Assembly North was a pilot citizens' assembly in South Yorkshire conducted by Democracy Matters, a group of academics from the University of Sheffield, the University of Southampton, University College London, the University of Westminster and the Electoral Reform Society.
The assembly was formed following the announcement in early October 2015 of an ‘in-principle' devolution deal for the Sheffield City Region agreed by local politicians and business leaders with the Chancellor. The assembly took place over two weekends in October and November 2015 and discussed whether a new regional body should be formed as part of the deal and, if so, what form it should take.
The assembly was made up of a broadly representative group of 32 randomly selected citizens in the four local authority areas in South Yorkshire. It was run as a pilot, with the intention of assessing the effectiveness of citizens' assemblies as a democratic tool, as well as to investigate what members of the public think about devolution. Assembly North cost £32,000 –not including officer time time.
The members of the assembly had the opportunity to hear from several key negotiators about the devolution proposal as well as academics, councillors and community advocates, enabling them to build a considerable knowledge and understanding of the issues and options.
The assembly was viewed as a success when evaluated by Democracy Matters. Assembly members were willing and able to engage with complex policy and governance issues when given the opportunity and support.
At the end of the process, the assembly put forward a series of recommendations pushing for a much more ambitious devolution deal for South Yorkshire than had initially been agreed by politicians. These recommendations included devolving significant tax-raising and law-making powers to the region, as well as policy-making powers for transport and communications, economic development, and education and training. They also strongly voted in favour of proportional representation as a system of voting.
However, because the assembly was a pilot and did not begin with the commitment from Sheffield City Region leaders to implement or respond to the recommendations, these have not been incorporated into policy. As a result, while participants enjoyed their involvement in the assembly, some were frustrated by the lack of direct impact.
- Citizens are willing and able to deliberate over complex issues involved in devolution such as fiscal policy and economic development – provided they are given time, information, advice and support.
- Responsiveness is key: if citizens give their time and then feel their recommendations are not heard in implementing devolution, they are likely to feel let down and frustrated.
- The process of deliberation and making recommendations through citizens' assemblies provides valuable insights into the way local people view devolution – in this case Assembly North pushed for a much more ambitious devolution deal than the one already agreed.