Citizens’ Assembly

Guide to Citizens’ Assemblies

This is our guide on citizens’ assemblies what they look like, key examples from around the world and why we are confident that a citizens’ assembly would be a game-changer for the climate and ecological emergency.

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Deliberative democracy is already starting to take root in the UK with several local councils setting up consultative processes. However, some of these processes do not meet the minimum standards required for a citizens’ assembly to be accepted as legitimate. They should not be confused with the extensive process of a national citizens’ assembly we are demanding from the UK Government. To enable people involved with local deliberative democracy projects to share knowledge and discuss best practice, we have set up an online forum. Please come along, create an account, tell us what you are doing and ask questions!

FAQs

What is a citizens’ assembly?

A citizens’ assembly brings people together to learn, deliberate and make recommendations on an issue of public concern. Similar to jury service, members are randomly selected from the population by a process called sortition. Quotas are used to ensure that the assembly is representative in terms of key characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, education level and geography. Assembly members learn about critical thinking before they hear balanced information from experts and stakeholders. The members spend time deliberating in small, facilitated groups and then they draft and vote on recommendations. Citizens’ assemblies are conducted by non-partisan organisations under independent oversight. They are transparent, inclusive and effective.

The UK Parliament already uses deliberative democracy processes, such as citizens’ assemblies, for example the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care worked with House of Commons Select Committees and there are three deliberative democracy projects currently running as part of the Innovation in Democracy project. Citizens’ assemblies around the world-for example in Ireland, Canada, Australia, Belgium and Poland– have demonstrated that the general public can understand complex information, deliberate on options, and make fair and impartial choices.

Citizens’ assemblies are often used to address issues that are deemed too controversial and difficult for politicians to deal with successfully by themselves. In recent years, Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly has broken the deadlock on two controversial issues: legalising same-sex marriage and the repeal of the ban on abortion. The recommendations of the citizens’ assembly informed public debate and emboldened politicians to advocate for change regarding these issues. The recommendations of their citizens’ assembly on Making Ireland a Leader in Tackling Climate Change is currently being incorporated into the Government’s action plan.

Why is Extinction Rebellion demanding a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice?

This is an emergency. The challenges are big, wide-ranging and complex. And solutions are needed urgently.

Extinction Rebellion believes that part of the problem is the way our parliamentary democracy operates:

  • In the UK’s form of parliamentary democracy, power is in the hands of a few representatives (MPs) who are elected by the public. Over the last 40 years, this form of government has proved itself incapable of making the long-term policy decisions needed to deal effectively with the climate and ecological emergency. The five-year electoral cycle in the representative system of democracy discourages governments attending to long-term issues like climate change.
  • Democratic representatives are lobbied by powerful corporations, seek sympathetic media coverage, and calculate their policies based on potential media and public reactions, as measured by opinion-polls. This means politicians often feel unable to propose the bold changes necessary to address the emergency.
  • Opinion polls often gather knee-jerk reactions to loaded questions, and they do not inform the respondent or enable them to explore the implications of different options with others. For an issue as complex as the climate emergency, opinion polling is of limited value.

Here is how a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice can break the deadlock:

  • A citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice will break this deadlock by giving politicians access to public judgements that have been reached in a fair and informed way. This will help politicians to commit to a transformative programme of action justified by the mandate they receive from the citizens’ assembly, reducing the potential public backlash at the ballot-box.
  • Citizens’ assemblies are fair and transparent. Assembly members have an equal chance of being heard and information regarding experts, stakeholders and the materials given to assembly members is shared publicly. This produces informed and democratically legitimate judgements.
  • Citizens’ assemblies can be used when difficult trade-offs are necessary. For example, experts might propose policies on how to meet a 2025 target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and the assembly would then decide which one they prefer. For example, they might consider how to mitigate the effects of any changes in economic policies for those in society on low incomes.

External resources on citizens assemblies:

Is there public support for a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice?

