Citizen assemblies: radical common sense

Ben Rogers
15 November 2006

An innovative way of involving citizens in public, democratic deliberation is spreading, says Ben Rogers.

What can Britain's political system do to win back legitimacy? The question takes it for granted that it needs to win back legitimacy, but you can't quarrel with that. It is not just that the current parliament was elected in May 2005 on little more than half of the registered vote. Polling clearly shows that confidence in the political system has slipped dramatically - and slipped a lot faster than confidence in most other professions and institutions.

The emerging consensus among politicians seems to be that they need to have another go at constitutional reform. This has been a consistent message of the British chancellor (and likely successor to Tony Blair as prime minister) Gordon Brown. The opposition Conservative leader David Cameron too is promising to reform the political establishment and bring power closer to people.

But constitutional reform, as important as it is, is no magic bullet. Tony Blair's 1997 government introduced the most radical programme of constitutional reform for a century, yet disillusion has continued apace. Welsh and Scottish voters are hardly better disposed to their new assemblies than they are to the centre of British government in Westminster.

Ben Rogers is director of democracy at the Institute of Public Policy Research (ippr). He is author of A.J. Ayer: A Life (Vintage, 2000) and Beef and Liberty (Vintage, 2004)

Also by Ben Rogers in openDemocracy:

"Courtroom shake-up"
(23 September 2005)

In addition to reforming representative institutions, government has got to start engaging the public more directly in decision-making. Voters won't start trusting the political system again until they turn on the TV to see people like them, and not the alien life-forms who inhabit Planet Westminster, or even Planet Town Hall, forming policy. Representative democracy needs to be complemented by new forms of direct democracy.

How? One option, ironically enough, lies in one of the most "establishment" of all institutions - the public commission, tasked by government with reviewing an issue of public concern. But we need a new species of commission, made up of ordinary citizens, appointed at random, rather than elements of the political elite's "great and good".

The proposal is not as fanciful as it might sound. Local governments have been using "citizens' juries" for a decade or so; they know that the effect is a gain in their legitimacy with the public. More recently, governments in north America and Europe have begun doing the same on a more ambitious scale. The best example comes from Canada, where in 2003 the prime minister of British Columbia acted on an election pledge and set up an inquiry on the voting system staffed by 160 ordinary citizens, appointed by lot. The venture proved so successful that other Canadian states (notably Ontario) are doing the same. There are similar moves afoot in California and the Netherlands.

The British Columbia experiment in particular shows that citizens are more than capable of picking their way through difficult policy issues. Having reviewed all the various options, the assembly proposed a well-argued recommendation for proportional representation. In the referendum that followed, their choice was endorsed by some 58% - only 2% short of the 60% needed to change the system.

Liberals have not traditionally looked kindly on direct democracy, and viewed referenda with particular suspicion. But citizens' juries and citizens' assemblies on the Canadian model possess what referenda, and much of Britain's representative system, so conspicuously lacks - a deliberative dimension. They give citizens involved in them a chance to get to grips with an issue. Their recommendations are informed and considered. If they proved successful in the British context, they could even be incorporated into the constitution, in the form of a permanent advisory citizens' assembly (or "third chamber"), alongside the House of Commons and reformed House of Lords.

On the democratic road

What sort of issues should be put to citizens' assemblies? The politicians could start by seeking advice in areas where they most lack democratic legitimacy - where their decisions might be viewed as suspect, because they themselves are an interested party. Issues of constitutional and voting system reform are conspicuous examples. Beyond this, there is a strong case for using citizens' assemblies when government needs to win legitimacy for tough decisions - road-pricing, say, or fuel taxes, or making voting compulsory - or making decisions that effect under-represented groups. With as little as a third of young people voting in national elections, we badly need to some other way of engaging them in decision-making processes. A rolling young citizens' assembly would be one way forward.

Citizens will of course be broadly in favour of citizen assemblies, as these would represent a shift in the balance of power in citizens' favour. The press will hate them, just as it hated Tony Blair's "big conversation". These sorts of forums threaten the media's self-appointed role as the voice of public opinion. What about the politicians? Their first instincts will be negative. Aren't they there to make decisions for us? But it should not be hard to persuade them that they stand to gain. As Gordon Brown discovered when he gave independence to the Bank of England in the aftermath of New Labour's 1997 election victory, giving power away can be empowering.

New Labour has expressed interest in citizens' juries and deliberative assemblies for years now - the term "third chamber" was even coined by the Downing Street strategy unit. The 2005 Labour manifesto nods to these ideas again. But so far there have been only words. The action is taking place abroad. The question now is: will Labour move on this? Or will what looked until recently like too radical an idea for Labour become Conservative common sense?

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData