A Citizens' Assembly (also known as citizens' jury or people's jury) is a body formed of a representative group of citizens or generally people to deliberate, selected at random, on an issue or issues of local or national or international importance and make recommendations about them.
As Renwick (2017, p.26) argues ‘A citizens’ assembly is ideally a forum for listening, learning, and reflecting, and Members should be open to changing their minds in response.’ As Rebecca Willis argues, these provide ‘social intelligence’ on key policy issues. While Leo Benedidctus, author of an article on Citizens Assemblies argues that they can ‘take the voice of ordinary people into the heart of politics’ (Benedictus, 2018). Meanwhile, they help to challenge the ‘echo chamber’ challenge associated with social media and partisan media to help find common ground with people one might assume there were insurmountable differences in values, beliefs and identities.
Citizens' Assemblies use the process of Sortitions to ensure that members are selected at random to be as representative as possible. Sortition is the selection, by lottery, of citizens to serve in political or non-political institutions at any level (Sintomer, 2018). In doing so, all eligible citizens have an equal claim to serve in a particular office or at any capacity (Stone, 2016). Sortition purports to eliminate many of the barriers to service i.e. the need for fundraising and campaigning and is claimed to create a more representative governing body (Dowlen, 2009). In addition, Sortition is characterized as a non-human process, free from all human faculties and as such free from the corruption which affects most elections by preventing special interests from soliciting promises for donations (Stone, 2016; Gastil & Wright, 2018). By using a sortition, it is possible to challenge existing inequalities by explicitly focusing on those selected who reflect various societal characteristics and pay attention to those who may typically be underrepresented, for instance through the use of a stratification grid.
Within Citizens' Assemblies, a group explores the issues with an emphasis on deliberation, so that reflection and informed decision-making lead to balanced views that consider possible perspectives and solutions on the issues explored. This may include listening to experts to help inform their views. Trained facilitators also ensure people’s contributions are considered equally. The process allows members sufficient time to come to their own informed view, although for some citizen assemblies, depending on the issues being discussed, they can range from a day to several weeks. As a mechanism this runs counter to the disconcerting trend towards ‘fake news’ and social media echo chambers (Renwick, 2017).
Citizens' assemblies may be directly tied to policy-making processes, or may stay focused on more local issues. Within a policy context, they are a helpful tool to challenge the short-termism of political processes that tend to be driven by four-year electoral cycles, rather than longer-term issues of climate change and inequality.
In the UK, an early televised experiment took place in Manchester in 1994, discussing crime. In 2017, there were two Citizens' Assemblies, one on Brexit (50 members) and the Democracy Matters project on English devolution. Two projects exploring new ways of improving decision-making by allowing informed and considered public opinion to be heard on major policy questions. There is also a UK Citizens' Assembly on Climate Change.
Other similar bodies have operated in parts of Canada – notably British Columbia and Ontario – and there is a Citizens’ Assembly currently operating in Ireland of 99 citizens split into topical sub-groups over a period of 18 months and chaired by a Supreme Court Judge - described as a ‘gigantic jury’, which has led to a radical change in the country’s view on abortion. The assembly decided overwhelmingly to change the eighth amendment, and 64% recommended that parliament allow abortion without any restriction, up to either 12 or 22 weeks, which was then validated in a country referendum in May 2018 where the country approved the changes by 66% to 34%. In America, Citizens’ Assemblies have been used to encourage the state of Texas to support wind power. In Japan, the Citizens Assembly came dressed in robes as characters from the future to give the urborn a place at the table on issues of climate change and intergenerational equity.
‘In 2006, a citizens’ assembly recommended electoral reform in the Netherlands. In 2011, the Japanese government commissioned a deliberative poll on nuclear power and the future of the pension system. In Gdansk, Poland, a citizens’ assembly met in 2016 to consider flood prevention, and they have tackled other subjects, such as migration, since.’
Participation in citizen assemblies has been found to contribute to positive life-changing behaviours among participants.
However, there have been concerns about whether Citizen Assemblies can help overcome tensions where views are deeply entrenched and factions may be more ‘tribal’ and polarised (Renwick, 2017), for instance on Brexit. For instance, where opposing views may not be considered fairly as people succumb to ‘confirmation bias’ where only views that confirm a particular view are considered (Renwick, 2017). However, a review of one UK Citizen Assembly on Brexit and participant feedback suggests that overall members felt the process was informative, their views were respected and the views explored were balanced and fair (Renwick, 2017).
Links to other democratic processes
Benedictus, L (2018) Power to the people – could a citizens’ assembly solve the Brexit crisis? Renwick, A (2017) Citizens’ assemblies: a better way of doing democracy? Political Insight. December 2017.