How can we make the growth of citizens' assemblies last? - RSA

How can we make the growth of citizens assemblies last?

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  • Deliberative democracy

Since 2007, the UN has recognized and promoted the 15th September as the International Day of Democracy.

The day is for celebrating and defending the democratic principles enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development.

‘Rebooting’ the idea of participation

This year the theme is participation. “Substantive and meaningful participation” according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. As the UN’s description of the day tells us, political participation and social dialogue “make up the very foundations of good governance” but civic space (where politics can be freely discussed) is “shrinking worldwide at an alarming rate”.

To resist this decline in civic space, the RSA is calling for the creation of new democratic spaces that can support genuine participation. These spaces – citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries, citizens’ summits, planning cells, consensus conferences and so on – aren’t just about ‘consulting’ people. They’re about giving the people the chance to real, informed debate and discussion. They are designed to be inclusive and influential. We call them ‘deliberative’ processes.   

Although ‘deliberative democracy’ is not mentioned by name in the UN International Day of Democracy, it should be front and centre of any attempt to reboot the democratic principle of participation.

Deliberative democracy is growing in the UK and Europe

Now is the time for deliberative democracy. We are experiencing a ‘deliberative moment’ around the world. In the UK, simply keeping track of all the new citizens’ assemblies being announced is getting tricky:

  • Last weekend, randomly selected citizens from across the greater Cambridge area came together to discuss congestion, public transport and clean air.
  • Last month, Camden held a citizens’ assembly on the climate emergency – a topic which is also up for discussion next month in Oxford.
  • A couple of weeks after that, Dudley and Test Valley councils will both be holding assemblies on the future of their respective town centres.
  • These will be followed by citizens’ assemblies in Sheffield, Devon and Lambeth on climate action.
  • The Scottish government has commissioned a citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland which will take place in October.
  • Six UK Parliament Select Committees are commissioning a citizens’ assembly on options for achieving ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050.
  • Wales is marking 20 years since the founding of the Welsh Assembly with a citizens’ assembly about “how people in Wales can shape their future”.

The list goes on. (Anyone wanting to keep track of developments should keep an eye on this helpful blog by Tim Hughes at Involve. Here at the RSA we’ve started a Slack channel for local government practitioners – get in touch for more details.)

2019 has also been a landmark year for deliberative democracy across the rest of Europe:

  • Madrid City Council has established a standing ‘observatory’ of randomly selected residents who review city regulations and debate popular ideas proposed through an online platform.
  • The parliament in Ostbelgien (a German-speaking region of Belgium) established a citizens’ council which will set the agenda for up to three citizens’ assemblies every year.
  • In France, after the completion of the ‘Great National Debate’ (started in reaction to the ‘Yellow Jackets’ protests), President Macron has announced a Citizens’ Convention on the Climate as the next phase of citizen deliberation.
  • These cases and others were recently presented to an international conference of deliberative democracy at the university in Holland. There was a real excitement in the air.

Why is deliberative democracy growing?

It’s great to see this growth of deliberative democracy. But why is happening?  

One reason is the success of the Irish citizens’ assembly. They put deliberative democracy on the international agenda. In the UK, there have been two key reasons: Brexit and Extinction Rebellion.


British interest in deliberative democracy has been driven by political crisis. The Brexit vote and subsequent parliamentary wrangling has laid bare an inflexible and polarised political system unable to produce a majority for any clear way forwards.

Activists and MPs have suggested a citizens’ assembly might offer a way out of the impasse. The suggestion was made at the start of the year by MPs Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy. Only a few weeks ago the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested he chair a citizens’ assembly to ‘avert a no-deal exit’.

There are reasons to be sceptical about the idea of a Brexit citizens’ assembly - the RSA has been at the heart of this debate about why. But it has certainly put citizens’ assemblies on to the agenda in a big way.

Extinction Rebellion

The Extinction Rebellion protests are the only thing in the last year that’s been able to knock Brexit off the headlines.

During a week of economic disruption, activists blocked bridges and glued themselves to vehicles with three clear demands:

  • that government call a climate emergency
  • that the country be carbon-neutral by 2025
  • and that government holds a citizens’ assembly to decide how.

The impact of this movement has been truly impressive. Parliament has declared a climate emergency. As mentioned above, a group of Parliament Select Committees have commissioned a citizens’ assembly on how to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions. This is probably the most significant milestone in the history of deliberative democracy in the UK.

Making the 'deliberative moment' last

Despite the excitement, a brief look at the history of deliberative democracy in the UK suggests some caution. Previous deliberative democratic ‘moments’ have ended abruptly.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown came to power calling for the reinvigoration of British democratic institutions through new participatory processes. In both instances there followed a spate of citizens’ juries, citizens’ summits and citizens’ panels. In both instances these experiments were roundly criticised.

Why? They were perceived by many to just be expensive PR exercises. They were seen as too short to possibly produce nuanced or deliverable recommendations. The recruitment and design of the processes was far from robust. People also criticised the lack of transparency and the lack of substantive government response.

