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How citizens’ assemblies can improve the quality of democracy

By Newcastle University
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In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in seemingly insurmountable political divides in the general public. But recent research has shown how effective citizens’ assemblies can be in bringing together people with a range of views to make decisions.

Losing trust in the political system

Trust in parliaments and elected representatives in the UK is low and declining further, and turnout for elections suggests how disengaged with politics large parts of the voting public have become.

And in recent years, we’ve seen how political divides between people of different views sometimes seem so large that they cannot easily be resolved.

Democratic innovation is required to address these issues.

What is a citizens’ assembly?

Research has shown how effective citizens’ assemblies can be in promoting democratic decision-making and bringing together people with a range of views.

A citizens’ assembly is a representative group of ordinary members of the public who are asked to deliberate a policy issue and make key recommendations through a process of informed and respectful discussion. They are typically made up of 100 assembly members who are given a range of information and different perspectives on the issue by a panel of advocates and experts.

In recent years, citizens’ assemblies have been held across the UK by a number of local authorities and devolved governments on issues such as adult social care and climate change.

“Citizens’ assemblies – or mini-publics - bring together a representative group of people from a variety of backgrounds and with a diversity of beliefs and attitudes,” explains Dr Elstub. “Efforts are made to lower any barriers to participation, so that those who are not particularly politically active or who don't have a strong interest in the issue, can participate.

“Unlike elected politicians, assembly members do not need to win votes, can approach the issue in a less partisan manner and are perhaps more likely to have an open mind, not to mention they're better equipped to take a long-term view.

“Citizens’ assemblies are a way for policy makers to get important insights into what the public think about specific policy proposals. As a result, policy making can be more inclusive, reasoned and focused on the common good.”

Improving the quality of public engagement

Based on research over the last 10 years, Dr Stephen Elstub has provided clear and practical suggestions for how parliaments can promote the use of mini-publics. This has included shaping the knowledge and understanding of citizens’ assemblies among MPs, MSPs, and Committee clerks which has enabled the UK and Scottish Parliaments to significantly improve the quality of deliberation and public engagement through the introduction of mini-publics into Committee inquiries.

This has led to a noticeable improvement in the scrutiny of government policy by giving the public a way to engage in an informed and considered way with particular issues.

Are citizens’ assemblies effective?

Much of Dr Elstub’s work has been involved evaluating the effectiveness of specific citizens’ assemblies. One example is the 2021 review of the Climate Assembly UK, which was commissioned by six Select Committees from the UK House of Commons to consider the question ‘How should the UK meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?’

The Climate Assembly UK took place over six weekends between January and May 2020. The research found that the quality of the discussion got better as the process progressed and assembly members became more knowledgeable about the issues around climate change and the challenge of meeting Net Zero.

As a result of hearing the views of other assembly members as well as the panel of experts, participants’ opinions also evolved over how achievable reaching Net Zero was – More recent research has indicated that these changes have endured in the years since the assembly.

How can citizens’ assemblies be improved?

In their evaluation, Dr Elstub and colleagues from University College Dublin and Queen’s University, Canada recommended that assembly members should be given more say on the remit of the assembly and the types of information they are given.

They also recommended that a mix of in-person and online sessions could reduce the costs and enable assemblies to run over a longer period, allowing for more in-depth deliberation. The Climate Assembly UK had to move online for the last few sessions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the research carried out for the evaluation found that there was no detrimental effect on the quality of discussion – showing that digital can be used successfully for meaningful dialogue.

This was built on in January 2022 when Dr Elstub, working with the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Government’s Social Research team, evaluated the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland and recommended that future assemblies should be supported by broader public engagement so that there is wider understanding of what assemblies do. Following this there has more recently been the evaluation of Scotland’s Climate Assembly.

“People taking part in Citizens’ Assemblies generally find it a rich and rewarding experience,” said Dr Elstub. “By making them feel included and empowered, it increases their enthusiasm for engaging in other political and civic activities. Because Citizens’ Assembles require participants to listen to each other’s views and debate in an informed and reasonable way, they can improve the quality of democracy since political decisions are based on clearly articulated reasons that are acceptable to all relevant sides. This can reduce any deadlock between legislators and maintain positive public engagement with policy makers.”

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Tags: Data, Cities and Place, Research Excellence