What situations is this tool used in?
Citizens' assemblies are participatory processes used to debate issues of national importance, often in the context of strengthening democratic processes and restoring trust in political systems. The assembly debates options around specific issues before coming to a conclusion or set of recommendations.
Who is this tool aimed at?
Members of the public are typically selected at random to participate in an assembly. Although these participants sit at the centre of the process, wider implications are cited for policy makers in the form of better policy grounded in realistic context, and for the wider public in the form of strengthened democracy and trust. Citizen assemblies can be state-organised or run independently.
How Is the Tool Used?
A citizen assembly tends to consist of several stages, for example:
Selection. A randomised group of people – often around 100. Specific selection criteria are often used depending on the location and topic.
Learning. Working agreements are formed. Participants are given background reading, followed by a series of meetings or workshops guided by a group of experts or advisory panel. The aim is to enhance learning and facilitate discussion.
Consultation. A series of public meetings are held, each attended by a group of assembly members. Meetings might include presentation, discussion, questions and answers and submission of written evidence.
Deliberation. The assembly considers what it has heard, and seeks further input from experts as necessary.
Outputs may be used to influence local, regional or national processes and policy. For example, at a national level - if statutory provision allows - conclusions may be put straight to a referendum after the process. Any conclusions should ideally be considered without amendment by government, helping to reinforce the role of the assembly as an independent body with the power to drive change.
Who has used the tool?
The independent Citizens' Assembly for Northern Ireland took place in late 2018 and comprised 80 randomly selected citizens who were invited to deliberate and make recommendations to government on the future of adult social care.
The Irish Government commissioned two citizens' assemblies between 2012 and 2018, namely the Irish Constitutional Convention and the Irish Citizens' Assembly which considered a wide range of issues of national importance. These have been credited with laying the ground for major legislative and policy changes on marriage equality and abortion enacted through referendums following recommendations from the citizens' assemblies. A third government sanctioned citizens' assembly is currently underway.
In the UK a number of independent citizens' assemblies have been delivered on topics including Brexit. In 2018 the UK Parliament commissioned a citizens' assembly on the funding model for social care in England. Parliament has also commissioned a UK-wide citizens' assembly on climate change which is scheduled to take place in early 2020. The Scottish Government has also commissioned a citizens' assembly on the future of Scotland.
In 2018 Belgium became the world's first country in modern times to adopt a permanent, institutional form of citizens' assembly in its eastern, German-speaking region.
Where to find out more
UK parliamentary birefing paper on citizen assemblies: www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN04482.pdf
Guide to citizen assemblies: http://unlockdemocracy.org.uk/page/-/publications/Citizens%20Assembly%20briefing.pdf
Involve resource on citizens' assemblies: https://www.involve.org.uk/resources/methods/citizens-assembly