Citizen’s Assembly: A historic moment for Jersey democracy

How a group of 45 Jersey citizens was asked to make recommendations that could drastically change how we live

Ollie Taylor
Nine by Five Media


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In May 2019 the Jersey government declared a ‘climate change emergency’ by an almost unanimous 40 votes to one (Sarah Ferguson if you’re wondering) which also included within the Proposition the ambitious demand of achieving “carbon neutral” status by 2030. Not to be confused with going “carbon net-zero” where you produce zero carbon emissions but carbon neutral, where you reduce your CO2 emissions as much as possible and then, usually, pay to offset the rest.

You can also go “climate positive” where you move beyond net-zero by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create an environmental benefit but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Following the declaration of a climate emergency, the States Assembly this time unanimously backed the Environment Minister’s carbon neutral strategy in February last year, which proposed the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly in order to answer one of the biggest and fundamental questions of our time: “how should we work together to become carbon neutral?”.

To set up this Citizens’ Assembly the government engaged the Sortition Foundation, which according to its website, “offers bespoke selection and stratification services for your deliberative event” and brings the “world’s best practice selection process” in finding random, representative samples of the population. Establishing sortition groups in the US, UK, Hungary, Australia, and Denmark, the foundation's previous list of clients include the UK House of Commons, the National Assembly of Wales, Greater Manchester, Cambridge as well as Scotland’s National Assembly specifically on the question of how to tackle the climate emergency.

Its website also states that Citizens’ Assemblies are a way to put “representative groups of people and bring them together in informed and deliberative environments to be at the centre of decision making, bypassing powerful vested interests that often exert undue influence on policy outcomes and the hold of career politicians on decisions”. The idea being that they produce better, fairer political decisions and increase the legitimacy of, and trust in, political decisions. They also help ensure marginalised and diverse voices are included in political decisions and help strengthen the “civic muscle” of assembly participants.

This meant that from the 9,000 households sent invitations, the algorithmically chosen sample of 45 Jersey participants ended up being more diverse and representative of the Jersey public than our States Assembly members in terms of gender, age, location, occupation, and birthplace. To further ensure balance with the subject matter, climate change “enthusiasts” are also weeded out for these assemblies, which is possibly why, despite my eager acceptance of a received invitation, I didn’t make the final cut.

Why take such a new approach in engaging the public? Last year Jersey was ranked 379th out of 403 regions for civic engagement by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, this includes engagement in decision making and participation in the development of laws and policy in its measurement. A pre-Covid 2019 Jersey Lifestyle and Opinions Survey also asked the public how much it trusts Jersey institutions. The least trusted institution by those surveyed was the States Assembly, the second least trusted? Government departments.

Despite the total cost of the exercise being an over-budget £389,008, the government should be commended for taking such a bold step in trying to engage the public in a new and dynamic way, all during a global pandemic. This cost is not the same as a series of failures leading to a £500k golden handshake. At this time it’s hard to understand the true value of the exercise but if the government learns from it then it will not be without value. Plus, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of civic engagement. As the foreword in the Achieving Carbon Neutrality report by Emelita Robbins states: “Participants have also gained new attitudes about our political processes and become more self-aware of their own capabilities. I think probably without exception they all gained a greater sense of purpose and possibility.”

The Scottish Citizens’ Assembly proved so popular that it overwhelmingly recommended the Scottish government set up a ‘house of citizens’ to scrutinise government proposals and give assent to parliamentary bills. Philip Clyde-Smith who took part in the Jersey Assembly and considered himself no “climate change warrior” stated that people’s assemblies are “really good” because they “help bring different people together” and are a “very positive thing, especially for a small island.”

Two properly convened Citizen’s Assemblies using the sortition process have now been used in Jersey, one for assisted dying last year and this one, holding 15 virtual meetings between March and May this year. However, the carbon neutral assembly had nearly double the number of invitations offered and final members who participated. As the Environment Minister stated: “This was a completely new thing to do and if you decide to do a thing like this you have to do it properly, you don’t do half measures and therefore, no half measures have been taken, no shortcuts have been taken, this has been done as well as it could be done I believe for a first time”.

It’s also not just a case of a diverse group of people coming together for a chat and a vote. It involves a three-step process of learning, deliberation and decision. What’s key, and a part of the cost, is ensuring that the Assembly has access to a high level of expertise to guide and advise them through the process. An Expert Advisory Panel was carefully chosen by both government and external consultants to bring collective expertise at both a local and international level. They included Professor Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological Society. Fod Barnes, ex-Financial Conduct Authority and ex-Oxera economist. Jim Hopley, Chair of the Jersey Energy Forum and Rachel Harker, Head of Technology at Digital Jersey. Rebekah Diski, Lead of Just Transition Projects at the New Economics Foundation and Toby Park, Principal Advisor, Energy, Environment and Sustainability at the Behavioural Insights Team.

Citizens’ Assemblies and variations of its model have had significant successes in the past. The most well-known recent example being in Ireland, where after 35 years of deadlock they voted overwhelmingly to end the ban on abortion in 2018 thanks to a Citizens’ Assembly. It makes you think where we’d be today in terms of cost, location, and completion if the hospital had been decided using a binding Citizens’ Assembly.

They are not, however, a panacea. They can suffer from a lack of appropriate design, such as having too broad a question to draw concrete recommendations from. Then there’s the question of whether the members chosen are really reflective of wider society and then who chooses the experts to advise them and based on what criteria etc. However, the biggest fundamental flaw seems to be that governments can just simply ignore them, and our government certainly has form on this.

Who can forget the notorious 2013 referendum when politicians rejected plans to reform Jersey’s parliament that was voted for in an island-wide referendum. Not to mention the raising of GST despite large public resistance or the numerous, petitions, reports and Scrutiny recommendations that have all been ignored and dismissed over the years. It’s why the local branch of Extinction Rebellion wanted the Assembly’s recommendations to be legally binding. Sadly this past has created a legacy in which trust in government is rock bottom along with civic engagement and the current government, depending on how they respond, has the potential to transfer this political pessimism and apathy over to a whole new generation.

A Jersey government report by EarthWatch last year: ‘Young people and the climate emergency: how 15–21-year-olds view Jersey’s carbon neutrality objectives’, found that 78% of them were either worried or very worried about climate change. No doubt, they have to live the future we’re creating today and as one put it bluntly:

I am anxious because some don’t even believe in Climate Change! I waste hours of time at home thinking how tiny I am and how I cannot do anything because the older generations would not listen”.

70% of the young people surveyed strongly supported the government’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2030 with a further 19% supporting it. A November 2019 Island Global Research climate change survey that was completed by 838 Jersey residents also found that 8 out of 10 residents believed Jersey could be doing more to tackle climate change and 74% across the Channel Islands believed that we are still able to avoid the worst effects of climate change but that it would need a drastic change in the steps taken.

If the government fails to take adequate action despite public support and after declaring a climate emergency then the future of Jersey’s democracy looks rather bleak, along with the much-vaunted “putting children first” slogan continuing to ring mostly hollow. However, at this stage, it seems both the government and the public are aligned in that some big changes need to happen when it comes to climate change and our carbon emissions. In part two of this column, I’ll look into the Citizen’s Assembly’s recommendations and what some of those big changes could be and mean for Jersey.



Ollie Taylor
Nine by Five Media

Jersey (UK) Evening Post columnist and founder of Nine by Five Media. Always looking for the local angle. Views are all mine and not that of any employer.