Of a representative sample of 850 members of the British public, 48% believe that a citizens’ assembly would do a better job at tackling climate change and ecological breakdown than UK governments have. [1] This poll was conducted via DeltaPoll before Extinction Rebellion’s April Rebellion. 9% disagreed and 43% were unsure, meaning there was five times more support for this statement than opposition.

In a second sample of approximately 1,500 participants, the idea that a citizens’ assembly would do better than UK governments was supported by 61% and opposed by 19%. [2] This research was conducted after the April Rebellion began (participants were given information about the Rebellion as part of the survey) via a sampling platform called Prolific.

A YouGov poll [3] found that a quarter (27%) of Britons see the environment as a top policy priority. The issue is even more of a concern for 18-24 year olds, with 45% saying environmental issues is the UK’s most pressing concern after Brexit (57%).

[1] Cameron Brick and Ben Kenward, Report on public opinion concerning Citizens Assemblies to tackle climate and ecological breakdown, 2019, http://www.benkenward.com/XRSurvey/report_on_public_opinion_concerning_Citizens_Assemblies_to_tackle_climate_and_ecological_breakdown.pdf
[2] Ibid
[3] Smith, Matthew. “Concern for the environment at record highs”, YouGov, published 5 June 2019. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/06/05/concern-environment-record-highs

What is sortition?

Sortition is a process of randomly selecting members of the public. It was first used by the Ancient Athenians, who believed that the principle of appointment by lot was integral to fair and impartial decision-making. And it is still applied in our modern legal system, whereby people are chosen at random for jury duty. Sortition enables people from more diverse backgrounds to contribute to decision-making.

Stratified random sampling ensures the assembly is representative of the population by using demographic quotas such as gender, age, ethnicity, education level and region. For example, populations tend to have 50% females and 50% males; hence, stratified sampling means in an assembly of 100 people, 50 seats are reserved for women and 50 seats for men (this is a simple example and we recognise that non-binary persons should also be included in gender quotas). Any citizen should be able to say that there is an assembly member who is of their gender, ethnicity, education level, and close to them in age and geography. Based on this, citizens can infer that if they had the same access to experts and stakeholders, and time to deliberate, then they would make similar decisions.

How do citizens’ assemblies differ from people’s assemblies?

Extinction Rebellion’s third demand is for the UK Government to create and be directed by the decisions of a national citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice. Extinction Rebellion uses other deliberative democracy processes, such as people’s assemblies, in order to model deliberative democracy within the movement, generate ideas, gather feedback and make decisions.

Both citizens’ assemblies and people’s assemblies are forms of deliberative democracy wherein people have the opportunity to discuss and reflect in a way that ensures everyone’s voice is heard equally. Professional facilitators provide structure to the discussion and ensure no one dominates. However the purpose and structure of both citizens’ and people’s assemblies very different.

The key differences are that members of citizens’ assemblies are randomly selected from the population (i.e. sortition). Demographic quotas ensure assembly members are representative of the population in terms of key characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, education level and geography. This means they will likely represent and reflect the interests of the entire population. They also have a structured learning phase wherein members hear from experts and stakeholders. Citizens’ assemblies are usually focused on informing political policy and are particularly useful on issues that may be too controversial or long-term for politicians to deal with successfully by themselves. It is a formal process that takes months to plan, and the assembly itself can last from a few months to over a year.

In contrast, people’s assemblies are organised discussion forums open to anyone who would like to attend (i.e. self-selected). A people’s assembly is a way to structure meetings with a large number of people and can be used to generate ideas, deliberate and make decisions. People’s assemblies can last between one and four hours and can take place anywhere — such as in occupied spaces such as roads and city squares — and have often been used in revolutionary movements, for example, Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the Gilets Jaunes. This method was used throughout XR’s April Rebellion to discuss a wide range of issues, from innovations in democracy and inclusivity to how to end the April Rebellion.

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