When is a citizens’ assembly not a citizens’ assembly? – Towards some standards

By Tim Hughes

Former Director (2017 to 2021)

Published on

20 Nov 2019


Citizens’ assemblies bring together people from all walks of life – selected randomly, but to be demographically representative – to consider a public issue in depth over multiple days and meetings.

Assembly members hear evidence, question witnesses and deliberate with one another, before reaching recommendations on what they think should be done. Citizens’ assemblies put the trade-offs faced by decision-makers in front of members of the public and ask them to arrive at workable recommendations.

Amongst all of the enthusiasm surrounding citizens’ assemblies at the moment, the term is starting to lose some of its meaning. We’ve been guilty of this ourselves, at times compromising the precision of definitions with the hope of demonstrating the power of the model and building towards more robust processes. While it’s important that standards do not curb innovation, it’s critical that methods are not watered down beyond recognition. 

Not all assemblies of citizens are citizens’ assemblies – and neither do they need to be

Recently we’ve started to see tenders for “citizens’ assemblies” lasting fewer than 8 hours. While a community conversation of this nature may very well be worth doing, it does nobody any favours to pretend that it is a citizens’ assembly. Misusing terms at best creates confusion and at worst builds expectations that cannot be met, and ultimately cheapens and undermines the method.

Not all assemblies of citizens are citizens’ assemblies – and neither do they need to be. There is a vast toolbox of public participation methodologies that can be used to involve people in decision-making in a variety of ways. 1 This includes a range of other deliberative processes – such as citizens’ juries, citizens’ panels and deliberative polls – that are appropriate for different purposes and have their own sets of standards.

A citizens’ assembly is a specific democratic tool to be used in specific circumstances. Their power comes from their robust process, which gives a representative group of the public time and support to engage with a topic in depth. But this process makes them time and resource intensive compared to many other methods of engagement, so citizens’ assemblies should be reserved for the really knotty issues that require challenging trade-offs to be made. 

Where these circumstances exist, a citizens’ assembly can make a substantial contribution to helping to resolve an issue — but it must be properly resourced and well run to enable it to succeed.

Towards some standards

With this in mind, we’ve had a go at developing some draft standards for the citizens’ assemblies that we design and run. These are based on our own practice, understanding of international practice and a range of standards that have already been developed across the globe (including by us). They are intended as a starting point for discussion with other practitioners, experts and commissioners to refine them over the coming weeks and months. We hope that they might form the basis for some collectively agreed standards among practitioners and commissioners in the UK. 

There will continue to be debate around these definitions. It is true, for example, that processes that we call “citizens’ assemblies” in the UK would often be termed “citizens’ juries” or “reference panels” in other countries, where the term “citizens’ assembly” is reserved for much larger and longer deliberative processes. Those variations across countries will need to be ironed out as standards and typologies are agreed internationally. The OECD is currently doing some great work on this through their Innovative Citizen Participation project which they will publish early next year.

At some point we will need to bring our definitions of different deliberative methods (e.g. citizens’ juries, citizens’ panels, citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ summits, etc.) in the UK into line with that emerging international consensus, but what we’re most concerned with at the moment is that the term “citizens’ assembly” is reserved for high-quality deliberative processes and is not used for processes with limited or no deliberation that are more akin to focus groups.

The standards below are organised into “essential” and “desirable” features of ten criteria:

  1. Clear purpose
  2. Sufficient time
  3. Representative
  4. Inclusive
  5. Independent
  6. Open
  7. Generative learning
  8. Structured deliberation
  9. Collective decision-making 
  10. Evaluated

We consider the essential features to be the fundamental things that make a citizens’ assembly a citizens’ assembly. The absence of any one of these features would require detailed justification and would only be warranted in exceptional circumstances. The desirable criteria are the additional features that we consider to be current good practice.

The following draft standards are also available via an open and commentable GoogleDoc and we welcome your help in refining them! 

