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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.

Listen

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.

Sign up!

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.

Watch

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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