Although the current situation is very different and the processes are designed very differently now, many of the same old criticisms have surfaced once again.

The Scottish Citizens’ Assembly has been criticised for being an expensive “vanity project”. It does have high standards of design: it will last for 6 weekends, the framing is loose (to allow for a range of answers) and it is being organised independently. But opposition MPs have publicly still dismissed it as a cynical attempt to advance the Scottish independence agenda.

Similarly, the UK Parliament Select Committees’ assembly on the climate is already being criticised for lacking genuine influence.

Countering criticism of deliberative democracy

There is clearly a risk that the same old criticisms – even if they are inaccurate – serve to undermine the movement towards more deliberative processes. How can we answer these criticisms? Two things must be done.

First, deliberative processes need to be organised according to the highest standards or quality and independence:

  • The recruitment of assembly participants must inspire confidence that there are people ‘just like me’ in the room.
  • Information provided to participants must be independent and balanced and judged to be so by an independent advisory group.
  • Facilitation of debate must follow the highest standards of inclusion and openness.
  • Above all, participants need to be given the time to properly reflect and deliberate.

Deliberative democracy can be a costly business, but its legitimacy is vital to avoid the problems of the past.

Second, new Citizens’ Assemblies need a broad base of support.

One of the main reasons behind the scepticism about a Citizens' Assembly on Brexit is that most of the people calling for one voted to Remain. A Brexit assembly needs Leave supporters too. There is no reason why a Brexit assembly wouldn’t choose some form of deal to leave.

But Brexit aside, the point is that the growth of deliberative democracy depends on it having protagonists across the political spectrum.

Defending democracy means improving it

This year, International Day of Democracy comes just two days before a major case at the UK Supreme Court on executive power and proroguing Parliament. From court cases to taking to the streets, people around the world are fighting to protect democracy. But if we want to do more than just defend democracy forever, we need to improve it. Deliberative democracy offers new ways to bring power closer to the people. Its day has come.

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  • I got very interested in Deliberative Democracy in the late 2000s and in particular the work fo Tom Atlee and the Co-Intelligence Institute. Tom has been an advocate of Deliberative Democracy for decades. 

    When I the idea for Bridgit was gestating, I imagined that I would build a platform for citizen's juries and assemblies. But then realized that may be putting the cart before the horse as my grandma used to say. I figured it may make more sense to build the knowledge base for deliberative democracy first. 

    Given the staggering and surging amount of connectivity as reflected by the number of connected devices, I think we have the worst organization of information imaginable for world of supposably highly intelligent beings. It is horrendous. The Internet is a unstructured, low signal-to-noise, sparsely connected network of pages connected by links. Today's commercial Internet is an internet of knowledges silos. Sites don't want you to leave so they don't use many external links. The links they use connect back into other pages on their site. There's also a ton of noise - duplicate info, poorly conceived materials, misinformation, disinformation, and SEO pages.     

    I thought to myself, there is a possibility - no way near a guarantee - but a possibility that by better organizing the information, we could evoke a better collective response. Deliberative democracy could be a part of that.  

    Hence I would love to be in touch with people at RSA that could help me understand how technology could potentially support the growth of Deliberative Democracy and whether Bridgit may itself be helpful.  

  • About 20 years ago the RSA gave the floor to an entrepreneur who was one of UK’s richest men. His name didn’t stick but his talk did for at the beginning of his assessment of where AI would be he set out a simple argument why maths was the most reliable way of making decisions... what he was at pains to point out was that inductive reasoning didn’t equate to the gold standard of AI.

    I scarcely believe it’s 20 years... I miss that clarity of architecture... the simplicity of a premise followed by a conclusion supported by reasons :(

  • Yes, International Democracy Day. A day to celebrate democracy, although many will this year be mourning the decline/failure of democracy in many countries.

    And yes, there was a backlash when the Blair Government tried to use deliberation and participation methods (like The People's Panel) in a very managerial, PR-oriented, hierarchical way rather than embracing the democratic principles of bottom up empowerment that underpin them.

    The key principle here is that people have a human right to be involved in decisions that affect them - it's not political marketing, risk management, or a just a problem-solving exercise when all else has failed. 

    Those who are currently engaging in the evangelical promotion of 'deliberation products' or specific methods like citizens' juries and citizens' assemblies rather than the flexible and creative application of the principles of deliberative and participative democracy will find that there will be little traction, as happened in the Blair years. 

    Many of those promoting these 'deliberation products' still have a top down mentality so that's a problem of course. 

    However, there is a chance for progress - at least providing more evidence of what 'works'. 

    • Paul, I am appreciating your distinction between "deliberation products" on the one hand, and on the other, the "flexible and creative application of the principles of deliberative and participatory democracy". 

      Since any tool can be misused, a flexible, creative, and principled application of the underlying principles, is necessary for the wise application of a host of useful tools...

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