience growing, attention is now turning to the impact that assemblies, juries and other deliberative engagements have (or don’t have) on decision making. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Involve brought together representatives from local authorities who had either run a citizens’ assembly type process, or who were considering doing so, to learn from each other about what steps could be taken, and when, to improve the impact of a deliberative process. 

The session kicked off hearing from the insights of: 

Splitting into breakout groups participants (supported by colleagues from Involve, Shared Futures and DemSoc) then discussed what helps and hinders in getting recommendations put into practice and how to lay the ground for that to happen through considerations before, during and after a process takes place. 

Some of what we heard was unsurprising - delivering a deliberative process requires resources - financial, expert knowledge and staff time. Equally, attendees reflected something that all the academic analysis also tells us - getting political buy-in is vital if the recommendations from the process are going to be acknowledged, let alone acted upon. 

Participants considered the ways in which these requirements could be met. Overwhelmingly it was clear that when you start the process you have to also think about implementation. 

Practically this means having the right topic or question for the assembly to consider, and setting clear parameters so that the recommendations are realistic, which might include an evidence session about what is deliverable and what isn’t. 

Financially this means thinking about a budget for after the conclusion of the process - and for implementing any recommendations. 

Politically, it means involving people or organisations who can make change, including those whom the recommendations would be aimed at and those who would have responsibility to deliver the recommendations. Inviting these people to be part of the process through the oversight group, or as observers, could improve buy-in and intent to implement. 

It was also important to think about the environment beyond the process itself. Communicating the fact of the assembly to the wider community, before, during and after the process. But also, in framing the question and thinking about implementation, sub-national bodies have to consider what they can realistically deliver within the constraints of their powers. Again here some dedicated time to allow assembly members to understand local authority powers versus national government powers could be useful. 

And of course, in thinking about the longer term lifespan of the process, it was important to think about the role of the participants - how can assembly members themselves be given the opportunity to flex the democratic muscles participating has strengthened.

Ten top tips from local authorities

We listened to the discussions with representatives of local authorities and did a joint analysis with Demsoc of the post-its written on the virtual whiteboards. Here is a synthesis with ten key practical take-aways to put assemblies’ recommendations into practice and demonstrating impact:

  1. Check your commitment before you begin.  Assemblies and juries take time and resources - the complexity and scale of the processes can be daunting. It is not just the design and delivery of the Assembly, but the commitment, skills and resources to implement recommendations afterwards. What else is going on in your authority/ with partners that may encourage or impede recommendations? What other partners and services in the area will be important in implementing the actions and are they on board? Can you get cross-party support?
  2. Carefully scope the topic, the purpose and question design. Be clear on the purpose of the assembly or jury, how the topic will be chosen and spend time designing the question. A good tip was to test the question with residents first (before recruitment for the assembly starts)! It needs to be relevant to the community and engaging but also relevant to the powers, skills and resources of the local authority.
  3. Carefully plan for the representativeness and diversity of the assembly. Workshop participants referred to the importance of dedicating time and resources to ensure the selection of participants was representative, using means and sortition processes that were accessible. They also talked about the importance of embedding this diversity throughout, including in the choice of experts and the delivery team.  Demonstrating this diversity means recommendations will have resonance back into communities.
  4. Involve implementers and key decision-makers throughout. Checking commitment before the start is key but not enough. Ensure senior decision-makers (including councillors), partners and services are involved in the process throughout. Attending some sessions in the assembly can build trust and help them understand the investment and thought put by residents and the expectations of the process.
  5. Design for recommendations that are actionable, attributable, specific, and prioritised. This means it will be clear who should be implementing them and how.  Aim for recommendations that give you a mandate for action and against which you can report progress - if they are too broad or not prioritised it will be unclear how they will move forwards. 
  6. Design for a process that enables trust. Enable spaces for direct communication between assembly members and council representatives (including councillors!). Support both of them in their presentations so that they are engaging and help to connect and build trust. 
  7. Consider at the outset the resources and skills needed to implement recommendations. Ensure there are enough resources not only to design and run the assembly but also to implement the recommendations.  This includes any plans and the people with the time to do so, including skills and capacity to figure out how to implement recommendations. 
  8. Have a communication strategy in place. Your communication plan should include the wider public, the media, partners and implementers for before, during and after the assembly; and creative ways to reach and engage them. Brief the media so that they understand the process, think about what other communication channels to use to reach a diversity of residents, open up the recommendations made by the assembly and be transparent about the process and about the final recommendations and commitments.
  9. Work with assembly members. Find ways for assembly members to share their views and experiences. Think about how you will resource the continued involvement of assembly members after the process has finished and through what mechanism.  Don’t drop thinking about the accessibility adjustments needed for assembly members to do this. 
  10. Ensure there is an accountability mechanism in place. Consider at the outset having a structure in place during the assembly to monitor it and follow up on how recommendations are actioned over time. Think about the role of observers throughout the process.

Thank you to all the participants of the workshop for sharing their experiences and insights.