The draft standards – for comment

1. Clear purpose

There is a clear question / set of questions for the assembly to address, which has / have a range of different possible solutions

The scope for making a difference to the policy or decision is explicitly declared at the start and things that are out of scope or cannot be changed are clearly outlined

Decision-makers make a public commitment to consider and respond in detail to the recommendations

There are a clear set of trade-offs for the assembly to address

There is support for the citizens’ assembly from across key political divides

The assembly is commissioned by a public authority with responsibility for the issue in question

2. Sufficient time

The time available is proportionate to the question / purpose

There are multiple meetings with time between for reflection

There is sufficient time for each of the three phases of the citizens’ assembly: learning, deliberation and decision-making

The assembly lasts for at least 30 hours (4 days) in total

The assembly lasts for 45 hours (6 days) or more
3. Representative

40 or more assembly members are recruited 1

A pool of potential assembly members is created through random selection, using a recognised market research recruitment methodology

Assembly members are selected from this pool using random stratified sampling based on demographic criteria to ensure that they are broadly representative of the wider population

100 or more assembly members are recruited 

The pool of potential assembly members is created through a full civic lottery / sortition process

Where relevant, assembly members are selected using attitudinal sampling (as well as demographic sampling) to ensure that they are broadly representative of the wider population

4. Inclusive

Assembly members are reimbursed for all reasonable expenses

A gift of at least £50 per day is given to assembly members

The accessibility requirements of assembly members are met on request

Carers of assembly members are welcomed and provided for

There is a ratio of max 9 assembly members per group facilitator

Presentations by witnesses are accessible, avoiding jargon and not assuming prior knowledge

A gift of at least £75 per day is given to assembly members

Information / materials are provided in a range of different formats

The care costs of any assembly members are reimbursed and/or caring facilities are provided onsite (e.g. a creche)

The accessibility requirements of assembly members are anticipated and met

There is a ratio of max 7 assembly members per group facilitator

5. Independent

The assembly is impartially facilitated (both lead and group facilitation)

Key decisions about the citizens’ assembly agenda and design are reviewed by an independent advisory group to ensure their balance and impartiality

The assembly is run at an arm’s length from the commissioning body
6. Open

The recruitment methodology, advisory group membership, speaker lists, agendas and briefing materials are published in full

The process plan / design is published

The assembly’s conclusions are published in full

Decision-makers publicly respond to the recommendations

All evidence sessions are live-streamed
7. Generative learning

Assembly members hear balanced, accurate and comprehensive information and evidence

Assembly members hear from diverse witnesses with a range of views

Assembly members determine their own questions for witnesses and have sufficient time to question them

Witnesses are briefed so that they clearly understand that their role is to stimulate and support discussions among the assembly members, not to lead or direct them

The learning phase supports the subsequent deliberation and decision-making phases, enabling assembly members to arrive at informed and considered judgements

Assembly members select at least some of the evidence and/or witnesses they wish to hear
8. Structured deliberation

Assembly members are supported through a facilitated process to consider and weigh-up different perspectives

Assembly members are given time to discuss issues with as many of their fellow participants as possible

The assembly process is well structured, with a clear progression through learning and deliberation, to decision-making

The assembly process is designed and led by professional facilitators

The assembly process allows time for plenary feedback and summing up, so that assembly members can hear views from across the assembly

Facilitators are well briefed and provided with any necessary training ahead of the citizens’ assembly

Small group discussions are facilitated by professional facilitators, with experience of deliberative processes
9. Collective decision-making 

A defined decision and/or set of recommendations is reached as an integral part of the process

Assembly members consider all key trade-offs and their decisions / recommendations are internally consistent

Decisions and/or recommendations are agreed collectively by assembly members

Reports of the assembly outline the rationale behind decisions / recommendations

Assembly members are given a variety of ways to express their views – both collectively, through the discussions, and individually through other methods, such as voting, post-it notes, postcards or flip charts

Where relevant, a minority report with dissenting opinions is produced

Assembly members are involved in writing the report of their recommendations

Assembly members are involved in presenting their recommendations to decision-makers

10. EvaluatedAssembly members are surveyed to collect their views on their experience and the quality of the process, including the impartiality of facilitation, the balance of evidence and the opportunities to participateAn external evaluation is completed of the process and its impact

Visit the commentable version to suggest revisions.

  • 1Other deliberative processes, such as citizens’ juries and citizens’ panels, involve fewer participants