How would a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit work?

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  • Deliberative democracy

There are growing calls for deliberative democracy to be part of the Brexit solution.

In Parliament, Theresa May has floated the idea of establishing a “more formal forum within which it is possible to bring people together” as an “important element of the next stage of the negotiation”. 

Any consultation process would be strengthened if it included citizen deliberation, as MPs like Stella Creasy have argued. But any deliberation processes must be well designed to work effectively.  

The RSA’s research on deliberative democracy gives us an insight into how a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit would work.

How long would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit take?

Stella Creasy suggests that a citizens’ assembly could be completed in 12 weeks. This would be a squeeze. While it might be just about feasible, it is not good to rush these processes.

Within this time:

  • Parliament would need to pass a motion for a citizens’ assembly
  • a delivery team would have to be put in place
  • participants would have to be recruited
  • materials and speakers would have to be selected
  • the actual assembly would have to take place.

These are all necessary steps. Skimping on time would cut short the most important stage – the discussion and deliberation of citizens.

The idea of a citizens’ assembly is to allow people to think and then judge, not just gather up their raw opinions. The longer citizens are given to deliberate the better. Therefore, we recommend at least 18 weeks.

12 weeks would leave at most a couple of weekends for deliberation, if the assembly were to meet on consecutive weekends.

Adding a few more weeks would give the citizens time and space to consider the arguments and make more productive recommendations. The Article 50 extension allows for this extra time.

All meetings should be professionally and impartially facilitated to provide structure, make everyone feel included, and coax out people’s wisdom.

How would people be chosen to take part in a citizens’ assembly on Brexit?

A citizens’ assembly would resemble the UK in miniature: broadly representative in terms of gender, geography, ethnicity, education, and Brexit vote.

Members should be recruited through a ‘civic lottery’. Thousands of letters would be sent out to randomly-selected people at households across the UK asking them to attend. Then a representative sample would be taken of those who register their interest, so that the final group is a microcosm of the country.

All opinions would be heard – this gives citizens’ assemblies legitimacy but is also why they produce such insightful recommendations.

What would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit discuss? Is it just another way to have a second referendum or overturn Brexit?

The Brexit citizens’ assembly could advise on what we should do next: should there be a general election, a second referendum, or a change of the kind of Brexit the government is seeking?

A citizens’ assembly is not just a way to introduce a second referendum or overturn Brexit. The assembly could recommend whatever idea it thought was best. This might include anything from a referendum to a certain type of Brexit deal. We would need to see what people agree when they talk to each other.   

If Parliament votes for a second referendum during this Article 50 extension, a citizens’ assembly could be used to inform the debate.

In this case, the assembly could be completed before the second referendum campaign begins. The BBC could run and broadcast this assembly (as suggested in a previous RSA blog), or alternatively it could be commissioned by government. The assembly’s final report could be sent out in an official voters’ guide.

This would introduce evidence-based argument into the referendum campaign. This has long been a requirement for certain referendums in Oregon where it has been shown to improve voters’ understanding of the issue at hand.

The UCL’s Constitution Unit has calculated that a second referendum would take a minimum of 22 weeks to execute, which means Parliament needs to act quickly if it wants a referendum in this Article 50 extension.

If there is another extension and if Parliament votes for a second referendum, a citizens’ assembly could be used to help come up with the right question for a public vote.

But if those things don’t happen, then a citizens’ assembly would approach the question of Brexit with an open mind.

What power would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit have?

Citizens’ assemblies don’t replace Parliament. In fact, they help MPs to gain a deeper understanding of what the public thinks and – crucially – why people think what they do.

Citizens’ assemblies provide an evidence-based input to political debate which is free from political games.

The decision whether to accept or reject the proposals remains with Parliament, but we hope that recommendations made by ordinary citizens would have moral force and real clout.

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  • Having been an advocate for and a practitioner of deliberative & participative democracy for the past 30 years, I always find it interesting when critics make comments like 'we have a citizens' assembly - it's called parliament' or 'a general election is deliberative democracy'.

    We're in the middle of a Federal Election campaign in Australia at the moment which largely consists of the two major parties hurling insults at each other and accusing each other of being liars. It is the opposite of deliberative democracy. 

    After the public slanging match, we end up with a parliament which has 'representatives' who are not 'representative'. The Liberal Party is under fire for only having 22% of MPs who are women. Lots of groups are under-represented, eg people with disabilities, Aboriginal Australians. The number of MPs with a background as 'political staffers' has increased from 10% to 42% in the past 10 years. Fewer than 0.5% of the population ever stand for public office of any kind, so as soon as they even think of standing as an MP, they're unrepresentative of the population!

    There are a number of realities here such as:

    1) democracy is much more than government or parliament - we place too much weight on one form of democracy, ie the system of electing people to 'represent' us.

