Citizens’ Assemblies: Tips for Decision-Makers

By Lizzie Cain, Evaluation Manager at UCL Culture

Citizens’ assemblies are popping up all over the place at the moment, including the first UK-wide one, which is due to conclude in late March. This — and the majority of those run by local councils — is focused on the climate crisis. Why is this the case?

Whilst the demands of Extinction Rebellion (XR) may have a role to play, the rise in citizens’ assemblies can also be seen as part of a wider shift towards opening up policymaking to involve citizens. At a time of shrinking resources, political distrust and social polarisation, it is increasingly recognised that participation, in various forms, can build consensus around difficult decisions, convey legitimacy on subsequent policies and ultimately lead to better policies, informed by the needs, experience and expertise of those who are affected by them.

The complexity, urgency and all-encompassing nature of climate change, and the impact of any policies to mitigate it, make it an obvious topic for a citizens’ assembly. However, they are also only one form of participation - and a hugely resource intensive and time-consuming one at that.

When my colleague Gemma Moore and I were recently commissioned to evaluate Camden Council’s Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Crisis, we agreed with them that we would focus on the process and outcomes in relation to engagement and participation activities more broadly. Camden Council do plan to run further citizens’ assemblies, but their resident-led approach to policymaking takes many forms, all of which are influenced by similar factors. Our evaluation therefore identified learning around the concepts of power, transparency and decision-making related to delivering citizens’ assemblies, but also in a way that is applicable to other similar activities.

No participation exercise is going to be perfect - but, drawing on our experience with Camden Council, we identified five recommendations for decision-makers to consider when setting out to involve their citizens in decision-making.

1. Determine the method of participation and engagement in relation to the aims of the activity
In other words, don’t jump straight to a citizens’ assembly just because everyone else is doing it. Are you trying to raise awareness of a specific issue or encourage behaviour change? A citizens’ assembly is not going to do that beyond its small number of participants. There is a whole spectrum of participation and engagement methods to choose from, many of which are considerably cheaper than a citizens’ assembly (Involve’s resource bank is a good place to start). So make sure you’re clear on what you want to achieve before deciding how you’re going to do it.

2. Provide sufficient time for all aspects of the process
Planning and delivering a citizens’ assembly or similar activity takes a lot longer than you think; lack of time came up again and again as the biggest challenge for Camden’s citizens’ assembly. Due to Council deadlines, the organising team didn’t get the opportunity to test and refine their session content and facilitation plan, whilst participants only had three sessions to take on board lots of new information, deliberate and make informed recommendations; some struggled with the pace. This was especially the case given the complexity of climate change as a topic. Although this complexity means it’s suited to the format of a citizens’ assembly, it also means that trying to rush through the learning phase may ultimately undermine the potential value of the process.

3. Establish a shared basis for decision-making
Inequalities in power, knowledge and confidence amongst participants in engagement activities are somewhat inevitable, but organisers can attempt to support more equal participation through their facilitation approach. This is especially important given the emphasis on genuinely representative participation in citizens’ assemblies, including those who may not normally engage with similar processes. There are the basics of accessibility, which Camden did very well — providing a crèche, interpreters and transport — but enabling participation in terms of engaging with the content and activities requires more careful thought. We recommend building in a values-setting exercise, such as co-creating a decision-making framework with participants, before they begin deliberating. This establishes a set of shared principles that all participants can and should refer back to when coming to their recommendations, regardless of their pre-existing expertise or experience. These principles can also then be used by the organising authority to guide and legitimise how they take the participants’ recommendations forward after the activity has finished.

4. Prioritise communication
The importance of communication — with organisers, partners, participants, interested organisations and wider citizens — can’t be underestimated when it comes to managing expectations around a participation or engagement activity. Purpose, scope and boundaries, roles and responsibilities of different groups, the context in which the activity is taking place, and the resources available to support any recommendations should all be made clear and effectively communicated before the activity takes place. Transparency throughout is fundamental. Only a fraction of citizens will ever be able to take part, so publishing content, live-streaming meetings and opening up complementary forms of dialogue (such as online platforms) supports trust in the integrity of the process and its outputs.

5. Support reflection and learning
Yes, as an evaluator, I would say this! But if organisations are serious about increasing participation in policy and decision-making, it is surely vital to understand what works, what doesn’t, the outcomes that result, and how they were generated. Commissioning an external evaluation to critically assess the process and its impact will support wider learning and improvement, provide evidence to indicate whether similar activities should be commissioned again and further demonstrates commitment to transparency. Ideally, build in reflection points throughout the process and don’t be afraid to make changes as you go — if something isn’t working, it’s best to identify and act on it quickly, rather than risk any potential consequences.

Any participatory process which shifts decision-making power to groups of citizens will always be complex and contested. However, maintaining transparency about its purpose, scope and boundaries — and demonstrating a genuine commitment to changing the balance of power in decision-making through reflection, learning and communication — will support its effectiveness and ultimately result in improved policymaking and trust in political processes.

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You can read the full evaluation report here. If you would like to access the summary version, please contact Lizzie.

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