A citizens' assembly is a collection of individuals selected to be representative of the wider population. It meets over a set period of time to discuss an issue and make recommendations based on deliberation. Once these recommendations are made, the assembly is dissolved.
Assemblies are made up of three groups of people: citizens, expert witnesses and facilitators/organisers. The format allows for deliberation, open discussion and focussed questioning, which in turn enables an informed recommendation (or series of recommendations) to be made by citizens.
Citizens' assemblies can be used before devolution deals are agreed - to shape the content of a deal and inform plans for implementation. Their representative sampling, the use of expert witnesses, and the amount of time given for deliberation means that citizens' assemblies have tended to discuss big issues which effect large numbers of people; making them well suited to engagement in devolution areas.
They can require sufficient time and investment. For example, Ontario in Canada ran an assembly involving around 40 people over a period of 3 months for $75,000 (£43,000). However they do enable citizens to be brought into the decision making process in an engaging way, which reflects the strengths, needs and aspirations of the local population.
The use of stratified random sampling increases credibility because it leads to a representative assembly with diverse membership and has the benefit of involving people who may not usually engage in political processes. The deliberative element – through which citizens are given time and resources to learn about, reflect on, and discuss a topic in-depth – also marks it out from other consultative methods which may require participants to give their opinions before they have had a chance to take a balanced look at the arguments.
Key considerations for devolution
- This method of engagement was viewed as having the most potential. However, resourcing was a key consideration;
- Suitable for making decisions at a regional or combined authority level because it allows for representative groups from across a whole CA area to be brought together;
- Citizens deliberate on a single issue over a set period of time, so this method may be used to shape the content of a deal, inform plans for implementation and to scrutinise performance and delivery;
- Makes recommendations based on deliberations with each other, aided by facilitators and expert witnesses;
- Requires sufficient time (typically six months) and investment. Although some methods can be drawn on within smaller budgets.
How do I get started?
- Identify issue(s) across the devolution area to be addressed
- Ensure councillor/ mayoral support for the creation of the assembly, and an agreement to consider recommendations it may make;
- Identify and secure funding;
- Identify participation experts (within local government and externally)
- Agree size and timescale of the assembly.
Assembly North: pilot citizens' assembly held in Yorkshire by Democracy Matters to discuss devolution in the region.
The People's Panel: a large panel which acted as a sounding board for national government over four years.
NHS England Citizens' Assembly: a brief assembly focused on healthcare in England, involving both patients and NHS professionals.