8. Structured deliberation

What does the standard say?

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


What is deliberation? 

Deliberation is an approach to decision-making that allows participants to explore an important public policy question or issue by considering relevant information from multiple points of view. Deliberation enables participants to discuss the issues and options and to develop their thinking together before coming to a view on the question or issue, taking into account the values that inform other participants’ opinions. 

To be deliberative, a citizens' assembly must involve:

  • discussion between participants (this include online elements too but will in the main be face-to-face). There must be enough time for assembly members to learn from a variety of sources. The assembly will follow a logical path through learning and discussion, so that participants build on and use the information and knowledge they acquire over the course of the assembly. This results in a considered view which has been arrived at through careful exploration of the issues at hand.
  • working with a range of people and information sources – including information, evidence and views from people with different perspectives, backgrounds and interests. This may include evidence requested or commissioned by participants themselves. Discussions are facilitated to ensure that a diversity of views from people with different perspectives are included, that minority or disadvantaged groups are not excluded, and that discussions are not dominated by any individual or group. 
  • a clear task or purpose, related to influencing a specific decision, policy, service, project or programme.

What makes deliberative engagement different? 

Deliberation has come to the fore due to its ability to provide a better understanding of informed and considered public opinion and perspectives. Where historically government has relied largely on raw opinion gathering tools such as surveys and opinion polls to inform policy; deliberative public engagement offers decision-makers public views that are carefully considered. In particular it allows people to view opinion shifts that take place before and after deliberation, which can be useful for understanding the difference between informed and raw public opinion. It can also help provide a better understanding of why the public have particular opinions and how they make the trade-offs between different public benefits and harms, for example. 

Unlike in some other forms of deliberative engagement, citizens’ assemblies take participants through to making clear recommendations or conclusions, usually involving some sort of voting for preferences. 

Do I need professional facilitation? 

Yes.  The process should be designed and facilitated by an independent person/organisation skilled in facilitation processes.  Facilitators design the overall process by which the assembly learns, deliberates and comes to conclusions.   The assembly will also involve discussions at table groups with assembly members and here table facilitators can ensure that all assembly members can be heard and feel comfortable, keeping discussions productive and constructive.  They explain and work through the exercises with assembly members.  Facilitators only explain and answer questions on the assembly’s process - any questions about the issues under discussion are referred to the expert lead (see below). 

There is an opportunity to use local facilitators, but importantly anyone facilitating should not be directly involved with the authority commissioning the assembly to maintain independence.  Training in advance with facilitators can help build capacity for future work on this kind. 

How is a citizens' assembly structured? 

Each assembly will be designed differently but follow three phases of learning, deliberations and recommendations.  

The participants learn about a topic through a combination of presentations from experts to cover the breadth of opinion on the issue being addressed (participants can sometimes be provided with additional learning materials that introduce them to the topic being discussed before the assembly starts or between weekends). There is also time given for experts to answer questions from participants.

The second phase (deliberation) encourages participants to explore their own opinions on what they have heard and develop a wider understanding of the opinions of others. Experts will usually participate in this phase to provide additional information and clarification (but not opinions).

The final phase (decision making) of the assembly involves participants coming to some conclusions on what they have learnt through the assembly process. It is important that citizens’ assemblies do not manufacture a false sense of consensus; thus, alongside agreed positions, individual voting can be used to collect the views of all participants. This ensures that minority voices are heard as well as the majority.