With Parliament deadlocked, people are looking for alternative ways to break the Brexit impasse. Many have been suggested, from the Queen intervening to a government of national unity. Among the options is a citizens’ assembly (or similar deliberative process).

A citizens’ assembly is a body of citizens - typically 50 to 250 - that learn about an issue and deliberate over possible options, before reaching a collective decision. Like jury service, citizens are chosen at random to take part in the citizens’ assembly. Unlike jury service, they’re often also selected to be demographically representative of the wider population, forming what is called a “mini-public”. The idea is that the citizens’ assembly looks and feels like a miniature version of the wider public.

Citizens’ assemblies are fantastic tools for addressing challenging issues. They enable members of the public - not weighed down by party political interests or aspirations - to learn in depth about an issue through hearing from expert witnesses and discussing with people from all walks of life. And after that learning and deliberation, they reach a collective decision.

The Citizens' Assembly on Brexit
The 2017 Citizens' Assembly on Brexit

There is no more challenging an issue at the moment than Brexit, so it’s unsurprising that citizens’ assemblies have been proposed as a possible solution. But while citizens’ assemblies have been used to tackle some very controversial issues - including abortion in Ireland - one has never been attempted in a political and media environment quite as febrile as the current Brexit debate.

Citizens’ assemblies do not bypass the need for political leadership and consensus - they just require a different type.

So what role, if any, could a citizens’ assembly play in helping to break the Brexit impasse? And what conditions would need to be in place for such an assembly to be effective?

Could a citizens’ assembly help break the impasse?

A number of suggestions have emerged for how a citizens’ assembly - or similar deliberative process - could help break the impasse. For any citizens’ assembly to have a hope of success, there are a number of criteria we believe it would need to fulfil:

  1. It would need to be backed by senior politicians from across the political spectrum and the leave/remain divide;

  2. Assembly members would need to be representative of the general public, including how they voted at the referendum;

  3. It would need to be commissioned by Parliament, Government, the Electoral Commission or another relevant institution.

Here’s our take on four possible roles for a citizens’ assembly that have been suggested recently, their benefits and the challenges they’d face.

1. Deciding our next step

With Parliament deadlocked and the EU unwilling to renegotiate, a citizens’ assembly could look at the different options on how we can take the Brexit process forward. A citizens’ assembly would be commissioned by Parliament to take evidence from all sides, deliberate over the options and make a recommendation on how the current impasse could be overcome.

Politicians are deadlocked. Their views on what should happen next are unavoidably shaped by their party political interests and/or their assessment of what makes their version of leave or remain most likely. A citizens’ assembly could look beyond such narrow interests to consider what approach would help find a workable solution and start to heal the divisions in society. This was proposed by the Labour MP Stella Creasy at the Institute for Government:

It would be the great and the good of this country in terms of randomly selected members of the British public being asked to look at the processes that Parliament has - so not the outcome, not to decide for us, because that’s ultimately a choice for us as politicians to make - but being asked to look at the processes that Parliament is using to see if there is a way forward to break this deadlock.

Citizens would be asked to consider the process of making a decision, rather than the outcome. For that reason, it may be able to rise above the political fray, but process and outcomes are not always clearly distinguishable. It’s also not clear what credible options would be available to it, given the extent of the political deadlock.

For such a citizens’ assembly to be successful, it would need a set of clear and plausible options to decide between, and the time and political support to undertake its deliberations. We estimate that it would take 8 weeks to set up and run a citizens’ assembly. Would Parliament wait for it to make its recommendations? Would politicians from across the political spectrum support it? Would those who disagree with the outcome be willing to accept it?

2. Making the decision

The next option would be the most radical of the lot. A citizens’ assembly could be established to review the options for Brexit and make a recommendation on the final decision. Something along these lines has been proposed by Neal Lawson at Compass:

The remit for the Brexit Citizens Assembly would be to decide between no deal, a deal or a second referendum. The assembly would take a few months to deliberate and decide, meaning Article 50 would need to be temporarily delayed.  And while Parliament cannot be bound by any external body, the moral and political pressure to abide by the decisions of the Assembly would be irresistibly strong. If Parliament cannot decide, then this is possibly the only way to start to reunite our fractured nation.

