Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Scrutiny and citizens’ assemblies: a missing piece of the democratic puzzle?

The judgements of citizens’ assemblies could have profound effects on our politics. But will our politics allow it?

Graham Smith
7 November 2021, 12.01am
One protester launched a hunger strike to encourage the UK government to do more about the climate crisis
Vuk Valcic / Alamy Live News

On 9 September, members of the Climate Assembly UK (CAUK) visited the Houses of Parliament to remind parliamentarians and government that a year had passed since the publication of its groundbreaking report ‘A Path to Net Zero’. A few days earlier, the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee had chastised the government for failing to fulfil its promise to “provide a comprehensive and point-by-point response to the recommendations in CAUK’s ambitious report”.

The return of the assembly members to Parliament indicates a weakness in the practice of citizens’ assemblies – randomly selected bodies in which members learn, deliberate and come to collective decisions on contentious political issues. While time after time assemblies have generated impressively well-considered recommendations, too often they are ignored or cherry-picked by political authorities. Across the world, rare examples exist of assemblies being given decision-making powers, but for most authorities this is a step too far. The lack of ongoing scrutiny and oversight of how public authorities respond to assembly recommendations is a design limitation of the assembly concept.

A common practice is a requirement for governments and/or parliaments to respond within a particular time frame. But that still leaves the question of who will be providing oversight and scrutiny of the government response. After all, the assembly will have finished its work and members will have returned to their communities. Similarly, the assembly’s governing and delivery bodies will have dispersed.

Scrutinising Macron

The French Citizens’ Convention on Climate offers answers as to how this design limitation might be overcome. Compared to most other assemblies around the world, where the identity of members is carefully protected to avoid unwanted media and political attention, the French convention was a much more political affair. Many of its members became familiar faces in the media, and a group of them created the non-profit organisation Les 150 – L’association des Citoyens de la Convention Climat – to provide continued oversight of the fate of their proposals. Members were invited into policy forums to discuss with parliamentarians and civil servants how their recommendations might be implemented. Amid all of this activity, questions continually emerged as to the right of individual members to speak on behalf of the full assembly. But their actions helped keep the convention alive in the minds of the French public as President Macron and parliamentarians failed to fulfil their side of the bargain, cherry-picking those proposals that aligned with their interests. A full meeting of the convention some months after its report had been delivered gave a poor assessment of the official response.

Scotland’s Climate Assembly has learned from the French practice. The Secretariat has stayed in place, promoting the Assembly’s recommendations across the administration, including setting up meetings between Assembly members and relevant ministers. Again, the Assembly will reconvene to consider the formal response to its report that the Scottish government is required to make within six months of it being tabled in the Scottish parliament.

Empowering individual members and reconvening assemblies at regular intervals is one way of ensuring a degree of scrutiny and oversight, especially if this is tied to a formal requirement for public authorities to respond. The challenge, though, is policy change takes time. Members are likely to lose interest as time progresses and the power of reconvening will diminish.

Permanent oversight

This is where developments in the small Belgium region of Ostbelgien provide one intriguing answer to the scrutiny and oversight conundrum. The Permanent Citizens’ Dialogue, established in 2019, is much lauded for the way it gives agenda-setting power to a Citizens’ Council made up of randomly selected citizens, with membership rotated regularly. It is the Council, rather than government or Parliament, that is empowered to decide on what issues citizens’ assemblies will be convened. Government and Parliament are required to respond to the recommendations of each assembly within six months and a special committee is established to meet with members of the assembly. The model ensures oversight and scrutiny over a longer time period. As a permanent institution, the Citizens’ Council keeps continual watch on the regional administration – a constant advocate and watchdog for the recommendations generated by the assemblies it has commissioned.

We know that citizens’ assemblies could have profound effects on our politics. But we also know that public authorities will be quick to avoid responding to uncomfortable proposals. The limitations in the assembly model when it comes to oversight and scrutiny need to be addressed if the long-term viability of this form of citizen participation and deliberation is to be sustained

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