Author: Stuart White
What role for Citizens’ Assemblies?
Citizens’ Assemblies are receiving increased attention as a tool for addressing some of the most pressing problems facing us. Here the Oxford University academic, Stuart White examines the case for their use against the backdrop of a UK democracy that isn’t working.
UK democracy isn’t working. Key reforms include changing the first-past-the-post electoral system to the House of Commons; abolishing a second chamber that increasingly gives new meaning to the phrase ‘Old Corruption’; and creating a codified constitution. But dissatisfaction with representative government is not peculiar to the UK with its antiquated arrangements. This suggests that we need to be more creative in considering what democratic renewal requires. One idea appearing with increasing frequency is that of the Citizens’ Assembly. What is a Citizens’ Assembly, and what role or roles should Citizens’ Assemblies play in renewing democracy?
The new interest in Citizens’ Assemblies
A Citizens’ Assembly (CA) is a body of representatives brought together to discuss an issue and, through structured deliberation, arrive at a proposal. But the representatives are not elected. They are chosen on a near-random basis so as to be demographically representative of the population along lines such as gender, race and place. Using the model pioneered originally in British Columbia, they move through three phases of education about an issue, testimony from specialists and interest groups, and discussion and voting on a proposal. Discussion is facilitated professionally at all times. The Republic of Ireland has made notable use of CAs in recent years, using them to generate recommendations on same-sex marriage and abortion which were then endorsed in national referendums. As advocates also point out, the core idea is in fact a very old one. Choosing representatives by lot – ‘sortition’ – was a central feature of Athenian democracy (and, of course, is also the basis of jury selection). (Membership of a CA need not be confined to those who are ‘citizens’ in the legal sense; in principle, membership can be more inclusive.)
In the UK, there is now considerable interest in CAs. Extinction Rebellion’s third demand is for a CA to determine policy in climate change. The UK Parliament set up Climate Assembly UK to discuss how to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Oxford City Council also recently set up Oxford Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change. The Scottish government set up Citizens’ Assembly Scotland to explore future challenges for Scotland. In a recent report, the Newham Commission on Democracy and Civic Participation proposes to establish a permanent CA to stand alongside the elected mayor and council. The non-governmental Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy offers some interesting ideas on how CAs might be used to develop proposals for the reform of UK democracy. CAs might also have a key role in a full public inquiry into the UK government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic – the basis for a People’s Inquiry. Interest is by no means confined to the UK. The OECD recently produced a very comprehensive report on CAs and related institutions with multiple examples.
In her book, Democratic Reason, political scientist Hélène Landemore shows how a diversity of people and perspectives can produce better, more informed decisions. Technical and academic expertise are crucial to good policy-making, and CAs make use of this. But in our society experts of this kind all too frequently come from a narrow demographic – disproportionately white, male, middle-class – and this limits their understanding of issues and how to respond. CAs, by virtue of their inclusivity and diversity, offer a corrective to this.
Underlying the flurry of interest, however, there are different views of how CAs can and should fit into democracy and, perhaps, different expectations of what they can deliver.
The consultative assembly?
At one end of the spectrum CAs are frequently seen as a form of public consultation. Elected politicians set up a CA, give it an agenda, and then decide what to do with its recommendations. The recent CA on climate change set up by the UK Parliament is like this. This kind of consultative CA is certainly useful. Policy-makers can draw on the insights they provide. In addition, CAs of this kind can help build legitimacy for policies that elected politicians are wary of. For example, elected politicians might feel more able to take tough action on climate change because controversial policies have been proposed by a CA – they can point to the CA and say to voters: ‘Look, it isn’t just me saying we need to do this – an assembly of citizens just like you said we should do it.’
But consultative CAs like this have their limits. They remain largely under the control of elected politicians who set their agenda and decide what happens to their proposals. They are therefore limited as forms of popular empowerment.
All power to the Citizens’ Assemblies?
At the other end of the spectrum is the radical idea that we should simply replace elected representatives with CAs. The philosopher Alexander Guerrero has interestingly defended a system of ‘lottocracy’ in which all policy is made by randomly-selected assemblies.
But to many this also seems too limited - in its own way, also lacking in mechanisms to ensure accountability and responsiveness of law-makers to the public.
Citizens’ Assemblies: complementary…but empowered?
Between these two poles of the spectrum, however, there are at least two other possibilities that seem well worth exploring.
First, a CA might serve as a permanent complement to elected branches of the government with its own powers to set an agenda, make legislative proposals, and perhaps wield a degree of veto power. On a UK-level, Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty have argued that a reformed second chamber of the UK Parliament should take the form, in part, of an assembly chosen on a random basis. The recent Krisis Manifesto, a response to the Covid-19 crisis, has argued in similar terms for a new UK Citizens’ Assembly for the Future which would have the power to put three proposals a year to a free, unwhipped vote in the House of Commons. Somewhat along these lines, the OECD report notes the establishment in 2019 of a permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien (the German-Speaking Community of Belgium) which has the power to select topics and create up to three Citizens’ Panels per year to explore them and make proposals to the parliament.
Second, CAs could help improve referendums. In the US state of Oregon, a small Citizens’ Jury is used in state referendums to produce information to voters on referendum choices. A more radical option is to insist that no question goes to referendum until it, and crucial details of the wider process, have been agreed by a CA drawn from the relevant population – after all, elected politicians have sometimes been known to call referendums without careful and impartial consideration of these things.
Taking the idea further, perhaps citizens should have the right to initiate CAs, through public petitions, on topics they specify? Perhaps these CAs should have the power to put their recommendations to a referendum? This is what I call the Petition-Assembly-Referendum (‘PAR’) scheme. This gives citizens the power to shape policy independently of their elected representatives, as in Switzerland and some states in the USA where citizens can initiate referendums. But in contrast to those systems, no proposal would get to a referendum without first going through a CA – a crucial filter. (The OECD notes some examples from Mongolia, Belgium, Poland, and Austria where citizens have the right to use petitions to initiate bodies akin to CAs. But these bodies do not have power to put proposals to a referendum.)
In both of these cases, the CA acts as a complement to elected representation, but also has a degree of independent power. Combining election and sortition (and, perhaps, direct democracy) arguably leads to more democratic government than either approach by itself.
CAs look likely to be part of the future of UK or post-UK democracy. But as this discussion shows, they can fit into the wider political process in different ways. Going forward, we need more consideration of the specific role or roles they might play. Do we want them only to be useful, occasional devices of public consultation for elected politicians? Or do we want them to play a bigger, more continuous and independent role?
Some links and further reading:
Sortition Foundation: https://www.sortitionfoundation.org
OECD report, Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/339306da-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/339306da-en
Irish government website on Citizens’ Assemblies: https://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/government_in_ireland/irish_constitution_1/citizens_assembly.html
Stuart White is Tutor in Politics at Jesus College, Oxford. He is recently the co-editor, with Bruno Leipold and Karma Nabulsi, of Radical Republicanism: Recovering the Tradition’s Popular Heritage (Oxford University Press, 2020), and this post draws on his contribution to this book.
Stuart White, Jesus College, Oxford. October 2020.