While it might offer a workable solution, would anyone stop to listen to it? It would require politicians to be willing to step back from their fiercely held positions, which seems far-fetched in the current context. Much more likely, its opponents would challenge its legitimacy and seek to undermine its credibility, and it would fall victim to the problem it is trying to solve.

Former PM, Gordon Brown, suggested a slightly more modest proposal in an attempt to build societal consensus:

I envisage bringing together in each region a representative panel of a few hundred citizens, engaging them in a day’s dialogue to deliberate on arguments presented by informed opinion leaders and advocates from both sides — and testing whether pro and anti-Brexit voters can find any common ground.

But while common ground may be found and divisions healed among groups of the public around the country, the challenge remains of converting this into political consensus within Parliament.

3. Setting a referendum question

Were a second referendum to be called, a citizens’ assembly could be established to agree on the options to include on the ballot paper. In the face of deep public cynicism and concerns about political stitch-ups, a citizens’ assembly could help ensure a level of fairness in the choice of the options on the ballot paper. This was proposed by the Labour MP Liz Kendall on This Week:

I think we should look at doing something they’ve done in Ireland which is having something like a citizens’ assembly of ordinary people to determine the question so people don’t think it’s a Parliamentary fix-up.

Again, a citizens’ assembly would take evidence on the range of different options, before reaching a judgement. It would step above narrow political interests to make its recommendation on what options should be put to the public. But it would not be immune to the febrile political environment that would continue to surround it and opponents of the idea of a second referendum would no doubt go to great lengths to try to discredit the process. It would need equally vociferous backing from across the political spectrum in order not to fall victim itself to the political fracas.

The referendum process would need to be set up with time for the citizens’ assembly to take place. The ballot options would need to be determined early in the process of establishing a referendum. Again, a citizens’ assembly would take 8 weeks to report, which could delay the referendum process by an equivalent time. A small price to pay to help safeguard the legitimacy of the referendum process perhaps, but would Parliament and the European Union be prepared to wait?

4. Providing balanced information

An alternative role for a citizens’ assembly, were a second referendum to be called, would be to help ensure the wider public has access to balanced information to help inform their vote. There are a range of different ways in which this could be done.

One option would be to adopt a similar approach to that used in Oregon to inform their citizens’ initiative process. 24 randomly selected members of the public deliberate over 3 to 5 days to review a ballot measure. They then draft a Citizens’ Statement outlining their key findings, including the best arguments for and against a measure. This statement is sent to all voters within the official Voter’s Guide. A representative group of the public, therefore, curates balanced information for the wider public. A similar model used here could help to overcome the highly polarised debate, partial evidence and “fake news”, but those who dislike its analysis are likely to go to significant lengths to discredit it.

Another option would be for broadcasters to adopt aspects of citizens’ assemblies in their coverage. Participants chosen through random selection; facilitated discussions to develop questions; experts scrutinised by members of the public. This is probably the easiest of the options to do. The main challenge is finding a format that is both informative and entertaining. Broadcasters could start tomorrow by trialling new formats that involve randomly selected citizens within their political coverage.

So where next?

Were it allowed to, a citizens’ assembly could help us to find a way through the Brexit impasse. Our experience - time and again - has been that members of the public are more than capable of weighing up the evidence and competing opinions, before reaching workable solutions on challenging issues. We certainly need a process to start to heal the divisions within society and build a collective vision for the future - and a citizens’ assembly in the right circumstances could help with that.

But the challenge to any citizens’ assembly in the current context would be what happens beyond its four walls. Would politicians be willing to cede their power? Would it be allowed space and time to do its work?  Would those who disagreed with its conclusions be prepared to accept them?

Citizens’ assemblies do not bypass the need for political leadership and consensus - they just require a different type. Are our politicians ready to show it?