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You’d be hard-pressed to find anything so at odds with the current lockdown as a citizens’ assembly.

Bringing a random group of people from all corners of a community to deliberate (and eat buffet lunches together) over several days doesn’t exactly shout ‘social distancing’.

As a result, the organisers of citizens’ assemblies have had to choose between postponing, cancelling or adapting their plans. The Climate Assembly UK and the French Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat were both swiftly and successfully moved online.

This has resulted in a period of rapid learning about the opportunities and limitations of digital learning and deliberation. It is likely to have a significant influence on how deliberative processes are designed in the future.

How to run a citizens’ assembly: a handbook for local authorities

This all provides a unique backdrop to the launch of the final report of the Innovation in Democracy Programme – a handbook on how to run citizens’ assemblies at the local level.

The Innovation in Democracy Programme, commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, supported three local authorities to involve residents in decision-making through citizens’ assemblies.

Alongside Involve, The Democratic Society and mySociety, the RSA supported Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, Test Valley Borough Council and the Greater Cambridge Partnership to design and deliver their assemblies through a package of tailored support for each authority.

This handbook reflects on our experiences and shares what we have learned.

Starting with the decision about whether or not to run a citizens’ assembly, this report moves chronologically through the different stages involved with planning, organising and delivering a successful process.

It’s not a prescriptive ‘user guide’, less still a set of mandatory standards. But we hope it functions as a useful catalogue of ideas and observations that can assist anyone seeking to use deliberative engagement methods in their work.

Taking the opportunity for positive change

Although the handbook focuses on in-person assemblies, we hope that many of the principles and insights can also support those designing online deliberative processes. Many of the fundamental aims, concepts and standards will continue to apply.

And as we begin to emerge from the immediate public health crisis and sizeable face-to-face gatherings become possible once again, we hope this handbook will become more relevant than ever. Profound and daunting decisions lie ahead for national and local governments. Deliberative public engagement will be more important than ever in supporting effective responses and securing public consent for new measures.

Citizens’ assemblies can and should enable local councils to bring their residents on board as they transition to a ‘new normal’ and take the opportunity to create positive change.

Our new handbook suggests how to design and deliver them successfully and effectively.

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