    2) in principle, the system of us electing people to 'represent' us is a good concept and should be a part of a modern democracy but the way we have designed that system is flawed (just look at the adversarial bear pit design of the House) and reform is needed, including complementing with other forms of democracy

    3) MPs stand with a range of personal and party motivations, and some are more effective than others. At their best, they do listen and try to be the voice of their constituents. At their worst, they are not interested, don't listen, pursue their own self-interests, or are simply too stretched to cover the diverse and complex issues they have to wrestle with. 

    4) the range of deliberative & participative approaches that are now widely used around the world in modern democracies complement (not compete with) parliamentary 'representation' democracy. In principle, they are good solutions to the ongoing challenge of implementing the broader concept of democracy. And they are practical solutions to practical problems, eg a randomly-selected group of citizens being a fresh set of minds looking at an issue in depth without having to deal with a myriad of other issues at the same time with the constraints of party policy plus the other pressures MPs have such as the media spotlight, lobbyists, etc. 

    I've 'fought' for these positive reforms to our democracy for 30 years but I've stopped fighting now. I know it's just common sense evolution towards a better democracy, and others will eventually realise that too!  

  • Just in case it did not attract much attention down south, the First Minister has announced plans for a Citizens' Assembly on Scotland's Future (extract from press release on 24 April below).  Has the RSA been in touch with her office to see if advice or support might be offered?

    First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has today outlined the steps the Scottish Government will take to progress the debate on Scotland’s future in light of Brexit, and the action to be taken to protect the option for an independence referendum to be held within the current term of the Scottish Parliament.

    In a parliamentary statement, the First Minister said it was time to build consensus in place of a UK Government system that clearly does not work in Scotland’s interests, and in the face of a constitutional ‘status quo which is broken’.   

    Acknowledging and respecting the fact that not all MSPs support independence, the First Minister proposed cross-party talks to discuss which powers other parties believe should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament to enable it to better protect Scotland’s economic and social interests. 

    She also confirmed plans to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to bring together a representative cross-section of Scottish society under an independent chair and seek views on how best to equip Scotland’s Parliament for the challenges of the future, in light of Brexit. 

  • I've lost count of the number of times I've proposed a deliberative & participative approach and been told "we haven't got time, we need a quick decision" only to find them still wrestling with the same issue 3 years later. It pays back many times over - in time, cost, relationships, goodwill and sustainable solutions.

    If anyone is interested in the deliberative/participative design I proposed for Brexit in July/August 2018, it's still on this website (as well as in the Fellows' Forum) posted under Ed Cox's article 'Why Theresa May should reach out for her inner Pankhurst: Time for a National Citizens' Jury on Brexit'. Please give me any comments - as I love all forms of deliberation & participation!!!

  • Interesting to see how The RSA's perspective on this has evolved since Matthew's lecture last year (advocating for deliberative democracy with the emphasis on citizens' juries), Ed Cox's article published 19/7/2018 ('Why Theresa May should reach for her inner Pankhurst: Time for a National Citizens' Jury on Brexit - arguing for a Citizens' Jury on Brexit) to the various events over the past 9 months on deliberative & participative democracy (including Matthew playing down Ed's proposal for a Brexit Citizens' Jury at the RSA ANZ initiated online event) to this latest piece advocating for a Citizens' Assembly on Brexit.  

    When various deliberative & participative approaches for Brexit were being advocated almost a year ago, here on the RSA website and elsewhere (eg RSA Fellows' Forum), one of the criticisms was "there isn't time". Yes, these approaches take time. Ironically, we're almost 12 months on and with a Brexit extension - time is elastic!

    What we really need of course is a changed political system and culture that seamlessly integrates the different dimensions and processes of democracy so 'time pressures' are not a problem. When System A or Approach A fails and someone tries to implement System B or Approach B in a panic, it's not likely to end well.

    If there's an opportunity for a Citizens' Assembly for Brexit, maybe we should give it a go? Maybe it will be a useful demonstration of an alternative approach? There are risks though that it doesn't 'work' and it would be a setback. 

    In my posts last year, I suggested a deliberative & participative approach that I thought would be 'fit for purpose' for Brexit in the circumstances, with the need for both deliberative depth and participative breadth. A lot of proposals put forward since for 'deliberative democracy' are high on depth but not breadth, and it's the latter where the critics tend to focus. 

    I will watch further developments with interest. It's also fun as well as frustrating to see posts from those who still don't understand the philosophy or the processes of deliberative & participative democracy. From my experience in this field over the past 30 years, once they understand it, and witness it, they often become passionate advocates! 

  • I welcome the increased interest in citizen assemblies, and appreciate the focus on practicalities shown in this blog.  Could you please post more about the track record of citizen assemblies?  The Irish example is fascinating, but still little known here, and I'm sure you have your own favourite examples, both good and bad.  As a key factor in our current Brexit mess is the use of misinformation, the parallels between juries and properly designed and tasked citizen assemblies could usefully be drawn out.  

    I hope the RSA will take a leading role in negotiations of a sensible way forward.  Thanks for the article.

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