What is a deliberative citizens' assembly?

With people just like you and me.

A citizens' assembly brings together a randomly selected, broadly representative bunch of people to decide how we should live together. It's really that simple.

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What are the key elements of a citizens' assembly?

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The OECD's Innovative Citizen Participation group, in its report "Catching the Deliberative Wave: Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions" outline eleven "good practice principles" for deliberative citizens' assemblies, which we have paraphrased here:

  1. Purpose: The aim should be clear, phrased neutrally, and linked to a well-defined public problem.

  2. Accountability: The outcome should influence public decisions. At a bare minimum the government should publicly respond to the participants’ recommendations, and preferably act on them.

  3. Transparency: The design, processes, and final reports should be available for public scrutiny, and all funding sources disclosed.

  4. Representative: The participants should be a representative microcosm of the general public, achieved through random sampling Everyone should have an equal opportunity to be selected to participate.

  5. Inclusive: considering how to involve under-represented groups is important, and participation should be supported through remuneration, expenses, and/or providing or paying for childcare and eldercare.

  6. Information: Participants should have access to a wide range of accurate, relevant, and accessible evidence and expertise, including experts and advocates chosen by the citizens themselves.

  7. Deliberation: The process should facilitate participants in finding common ground for their collective recommendations.

  8. Time: adequate time for participants to learn, weigh the evidence, and develop informed recommendations must be given. Typically participants should meet for at least four full days.

  9. Integrity: The process should be run independently of the commissioning public authority.

  10. Privacy: There should be respect for participants’ privacy to protect them from undesired media attention and harassment, as well as to preserve participants’ independence.

  11. Evaluation: anonymous evaluation by the participants to assess the process should be conducted (e.g. on quantity and diversity of information, amount of time devoted to learning, independence of facilitation). The deliberative process should also be evaluated on the impact of final outcomes and implemented recommendations.

So what does "deliberative" mean?

According to Wikipedia, deliberation is "a process of thoughtfully weighing options". It's a form of respectful discussion, typically conducted in an informed environment, where diverse people try to understand each other, and each other's opinions, before coming to a decision. It is a way of trying to understand the moral crux of political decisions - the trade-offs and why people have differing priorities. It is not about coming to consensus, but about coming to a respectful appreciation of why opinions might differ.

What's wrong with political bargaining?

At the moment, in electoral politics, decisions are usually made through political bargaining. This means our politicians offer a combination of incentives and threats to their political rivals to convince a majority of them to support a particular measure. Often there is some quid pro quo (a favour for a favour) and there is little if any attempt to deliberate (see above) and understand why people believe what they believe.

Furthermore, political bargaining usually reinforces existing power structures. Those with more power get to make the decisions and continue to exclude those with less power from having any meaningful impact.

What do you mean "informed environment"?

Deliberative citizens' assemblies usually take place in informed environments. This means that they listen to a diverse array of experts and other stakeholders (such as campaign groups, support groups and charities, and directly affected individuals) before making a decision. Ensuring that these experts and stakeholders reflect the broad range of opinion is not simple, but it is possible. One key point to remember is that the experts are on tap but not on top, i.e. the assembly members draw on their knowledge but the experts have no say in the final decision. Assisting assembly members to think critically and recognise (conscious and unconscious) biases may be an important part of this process (see videos below).

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