At a glance

Policy stage: 
Level of involvement: 
Length of process: 
Several weekends
Number of participants: 
50 - 250
Participant selection: 
Civic lottery (Random stratified sample)
Online / Offline: 
Offline

A citizens’ assembly is a group of people who are brought together to discuss an issue or issues and reach a conclusion about what they think should happen. The people who take part are chosen so they reflect the wider population – in terms of demographics (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, social class) and sometimes relevant attitudes (e.g. preferences for a small or large state).

Citizens’ assemblies give members of the public the time and opportunity to learn about and discuss a topic, before reaching conclusions. Assembly participants are asked to make trade-offs and arrive at workable recommendations.

A video from the Citizens' Assembly on Social Care, UK.

 

Citizens' assemblies often adopt a three-step process of learning, deliberation and decision making. This is supported by a team of impartial facilitators who guide participants through the process, ensuring that everyone is heard and comfortable participating.

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 also be provided with additional learning materials that introduce them to the topic being discussed before the Assembly starts). 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.

Citizens' assemblies are often overseen by an independent Advisory Group. They support the preparations for the citizens’ assembly, including topic selection, process design, and the materials that will be used during the citizens’ assembly meetings. A key responsibility of this group is to ensure that assembly participants are presented with factually accurate, comprehensive, balanced and unbiased information.

Citizens’ assemblies usually tend to be quite high-profile events. The relevant decision makers will often be present at the Assembly allowing citizens to present their findings directly.

Used for

This method can be used most effectively when the goal is:

  • Examining broad policy objectives/ horizon scanning to create new ideas and propose solutions;
  • Assessing policy options to develop recommendations;
  • Gaining insight from the public about the efficacy of existing practice.

Citizens’ assemblies have been used in the UK and other countries – including Australia, Canada and the United States – to tackle a range of complex issues. A citizens’ assembly in the Republic of Ireland – established by the Irish parliament – addressed a number of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society. These included equal marriage, abortion and the opportunities and challenges of an ageing population.

Participants

  • 50 - 250
  • Recruited randomly, to be broadly representative of the population

Costs

Main costs:

  • Recruitment of participants
  • Location and logistics (finding a space big enough for the numbers of participants)
  • Facilitation
  • Participant expenses (travel and accommodation)
  • Participant gift/honorarium
  • Planning
  • Communication and promotion

Strengths

  • The process can be high profile and provide a good way of drawing attention to an issue
  • Can bring out diverse perspectives on complex and contested problems
  • Decision makers brought face-to-face with citizens or those with lived experience of an issue
  • Learning phase and deliberation with peers can help participants to understand, change and develop their opinions;
  • Offers policy makers an insight on public opinion on a contested issue based on the public having access to thorough and unbiased information and time for deliberation

Weaknesses

  • Gaining a broadly representative group of people can be challenging and expensive
  • The process for developing and planning an assembly is intensive and demanding on human and time resource
  • Running a citizens’ assembly is a highly complex process requiring significant expertise
  • There is a danger of being seen as a publicity exercise if not followed by real outcomes

More information

Resources

A FAQ sheet explaining more about citizens' assemblies can be found here.

A guide to combining citizens' assemblies with digital tools can be found here.

Examples

Citizens' Assembly for Northern Ireland (Involve 2018)

Citizens' Assembly on Social Care (Involve 2018) 

Citizens' Assembly on Brexit (The Constitution Unit 2017) 

Irish Citizens' Assembly (Houses of the Oireachtas 2016-2018)