What is a Citizens’ Assembly, how would it work and could it break the parliamentary deadlock on Brexit? - RSA

What is a Citizens’ Assembly, how would it work and could it break the parliamentary deadlock on Brexit?

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  • Deliberative democracy
  • Accessibility & inclusion

With divisions over Brexit looking increasingly intractable, a citizens' assembly might provide a way out of the logjam.

What is deliberative democracy?

Citizens’ Assemblies are part of a wider movement for deliberative democracy, which encourages informed decision-making and citizen participation to complement rather than replace existing representative systems. Deliberative democracy encourages finding a consensus over simply having a majority of opinion in one direction. Westminster is deeply adversarial – politicians aim to score points off each other, and a more deliberative system might cut through it.

How do Citizens’ Assemblies work?

Much like a jury in a court case. You might have between twenty and a hundred people representing a cross section sample of the population. They spend three or four days hearing prepared evidence from all sides on a specific topic – it could be anything from abortion reform to public spending priorities. This is followed by questioning, investigation and debate. The group then comes up with recommendations, usually based on consensus.

It’s not an alternative to representative democracy, but it can powerfully enhance it.

Whose idea is it?

The idea of having a random jury which decides on political issues goes back to ancient Athens, and it’s long been on the minds of political scientists and philosophers. It’s long been around as a common-sense, ‘raw’ approach to the democratic process. In the 21st century one of the leading proponents is James Fishkin, who runs the Centre for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University. His idea is Deliberative Polling™ (no idea why it needs a trade mark) which has been trialled in countries around the world.

Ireland recently used a Citizens’ Assembly on abortion, which led to the referendum last year.

How is this related to Brexit?

The UK parliament is currently in deadlock, with MPs unable to agree a way forward: no-dealers and People’s vote campaigners still remain a minority, May’s deal has been turned down and Corbyn is still seeking a general election and a renegotiation of the deal by Labour. Theresa May is planning talks with other party leaders, but there is no word yet on what concessions she is willing to give.

A Citizens’ Assembly might provide a route out of this snafu, by providing politicians with recommendations to take forward, sourced from the people who elect them. It’s supported by MPs from various parties – most recently Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy. A debate is expected on Monday 21 January in parliament.

What’s the RSA’s opinion on it? Wouldn’t it be better to Remain/Leave/have a second referendum?

Our Public Services and Communities team has been investigating deliberative democracy for some time, and we first suggested a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit in June last year. Ed Cox explains how it could work here.

The RSA is a long-time advocate of deliberative democracy as a tool to help solve some of the big issues facing society. We are committed to trialling this idea because we think it will improve the quality of democracy, not because we want to achieve a particular outcome on Brexit or any other issue. The process is the most important thing here, rather than the end result.

Would a Citizens’ Assembly be representative, compared to a General Election or referendum? Would its results be skewed?

A Citizens’ Assembly would seek to be broadly representative of the wider population, but its role would be closer to that of a jury in a trial. 

There is significant evidence to suggest that Citizens’ assemblies help in building an informed consensus. Trials that have taken place around the world support this. These juries also have the advantage of dealing with people’s concerns as they see them, rather than how these concerns are interpreted by politicians or the media.

We do think it would be important for such deliberations to be transparent and televised – RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor has urged the BBC to hold one.

Isn’t it too late to organise one before March 29th?

The Prime Minister has made it clear that she is willing to give time to discuss with other party leaders, and there will be further voting on any future deal. Regardless of whether Article 50 is extended past March (which it may will be) the door has been opened to new approaches towards Brexit.

Where can I read more about it or get involved?

The ESRC, UCL and UK in a Changing Europe ran an unofficial Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit.


We have a brand new episode of our Podcast, Polarised, on deliberative democracy, featuring James Fishkin and David Runciman. You can also listen to James Fishkin’s talk at the RSA last year.

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The RSA is currently establishing a Campaign for Deliberative Democracy to explore how Citizens’ Assemblies could be used to solve a variety of social problems – sign-up to hear more.


See what a citizens' assembly-style process looks like in action. Deliberative processes were at the heart of the RSA's Citizens' Economic Council project which came to an end in March 2018:

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  • The ridiculous - 'first past the post' - Referendum delivered three years of Division and Strife (48/51; yes, 3% the un-rounded up % vote difference!).  People Do reflect on where Sovereignty lies, as never before.

    The PM can't forever bludgeon MPs with the narrow victory for a totally unplanned and unspecified 'Brexit'.  Her uninspiring tone, with her repeated threat  - 'follow me or else' - has delivered a weak and costly deal.  'Remain' and 'Leave' MPs have changed allegiance in the three Parliamentary divisions on 'Brexit'.  Who is not confused: it's a Mess.  Is Theresa May's third defeat, today, really Our Destiny...?

    Now, it's time for NEW - clearly worked out policies - on Brexit and Remain. For we all know a lot more than we did in May 2016. We've had a long time to think.  And, yes -  like some MPs - we may have completely changed our minds.  MPs can change their minds - why can't we?

    In 2016, we were misled by BOTH sides in the Referendum. New policies should be put to the Electorate. Preferably, I suggest, with 'deliberative democracy' steering the way. 

    Importantly, you can't have Real Democracy based on ignorance and misinformation. But that's what we've had for the last three years.  It inauthentic, un-British, and doesn't wash with most of the people.  It's also mystified our EU neighbours.  But, Thank God for the Speaker.



    'We, the People...'.  Yes, odd, the phrase is rarely heard in Britain - the alleged 'home of democracy'.  Currently, our 'parliamentary democracy' has become a joke.  Parliament, the Government - and all MPs - have comprehensively shown they've no answer to the log-jam they've got us into.  

