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Citizens assembly: towards a politics of ‘considered judgement’

Experts in deliberative democracy have been working across the world for around twenty years. Now, all of a sudden, their expertise is in high demand. Interview.

Graham Smith Rosemary Bechler
19 June 2019
Citizens Assembly on Brexit, week-end 2. Manchester, 2017.
Citizens Assembly on Brexit, week-end 2. Manchester, 2017.
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Cade Hannan. All rights reserved.

Rosemary Bechler (RB): Graham – as a long-established expert on participatory forms of democracy, what do you think is behind this sudden interest in citizens assemblies? You wanted me to remind our readers that openDemocracy was talking to you about randomly-selected bodies and processes years before anyone else took notice! But when did the first signs of this much broader enthusiasm appear?

Graham Smith (GS): Yes, without doubt it is the flavour of the month at the moment. The first article I wrote on citizens’ juries was published twenty years ago and as I have been joking, for the first nineteen and a half of those years nobody was interested! The Irish Citizens Assembly was a game-changer, basically.

RB: When the Irish Citizens Assembly came up at a recent panel discussion openDemocracy organised for the Belfast Democracy Day, Roslyn Fuller, who is an expert in digital democracy, argued there had been far too much hype about the significance of this assembly process, that very few people after all could be involved in it, and that opinion on the abortion bill had been moving in the direction of the outcome anyway. How would you answer that?

GS: She is right about Irish society clearly becoming more liberal. The problem was how to get to a decision on this issue. If you are an Irish politician the hardest controversies to deal with are on social issues, because of the continuing influence of the Catholic church even now and the forces of conservatism within communities.

The voices against same sex marriage and abortion were very loud, strong and well-established. Historically they have been well-organised.

What is hard when issues get hoovered up by interest group politics is that ordinary citizens don’t have a place. In the war between those who want to see change and those who don’t, the question is how to get past that deadlock? So I wonder what kind of politics Roslyn thought could get us to a decision. Certainly the politicians had the opinion polls and many were convinced that there had to be constitutional change, but they were looking for another way of opening up the issues that wasn’t going to be captured by interest groups. They didn’t know for sure which way the Convention on the Constitution and the Citizens Assembly would go on either of these issues, but they wanted a more inclusive process.

We can see the same pattern emerging in the 2000’s in British Columbia, where all the political parties were in agreement that they needed a new electoral system, but each of them wanted a different one. So they passed the decision over to a citizens assembly.

But we have a real tension here between digital and deliberative democracy, if I can use that shorthand. I think the digital people are obsessed by numbers, and the funny thing is that this can very easily end up as an old politics – who is shouting the loudest? How many people are ‘liking’? That reminds me of standard electoral politics. Proponents of this approach come to you saying, “Look how many people have engaged with this!” Maybe it is a matter of political taste. The point about citizens assemblies is that it is not a large group, but it is diverse. And you cannot be sure about that with online ‘likes’. Online engagement will almost certainly not have the diverse characteristics of the broader population, whereas selection by sortition in citizens’ assemblies builds this into the process. So in terms of diversity, deliberative processes trump the kind of digital spaces that Roslyn is talking about.

Secondly, should we make our decision by responding to people’s views as they hold them now, given that their normal everyday interaction is with people like themselves, under conditions in which they may not have engaged much, if at all, with a range of other views? Or should we create a democratic space in which people work these issues through with people who are different from them and who hold views that are different from theirs?

This politics of ‘considered judgment’ is simply a different kind of politics.

This politics of ‘considered judgment’ is simply a different kind of politics.

RB: And do you think that this understanding of the nature of citizens assemblies and this different kind of politics is beginning to get through?

GS: I think so, yes. Previous to this recent discovery of citizens assemblies, we would spend a lot of time talking about citizens juries and citizens panels. Politicians would comment, “Oh that’s a bit small – twenty to thirty people.” But there is something about the magic number of 100 that seems to be doing some work here. It’s been interesting. Citizens juries tend to be 20 to 30 people, working over three or four days. Now we are talking about an assembly of one hundred that meets over four to six week-ends to deal with a topic. That becomes a different kind of beast. And there seems to be a growing recognition now among the political class and democracy activists, that these institutions have virtues that other bodies don’t – albeit that they aren’t the only way of doing participatory politics.

RB: openDemocracy’s 50.50 section was busy investigating the online messaging from foreign sources drawn to the Irish decision on abortion, and determined to defeat the bill. As you say, digital politics with its one-way messaging, however targeted, can be very old politics. But are there ways of creating a wider impact for the democratic process in a citizens assembly that don’t intrude on its own deliberative dynamics? Could there be a wider media impact that is useful?

GS: The impact on a broader public is always a problem, simply because most people can’t spend their time inside the assembly process. You are raising quite an interesting point here which also touches on what happens to the recommendations, the output from a citizens assembly, in terms of impact on that wider public.

A Polish activist, Marcin Gerwin has been working very closely with Polish mayors, in particular with Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdansk, who was tragically assassinated recently. Marcin has run a number of assemblies and has managed to get agreement from the mayor to implement all decisions where 80% agreement is achieved amongst participants. Anywhere between 50 and 80%, the mayor has discretion about whether to implement. These citizens assembly recommendations don’t go back to the public in a referendum. The Assembly is recognised as a legitimate method of decision-making in itself. But of course, recommendations can go to the public, as they did in both Ireland and Canada where the mini-public was linked directly to a referendum. But I have some concerns about this, because you spend all this time in the deliberative space reaching a nuanced decision, and then throw it open to people who have not been through a similar process.

