At a glance

October - November 2015

Democracy Matters was an award winning Citizens’ Assembly pilot project in the UK. It looked at the topic of local democracy and devolution within England across two Assemblies; Assembly North and Assembly South.

The Assemblies were run by Democracy Matters an alliance of university researchers and civil society organisations led by Professor Matthew Flinders 1. The organisations involved were the Electoral Reform Society, The Constitution Unit UCL, The Centre for the Study of Democracy University of Westminster, the University of Sheffield and the University of Southampton. The project was funded by the ESRC.

The Assemblies were designed as a pilot project to test the use of citizens’ assemblies in the UK. they aimed to show whether this model could be used to involve the public in exploring complex elements of constitutional policy making in the UK. The team ran two assemblies; Assembly North in Sheffield, and Assembly South in Southampton.

What problem was it trying to solve?

The Democracy Matters assemblies were designed to test and solve two things. Firstly to stress test Citizens’ Assemblies as a new method of public engagement in policy-making in the UK. Secondly to come to recommendations on local government and devolution within England in Southampton and Sheffield.

These Assemblies could pave the way for a future UK-wide Constitutional Convention, and they are a real opportunity to mould the devolution agenda so that it genuinely involves citizens and puts democracy at the heart.

Professor Matthew Flinders, University of Sheffield

Who were the participants? How were they selected?

Assembly Members were recruited through the project partner YouGov. They used the same recruitment method but had a different target membership. Assembly North targeted 45 members of the public whilst Assembly South aimed to recruit 30 members of the public and 15 local politicians. The Assembly members were drawn from each of the local areas. For Assembly North this included South Yorkshire (Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield council areas). In Assembly South this included the Solent region (Southampton, Test Valley, new Forest, Winchester, Eastleigh, Fareham, Gosport, Portsmouth, Havant, East Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight).

What was the process?

Both Assembly North and Assembly South met for two weekends each (Friday evening to Sunday afternoon). They were tasked with considering the future of local governance in their areas. The discussions were structured to allow for three key phases; learning, consultation and deliberation.

Previous assemblies that had taken place in Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland were used as models for the design and process. These assemblies are usually run over four or more weekends. However due to financial and other restraints both Assembly North and Assembly South were run over just two weekends. The gap between the weekends was used as time for the members to read briefing papers, discuss the topic with their friends and family and to reflect on their thoughts. The gap was also used as a chance for the research team to answer any additional questions and suggest additional speakers for the weekend. This gave assembly members some influence over the assembly design.

The work of the Assemblies was delivered through a variety of activities in order to account for the different ways that people learn and express themselves. They used a mixture of plenary (in larger groups) and small group sessions. Plenary sessions were generally used for speaker presentations, Q&A sessions and opportunities for feedback from the group. 

The small group sessions gave members the opportunity to discuss within their small groups, to do some tasks and to consider questions that they wanted to put to the experts. They also included activities such as ‘speed dating’ sessions with experts and members were given a range of materials including maps and charts to assist their discussions.  

In addition to the process of holding the Assemblies the organisers conducted research and collected a range of evidence. They used surveys, observation records from small group discussions, recordings of assembly meetings (both plenary and small-group discussions), materials produced by small groups and researcher reflection audits.

What was the conclusion?

The assemblies found that the public were generally supportive of devolution within England. The key assembly recommendations were

Assembly North

  • Directly elected assembly for Yorkshire & the Humber with substantial powers.
  • Measures to enhance public participation in local and regional decision-making.
  • Reject proposed Sheffield City Region devolution deal, but continue to work for a better deal.

Assembly South

  • Directly elected assembly for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight
  • Priority given to powers over the integration of health and social care
  • Members evenly split on support for current devolution proposals in the area

In addition, the project showed an appetite amongst the public to engage in informed discussion about the future of British Democracy.

What was the impact?

The Democracy Matters assemblies were designed as pilot studies to test the use of Citizens’ Assemblies in involving the public in meaningful discussion on complex constitutional issues. They compared and contrasted different assembly design types and showed that it was possible to design and run two assemblies on devolution within the UK and to get the public involved in these discussions. They cite some important lessons that they learnt from the project in their full report available here. An important impact of this project was that it paved the way for the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit. This Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, in September 2017 was run some of the same members of the Democracy Matters team and was led by Dr Alan Renwick at the Constitution Unit, UCL. Involve were tasked with designing the weekend activities and leading the facilitation of the Assembly. For more information about the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit see our project page here.

The Democracy Matters team won the Political Studies Association's Democratic Innovation Award for the Citizens' Assembly Project. 

  • 1. Supported by a team of experts from previous Canadian, Irish and Scottish assemblies