In 2019, the National Assembly for Wales – now known as the Senedd Cymru or Welsh Parliament – celebrated its 20th Anniversary.
As part of the celebrations, the National Assembly Commission initiated a citizens’ assembly to consider the question:
How can people in Wales shape their future through the work of the National Assembly for Wales?
The Citizens’ Assembly of Wales brought together 60 members of the public from across Wales – selected via a civic lottery to be reflective of the Welsh population – over one weekend in July 2019 to consider how people could shape their future through the work of committees; budget approval; questioning the government; and setting the National Assembly for Wales’ agenda.
This was the first citizens' assembly to be commissioned by the National Assembly for Wales, and the first to take place in Wales.
“WE SEE A LOT OF ARGUMENTS AND NEGATIVITY IN POLITICS ON THE NEWS BUT THE CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY WAS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.”
The citizens' assembly report was launched at the GWLAD Future Wales Festival on 29th September 2019.
What we did
We worked with the National Assembly Commission to design and deliver all aspects of the citizens’ assembly process. This included helping to define its scope, designing the process, selecting and inviting speakers, commissioning and overseeing recruitment, managing participants, organising logistics, facilitating the citizens’ assembly sessions, and reporting on its outcomes.
We worked with the Sortition Foundation to recruit the participants via a civic lottery. We randomly selected ten thousand households in Wales from the postcode database. We then sent a letter to these addresses asking if any adults over sixteen years old would like to take part in the citizens’ assembly. Adults who did want to take part and who were free on the relevant dates responded online or by phone. In total, 331 people said that they would like to take part. We then used stratified random sampling to select sixty participants who together reflected the population of Wales in terms of:
- Educational qualification (highest level of qualification held);
- Place of residence (which region of Wales they live in);
Whether or not they voted in 2016 National Assembly for Wales
- Welsh language skills.
The citizens' assembly process
The citizens’ assembly took place over the course of one weekend, Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. During this time, it went through a three-phase process of learning, discussion and decision-making. During the learning phase, the assembly heard background information about the role and powers of the National Assembly for Wales, before considering ways that people in Wales could shape their future through four areas of the National Assembly for Wales’ work:
- The Assembly’s committees;
- The Assembly’s role in questioning the government;
- The Assembly role in budget approval;
- Setting the agenda for the Assembly.
Following the learning phase, participants discussed each of these themes, considering the:
- The pros and cons of each new way of shaping the future;
- Whether or not each new way of shaping the future should be available to people in Wales; and,
- Their order of preference in terms of how important it is that each new way of shaping the future is available to people in Wales.
This discussion led into the decision-making phase, where participants voted by secret ballot to give their final view on their preferred ways for people to be able to shape the future, and discussed whether there was anything else they would like to say to the National Assembly for Wales on the topic of shaping the future.
The citizens’ assembly discussed and then voted on what they believed to be the key challenges facing Wales – these included health services, mental health services and education. They also voted on areas they felt are working well in Wales including maintenance and access to historic buildings; high-quality local produce and food; and environmental protection with good progress on recycling.
A key part of the citizens’ assembly’s work was to look at how people engage with decision-makers at the National Assembly. Over the weekend participants were informed on ways in which people can currently influence the work of the National Assembly and then discussed new ways that people could participate in Assembly committee inquiries and consultations; ways members of the public can be involved in questioning government; how people can have a say in how the budget in Wales is approved and setting the wider political agenda. The members explored ideas on new ways in which the National Assembly could involve citizens.
An overwhelming majority of participants agreed that the use of citizens’ assemblies to tackle issues in the future was a good idea and should be developed further. However social media was not considered to be an answer to public involvement with the majority of participants not supporting its use to question the government, asserting that it could not be a representative sample of people so could be biased.
Citizens’ assembly members were clear that the National Assembly for Wales should do more to engage people across the country and the use of innovative ways like citizens’ assemblies and online platforms was welcomed.
The citizen’s assembly’s report was a key part of the National Assembly’s 20 years of devolution programme which looked at the future direction of democracy in Wales.
Elin Jones AM, Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales, said about the citizens' assembly:
“I am proud of the work of our first Citizens’ Assembly - this was a landmark event and an important step on our devolution journey."
“Public engagement is at the heart of the National Assembly’s work. We want people in all parts of Wales to get involved with the democratic process by sharing their views and ideas with us."
“For a democracy to thrive and improve, everyone must be involved. The Citizens’ Assembly is a pioneering way in which we can make sure our work is in line with the priorities of people across the country."
“The feedback we’ve had from the participants has been overwhelmingly positive and better than we could ever have wished for. I would like to thank all of those who took part for their time and efforts and for showing us that this a valuable and effective way to engage with the people we represent.”
Mark Curry, Citizens’ Assembly Member, who is retired and lives in Edern on the Llŷn Peninsula, said:
“What really struck me was the quality of debate and the opinions expressed by people from all backgrounds. Sometimes we see a lot of arguments and negativity in politics on the news but the Citizens’ Assembly was completely different. People were courteous and really listened to each other, it was great to have an informed discussion and hear the views of others and have the opportunity to contribute mine."
“Many different topics were raised over the Citizens’ Assembly weekend, I raised the issue of transport infrastructure in Wales and the provision of railway services for rural communities like mine. I think this process would be a very helpful way of tackling some of the issues we face in future.”
Poppy Jones, Citizens Assembly Member and 6th form student from Cardiff added:
“The Citizens’ Assembly was a great idea. Some people only ever engage with the process when they go to vote but this an effective way to reach people who wouldn’t normally be involved in the political process. It is a great way to bridge the gap between people and politics."
“I learned a lot about the way the Welsh Assembly works which helped us make informed decisions."
“On the weekend we were asked to explore how best to question government and one of the suggestions was further use of social media. I feel that the use of social media to do so could be counter-productive. Those with more moderate views or undecided opinions could be easily be spoken over or drowned out by those with more fixed or more extreme views."
“There is an unfortunate lack of accountability on social media platforms, which leaves them open to potential abuse. If we do use online platforms or forums to engage the public with the National Assembly, we must also be very careful not to exclude those without access to the internet, or those unable to use technology. I feel that any online forum must be subject to moderation - which also brings up the issue of censorship."
“It was a great experience and I hope everyone will have more of a say in future.”