It’s not rocket science
Really! You just follow these five simple steps...
1. Select a broadly representative bunch of people by lottery.
Okay, when we said "simple" we were (kind of) joking. Recruiting a broadly representative group of people is not so easy – in fact it's what we specialise in doing – but the steps are simple to understand.
Step 1: Send invitations to a randomly selected bunch of people from all across the relevant community
In the UK, Australia and the USA this is typically done by sending letters to households or people randomly selected from a relevant address database. This could be the national postal service address database, an electoral register, or some other database - the important point is that ideally everyone should have a chance to receive an invitation. In some countries (in mainland Europe, for example) this selection can be done from the government register of residents, or sometimes random phone dialling is used.
Step 2: From those that respond, randomly select a representative sample
To perform this second step we have developed, with the help of academics from Harvard and Carnegie Melon Universities, some open-source software the uses the "fairest possible algorithm" to select a bunch of people that is a microcosm of the community in terms of age, gender, location, a socio-economic proxy (such as highest education level or occupation) and, if relevant, some other attitudinal data (e.g. to make sure a climate assembly is not only people who care deeply about climate change).
2. Bring them together in an assembly, typically at small tables or groups, and let everyone have their say.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this was typically achieved by bringing people face-to-face and sitting them in small groups at tables, with a trained, professional facilitator at each table, like this:
Since the pandemic, like much else in life, these assemblies have successfully moved online. The principles are largely unchanged: the entire group is regularly split into break-out groups with a facilitator, so everyone gets to have their say, and collective decisions can still be made.
3. Have those most knowledgable about, or affected by, the issue address the assembly, bringing in diverse viewpoints and proposals.
An important aspect of any citizens' assembly is making sure assembly members have access to high quality and diverse information from a range of experts and other stakeholders. This is not easy, but it is possible. See What is a citizens' assembly? for more information about this process.
4. Get the participants to discuss, listen and talk to each other – and give reasons for their opinions.
Process, process, process. We cannot over-emphasise the importance of the design and delivery of the deliberative process. Because of course it is not good enough to simply randomly selected a broadly representative bunch of people and throw them in a room together and say "decide". That would (probably) just result in chaos. So typically professional community engagement facilitators are used to design and run an assembly that alternates between plenary and small group discussions, between learning, enquiring, developing informed opinions, and finally making decisions.
This is often not a linear process but a more circular one, where participants learn and deliberate and make some decisions (such as prioritising options or people they want to hear more from) before going into more cycles of learn >> deliberate >> decide.
5. Decide! On what is the best way forward.
Ultimately citizens' assemblies are about making political recommendations and decisions, so at some point the assembly must finish and decisions must be made. Often the participants themselves will come up with the final list of questions to be voted on – and this list of questions should be made by consensus. Everyone should agree that the questions are the important things to decide upon. The answers themselves are a different matter. It may be that the answer is a simple "yes" or "no" to each question, but more often than not a more nuanced approach can be taken, with participants grading their enthusiasm for differing options (e.g. rating them from 1 to 5) giving more information about strong minority opposition (or support) for the various options.
However, as important as the final decisions and recommendations are, almost more important are the reasons for those recommendations. This is what sets a citizens' assembly apart from, for example, referenda. It is another reason why people trust citizens' assemblies – you not only find out what is decided, but why that decision was made.