Citizens' assemblies provide a forum for people who otherwise do not have their say in politics. This was demonstrated again at the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy in the UK, whose recommendations were presented to the public on 7 April 2022.
"The organisation of the Citizens' Assembly, they listen to the non-elites," Laurel, a randomly selected member of the assembly, explained after her participation. Like many people selected for Citizens' Assemblies, Laurel was initially sceptical. "Is this for real?" wondered Laurel when she received the invitation to the Citizens' Assembly. She suspected deception. But then she agreed, "So I said, okay, I'm going to take a chance".
"Use words we understand"
At the beginning of the Citizens' Assembly, Laurel explained her expectation to the organisers, "I like it when people use words that I understand, because I know that you've got the well-educated people. But you have to remember the little people that's not so educated. So use words that we understand. And if you use words, that we understand, we communicate better".
Laurel was part of the group of participants with low or no educational qualifications. These made up 35.1 per cent of all participants at the start of the Citizens' Assembly. This put the organisers close to the target of 36.3 per cent that these people make up in the UK population as a whole. In contrast, this part of the population is little or not at all represented in parliaments. Other criteria for the composition of the Citizens' Assembly were age, gender, ethnicity, disability and place of residence.
Consultations over six weekends
In addition, those interested in participating had been asked whether they had taken part in the Brexit referendum in 2016 and how they had voted, whether they had voted in the last House of Commons election and by what vote, and what their views were on citizens' participation. Again, the distribution in the Citizens' Assembly was close to that in the general population.
The assembly members had spent a total of 45 hours over six weekends from 18 September to 12 December 2021 in online sessions looking at what they thought the role of government, parliament, the courts and the public should be, and what people's expectations are of how actors in British democracy should behave. Participants then formulated 51 recommendations on how democracy should work. The aim was to influence debates about democracy among policy makers in governments and parliaments in all parts of the UK.
"Dissatisfied", "frustrated" and "disappointed"
"Dissatisfied", "frustrated" and "disappointed" are words that appear frequently in the Citizens' Assembly Report. "We are frustrated with how democracy works in the UK today because there is a gap between the people and the system," the report says. There is a feeling that the state of democracy is deteriorating. At the same time, the participants express confidence in the rule of law. British democracy is better than many others.
The citizens' report finds that the assembly members expect high standards from individuals in public life. They want power to be spread out from government to parliament and the courts, and believe the public should have a stronger voice, both through their representatives and directly. The Assembly also makes specific recommendations that relate directly to core elements of the government’s agenda, including the effects of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Citizens' Assembly recommends deliberative democracy
The assembly participants also take up the cudgels for citizens' assemblies: "We believe that deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies should be used more often by governments and parliaments throughout the UK to understand the views of the public," reads one recommendation. It also describes their own experience in the citizens' assembly. "We are all so different and coming from different places - but all focused on how to make things better once we got into it. It made it hard but exciting. This way you get a real range of the population involved and people learn from each other". It is proposed that citizens' assemblies can also be brought into being through a petition from the people.
In addition to citizens' assemblies, the assembly also favours referendums. However, these should be used sparingly and predominantly for constitutional issues of significant national (or regional) importance. Referendums should also only be used for clearly defined, but contentious, choices where the consequences of the decision can be accurately set out in advance.
Referendums with a "super majority"
An impartial, non-political body should be responsible for providing the public with clear, unbiased, factual information that they can use to understand the issues involved. Referendums are to be considered binding on government and parliament only if they are approved by an unspecified "super majority". "50% +1 support is not enough to be considered a mandate from society," the Citizens' Assembly said.
Participant John enjoyed attending the Citizens' Assembly. "I was amazed at some people's views," said the pensioner from near Edinburgh, who used to work in the chemical industry. By seeing the perspectives of other participants, he said, he changed his mind on some issues. Participant Paddy was taken with the atmosphere in the assembly: "The whole principle was, you can disagree, but we keep it polite, we keep it respectful, and that was really important. And I realised that's what is often missing in our political debate at the moment."
"Citizens concerned about state of democracy"
Commenting on the Citizens' Assembly findings, Prof Alan Renwick (Project Director and Deputy Director of the UCL Constitution Unit) said, "The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK shows that people across the UK are deeply concerned about the state of our democracy. That’s not just a flash-in-the-pan response to Partygate. Even before the scandal grew, people wanted politicians who are honest and trustworthy, and an enhanced role for independent regulators".
Kaela Scott, Design and Facilitation Lead for the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK and Direction of Innovation and Practice at Involve, added: "The recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly show that when members of the public are given the opportunity to come together and learn about the complexities of our democratic system, and the time to really discuss and deliberate on the system and what they want from it, they can, despite their diversity, reach high levels of agreement.
"Listen to them"
Professor Renwick added: "The members for the Citizens’ Assembly worked incredibly hard to deliver this report and they deserve now to be taken seriously. "We’re now working to bring their proposals to policymakers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. My message to politicians is to listen to them and consider what your next steps should be."
The Citizens' Assembly project was led by the Deputy Director of the UCL Constitution Unit, Prof Alan Renwick, in collaboration with Prof Meg Russell, Director of the UCL Constitution Unit, and Prof Ben Lauderdale, a leading expert in public opinion research. The Citizens' Assembly was conducted in collaboration with Involve, an organisation that focuses on citizens' assemblies. The Sortition Foundation had conducted the sortition procedure for the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy.
Read more: Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK