Citizens Assemblies - a new wave of interest in citizen deliberation

We can’t be the only ones who have noticed the seemingly sudden spike in interest in citizen deliberation. Ideas for ‘Citizens Assemblies’ and ‘Mini-Publics’ seem to be popping up all over the place. Here are just a few of the recent news stories about these kinds of events:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-48881687

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-48759720

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/20/uk-citizens-assembly-on-climate-emergency-announced

..and the trend looks set to continue with, for example, the announcement of a National Food Strategy to be supported by a Citizens Assembly in due course.

It’s not just in the UK that this increase in interest has become apparent either. Many of the articles about these assemblies reference Ireland’s use of assemblies on recent decisions around gay marriage and abortion. In eastern Belgium their Citizens’ Council is possibly the first to have a direct relationship with elected democratic structures - their Parliament will be bound to respond to their recommendations.

Having been involved in many large and small scale deliberative processes over the years we know that citizens can engage with complex and knotty issues, discuss trade-offs and come to compromises. We firmly believe in these processes as a powerful way of engaging citizens and communities in the decisions affecting their lives. However, they are not a magic wand that can solve all of the current wicked issues upon which politicians and the public are so divided. Some of the discourse has made it sound as if they could be just that, for example: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/03/brexit-citizensassembly-compromise

As powerful as citizens’ deliberative processes can be, they are also fraught with difficulties and hold many potential pitfalls. This is particularly the case where there is little in the way of factual information that is agreed upon by all parties and where much of the debate is about future implications and projections upon which expert opinion is divided (sound like Brexit?) Such processes are also open to being undermined by all sorts of political behaviour beyond the control of the organisers, as seems to be happening in Scotland, there will often be accusations of bias and pre-determination, which will be hard to defend against, because such processes cannot be made perfect in the eyes of the passionate believers on all sides of such arguments.

We will watch how things continue to develop with interest, whilst continuing to deliver deliberative engagement for our clients, on many and varied subjects - watch this space to find out about the current Citizens’ Jury we are working on (when details can be shared).

In the mean time, we’d love to hear your views about and experiences of these developments, so please do comment below.

Rachel LopataComment