    Importantly, there's a stark Democratic Deficit.  So, Sovereignty must be taken back by the People. The Government and Parliament have 'lost it'. 

    Ralf Dahrendorf (German Anglophile and Director of LSE) pointed out long ago that the middle classes don't think or act without deference to 'their betters' - epitomised by Parliament. A big problem.  For they aren't to be trusted.  Particularly, now - with the UK's future.

    So, the Full Electorate must act.

    I suggest: a Citizens Assembly should decide the right questions for two Referendums (or Referenda) to be held on the same day.  It has to be two:  as one result may NOT cancel the first Referendum (Vernon Bogdanor).  It's  simply a question of fairness.  The British have an intrinsic sense of fairness.  (They've invented more games than any other nation).  They want to see 'fair play' and a clear winner. Or 'it's not Cricket'.

    The Referendum  'win' has to be at least 10% more of the vote.  Not 'first past the post' like the ridiculous first Referendum ('not Cricket'). Result:  three year's of National Division and Strife. So foolish. And Parliament is to blame. Robert Harris pointed out the average English Golf Club would not change its constitution on a 48/52 split. And that's just a Golf Club.   Can we trust Parliament again?  Referendum strife is not to be repeated.  But our voice must be heard.

    Currently, the people polled are 54% Remain and 46% Brexit (Sir John Curtis).  It may be close.  But it has to be decided twice (two Referendums) - with decisive margins (10% of voters).  So clear Rules, clear Questions, and clear Winning margins. 

     It's an Emergency.  Let's get on with it.  Carpe diem!  Yes,  'We, the People...decide'. 

  • One thing that the blog doesn't mention is the problem of dealing with more than two options. Contrary to what's said none of the Citizens' Assembly decisions about abortion in Ireland (as far as I recall) were made by consensus - they were all voted on, and all, I think, by binary votes in a linear order: should the constitutional ban be kept as it is - yes or no? If no, should abortion be allowed in this very restricted way - yes or no? If yes, should it be allowed in this somewhat less restricted way? etc. Which just about worked because there was a pretty clear order to the range of restrictions. But that same process is pretty much what has created the Brexit mess in the UK, by starting out with the binary question of whether the UK should stay in the EU or not, and since then a lot of the strategising about voting in Parliament has been about the order in which to knock out each option in turn until only one is left standing. What's needed, instead, is a procedure for putting all the main options on the table at once, which requires a multi-option ballot and a fair way of counting, such as the Borda count (1 point for your lowest preference, 2 for your next lowest, etc.). 

  • I am in favour of anything that improves the quality of public debate and provides our elected representatives with a better picture of people's opinions. However, I see some significant problems with implementing Citizens' Assemblies, especially in the context of Brexit. This is not intended as a comprehensive critique, but here are some observations:

    A Citizens' Assembly would be more effective if started at an early stage in the consideration of an issue, when all options genuinely are on the table and people have not yet publicly taken up entrenched positions. The debate on Brexit (not to mention the negotiations) has moved on too far for there to be much hope of a solution emerging from a Citizens' Assembly that would be accepted by a majority in Parliament and the country.

    It is unclear what the powers of such an assembly would be. I personally would not want to delegate any  decision-making rights to what might be seen as a group of unelected busybodies, who would inevitably be unrepresentative because they would have to be drawn from those with enough time to serve on the assembly and enough interest in politics (otherwise why would they volunteer?) to make them unrepresentative. That is even before one thinks of the technical problems of getting a representative group and the possibility of interest groups gaming the system (for example, in the Brexit context, simply by lying about how they voted in the referendum). So I think that an assembly would have to remain no more than a well-publicised focus group.

    Finally, the analogy to a jury trial is a misleading one. A jury in a criminal trial is asked to decide only on matters of fact, and is required to apply a very high standard of proof - the question is essentially "are you satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the relevant act?" The judge determines legal questions including what specific acts are relevant and constitute a crime. This is far different from determining what public policy should be; public policy inevitably requires value judgements e.g. "is freedom of movement an acceptable price to pay for access to the EU single market?" "should we accept a risk of slower economic growth in exchange for greater sovereignty (and how much risk would be too much?)?"; and "beyond reasonable doubt" would be far too high a standard of proof to apply to many public policy questions, because reliable evidence of what will happen in the future is (obviously!) difficult to obtain - consider, for example, how inaccurate were the forecasts of an immediate recession following a vote to leave the EU.

    I am sorry to sound so negative, and would be interested to hear if others think there are ways to overcome these problems!

  • I support deliberative & participative democracy and approaches like Citizens' Assemblies (I've been an advocate and practitioner for many years) but two questions:


    Firstly, has The RSA thought about the terms of reference for a Citizens' Assembly on Brexit - the scope, guiding principles, questions, options, focus?

    In this divided and divisive Brexit environment, it's a challenge to even get to the starting line, never mind the finishing line!

    No doubt, some would argue for a Citizens' Assembly to consider all possible scenarios - 'every option on the table' - including staying in the EU (with a reformed relationship), while others would argue the Citizens' Assembly should focus only on working out the terms on which leaving the EU will take place, ie 'Remain' not to even be considered as an option.


    Secondly, scale? Your piece above says "You might have between twenty and a hundred people representing a cross section sample of the population". There are always technical and political issues with the numbers in these exercises and the concept of 'representativeness' which need careful consideration. I watched the James Fishkin lecture at The RSA and noted that his Citizens' Assemblies/Deliberative Polls involved 300-700 participants, for reasons I understand. 

    Given the range of geographic, demographic, socio-economic and psychographic factors that different stakeholders would want to see 'represented', what size would be optimal in this case?