On Wednesday 13th December, the results from the Citizens Assembly on Brexit will be launched in Parliament, and so now seems a good time to share my 6 key observations from it.
Having started working at Involve just two weeks earlier I was lucky enough to be attending one of the most exciting developments in deliberative democracy in recent years. Seeing the Citizens Assembly on Brexit unfold was fascinating and so I thought I’d share a few key thoughts on what it tells us about how we do democracy:
1 – Working together works
The Citizens Assembly on Brexit was evidence of the willingness of a diverse population to come together, listen to, and engage with each other’s ideas and opinions. It might seem obvious to say people can work well together, however this Assembly produced a far more respectful, informative and productive debate than the bitter division in the news media and between politicians. Taking the time over the two weekends, to really explore and discuss the issues is proof of how people with a variety of values and opinions can work together and, crucially, disagree in a respectful way.
2 – It’s complicated, and that’s ok
Brexit is, of course, a very complex topic and the Assembly Members were given a wealth of information on trade and immigration from respected academics. Naturally making sense of it all to come to conclusions is a major challenge, but proved to be one the Assembly Members were of course up to. It showed the ability and willingness of the public to actively engage with the most complex and crucial political issues.
3 – The public haven’t had quite enough of experts just yet
During the referendum campaign last year, Michael Gove infamously claimed that the British people ‘have had enough of experts’. Having witnessed the Assembly and read through all the feedback forms, it seems quite clear the Assembly Members really valued hearing trustworthy expert insight into such a complex topic. One of the keys to this trust was the distinction between those experts who were there to state facts, and speakers who were there to debate opinions. Both of these roles are crucial, but clearly distinguishing between the two was essential to setting up a healthy, well-informed debate.
4 – It’s not only what decisions are made that matter, but how they are made
It’s a tired cliché to claim ‘it’s not the destination but the journey that matters’ and it is probably not true either, with real life politics the decisions we make absolutely matter. However, what witnessing the Assembly highlighted to me was how the process of decision making can be done better by providing a platform for citizens to seriously explore, and debate the issue, with the aim of producing real policy recommendations. Citizen engagement is not just a productive policy tool, it’s also the right way to do things. Citizens deserve to be meaningfully involved in discussions which will heavily impact the future of their country.
5 – It’s not enough just to know how people voted, the real question is why
The risk which can come along with highly complicated votes with many different strands, such as the EU referendum, is that many people may vote for the same thing, but for many different reasons and with potentially different interests. This is an unavoidably complicated aspect of democracy. To make sense of this, continuous dialogue between policy makers and citizens, through more events like the Citizens Assembly, is required. This will enable both better public understanding of policy, and policy makers to better understand citizens views and priorities.
6 – People want more
One piece of feedback that I heard in person and read in many feedback forms went along the lines of ‘really valuable experience and great event, I just wish we could have done it before the referendum!’ Now, to be clear, this is not necessarily a comment on the outcome of the referendum itself, but the process of the debate which led up to it. What this says, is that events where citizens are involved in debating key issues in an open-minded way are both constructive for policymaking and important for a better democracy.
Overall the Citizens Assembly on Brexit was a perfect way to begin my time working at Involve. It was a real success as when we asked the Assembly Members if they wanted there to be more Citizens’ Assemblies in the future to inform government decision making there was almost universal support for the idea. Hopefully this success can inspire more deliberative and participatory democracy where people have a real say. It is a very exciting (and challenging) time for democracy at the moment, I’m just looking forward to more!
To find out more about the Citizens Assembly on Brexit please click here.