Experimenting with Citizens' Assemblies in the UK

Graham Smith is Professor of Politics at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. This article was originally posted on OpenDemocracyUK.


Two experimental citizens' assemblies in Sheffield and Southampton, starting this month, show the way forward for debating constitutional change across the UK.

In October and November, two citizens’ assemblies will be taking place in Sheffield and Southampton. Organised by a coalition of academics and civil society organisations under the banner Democracy Matters, Assembly North and Assembly South represent significant interventions in contemporary British politics.

First, the assemblies will be dealing with a fundamental constitutional question: how should we be governed? The main focus of the assemblies will be devolution and decentralisation of power to English regions. The Devolution Deals that are current government policy are piecemeal reforms. And as the term ‘Deal’ suggests, they are stitched together by local and national elites: citizens have had no say in how they should be governed. Following the much publicised Devolution Deal for Greater Manchester, a Deal for Sheffield has been announced recently by government. A similar Deal for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight is under consideration. But what do citizens in these areas make of the decisions being made in their name? What forms of regional power would be supported by the people who live locally?

Second, the assemblies are explicitly organised as pilots to showcase the potential of the citizens’ assembly model as a way of engaging citizens on constitutional decisions in the UK: an explicit response to conservative voices that suggest they are not suitable for, and would not work, in the UK. Assembly North and Assembly South follow in a line of citizens’ assemblies that have been organised in Canada (British Colombia and Ontario), the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland and aim to show that such assemblies can be organised effectively in the UK. Central to this model are the principles of random selection and deliberation: the idea that a diverse body of ordinary citizens, chosen on a near-random basis so as to be (close to) descriptively representative of the citizen population, are willing and able to deliberate and make recommendations on constitutional questions.

While Assembly North and Assembly South do not have the same political standing as their institutional cousins, they will make a significant contribution to debates on the design of citizens’ assemblies. Where the Canadian and Dutch assemblies were purely constituted by citizens, the Irish innovated for their Convention on the Constitution, including one third appointed politicians as members of the assembly. The Irish argument being that the inclusion of politicians directly in the process would ensure political buy-in and influence for any recommendations. Advocates of the mixed model point to the recent success of the same sex marriage referendum in Ireland as evidence: the Convention on the Constitution had earlier recommended such a course of action.

This is a critical debate as the original designers of citizens’ assemblies (and other mini-publics such as citizens’ juries, deliberative polls and consensus conferences) are vociferous in arguing that their power lies in creating a safe space for citizens to learn about and deliberate on constitutional issues, free from the direct influence of political elites. Appointed politicians would be at an advantage in such a setting, able to influence unduly the deliberations and recommendations of citizens. But, until now, we have not been able to compare designs: the Irish assembly met over less weekends and had a different subject matter in contrast to its predecessors.

So Assembly North and Assembly South have been designed explicitly to test this proposition: what does happen when politicians are introduced into citizens’ assemblies as members (rather than just giving evidence)? Sheffield will be modelling the ‘classic’ citizens-only model: over two weekends, 45 citizens will learn about local and regional governance, hear evidence from advocates of different approaches, deliberate over the options and come to recommendations. In Southampton, the same process will be followed, but the Assembly will be constituted by 30 citizens and 15 local politicians. At the end of the process we will be in a better position to make judgements about the advantages and disadvantages of the competing institutional designs.

In the run up to the general election, all the main political parties, bar the Conservatives, were committed to a ‘citizen-led constitutional convention’ for the UK. The pages of Open Democracy attest to the widespread interest in such an idea: that the people should have a significant role to play in designing the rules under which they are governed. But what ‘citizen-led’ might mean is open to much debate. The citizens’ assembly model is likely to be one part of the answer and the Democracy Matters project represents an important step forward in moving from debate to action.

For more on Assembly North and Assembly South and the broader Democracy Matters project, see citizensassembly.co.uk.

Democracy Matters is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.


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