What happened in Ireland was the citizens assembly contributed to a better debate around the abortion issue; the media coverage did appear to influence the wider debate for the better. The Assembly came to around 67% support for abortion, and that was almost exactly the same figure as in the referendum.

The Irish example was surprising to many of us, since highly divisive issues like same sex marriage and abortion are not ones that you would normally put to a referendum. Especially same sex marriage – an issue involving a minority community. Normally you don’t put minority issues to a referendum. But, arguably, the Convention on the Constitution and the Citizens Assembly changed the context. So Roslyn was certainly right about a changing public opinion. But that wasn’t enough.

Have you seen the documentary The 34th, about the Irish campaign for same sex marriage? If you have access to Netflix, watch it – it will make you cry. It is amazing.

RB: I found this definition of deliberation on the Citizen Assembly/Democracy Matters web page you have with UCL:

What is ‘deliberation’?

‘Deliberation’ is long and careful discussion crafted towards making a decision. Deliberative processes emphasise the importance of reflection and informed discussion in decision-making. This allows people to adopt more nuanced positions on the issues at hand, with a better understanding of the trade-offs inherent in a given decision.

For deliberation to be effective it is important that an appropriate amount of time is provided for people to familiarise themselves with the various aspects of a question. While people ought to be exposed to arguments representing contrary positions, they should also be given the time and resources to discuss and reflect on the issues away from the too-easy sloganising of political campaigning. The outcome of a deliberative process should be one in which people feel more able to make an informed decision on a given issue.

I thought it was good, because it captures the importance to democracy of conversation – of people being open to each other’s point of view and the possibility of changing their minds. This is an awareness of democratic potential which seems to have been totally absent from the Brexit process from the moment when Theresa May first uttered those ill-fated words, “Brexit means Brexit”. So apart from the Citizens Assembly of Ireland isn’t it this glaring lack of exchange and ‘considered judgment’ which has contributed to a renewed interest in these deliberative processes?

GS: You know that we did a Citizens Assembly on Brexit in Manchester in September, 2017, led by UCL’s Constitution Unit? It was a “pilot” in many ways. We didn’t have the money to run it over four or five weekends, so we had two weekends and we had to restrict the agenda and the number of participants. We focused on the UK’s future economic relationship with the EU and migration because we thought that would be a good test for the model.

The choice of migration was fascinating as it turned out because participants had no idea that the UK government could actually be much stricter about immigration within EU rules. That was an eye-opener and appears to have led to an entirely new position on migration that our preparatory mapping hadn’t at all predicted. The conversation, which was very ‘British’ in its appeal to fairness, made it clear that what frustrated people most about migration was unfairness. It didn’t seem to be immigration that bothered people as much as whether the rules were right and fair and being implemented fairly. After the legal scholar Professor Catherine Barnard from Cambridge dispelled a few urban myths about EU policy, benefit abuse and so on, we were amazed when the Assembly, with more Leavers than Remainers, came up with a rather liberal view on migration.

We were amazed when the Assembly, with more Leavers than Remainers, came up with a rather liberal view on migration.

We had more than fifty per cent leavers, but very few members wanted a Hard Brexit. We had a couple of extreme anti-immigrationists in the room as you would expect from a diverse group. At each of the small tables we made sure that there was a mix of Leavers and Remainers all the time, so that everyone heard a diversity of positions. At the end of the event, I thought those with strong views on immigration might complain about the process. But one of them came up to me and said that it was absolutely fantastic to take part, “I got to say my piece, I heard what others had to say, including some things which I haven’t heard before. I haven’t really changed my view, but I’m much more understanding. And I lost. That’s the way it goes. It was a good process.” Wow!

The other issue that surfaced was Northern Ireland. We oversampled people from Northern Ireland, six participants in all, and a couple of them kept saying that Brexit looked as if it was going to have huge repercussions for them. On the priorities for a future deal which we asked the whole cohort to produce, Northern Ireland came up as one of the top priorities, which again, we had not anticipated. That was really interesting and a precursor to what followed in the Brexit negotiations.

It was a very interesting exercise. What the citizens came up with during those days of deliberation, the problems they highlighted, have surfaced in all sorts of ways in the weeks and months that followed. But, it was held at entirely the wrong time. We had wanted it to happen earlier, but then May called her election, and when it did run, it coincided with the Conservative Party conference in which everyone started banging on about Hard Brexit. It got lost in that noise.

RB: Isn’t it true that on the issues debated in that assembly, the participants, chosen by sortition to reflect not only the proportions of the referendum vote for leave and remain, but also the demographic spread of the UK population, finally decided that they would indeed opt for a negotiated Brexit, but if that were for some reason unavailable… they were very clear that they would prefer for the time being to stay within the customs union and the single market and think again, so to speak?

GS: Yes. That was actually one of the problems with their recommendations. This represented a rather poor negotiating position for the UK government: “If you don’t give us a bespoke deal, we are going to stay within the single market”…! Nevertheless, the Assembly’s insights could have been picked up as evidence to back up positions held by the Labour Party and at various points by Theresa May – but it wasn’t.

So the recommendations got lost and didn’t have the impact on the Brexit process that we had hoped for. But the project had two aims. One was to influence the Brexit debate by contributing a considered response to the question, if we were going to leave, what should Brexit actually look like? – which by the way is something it would still be nice to know! The second aim was to create a showcase for the citizens’ assembly model. If citizens can talk together about Brexit and come up with useful recommendations, then you can talk about anything. The Irish case had already happened; then Involve, which worked with us on the Brexit Assembly, was commissioned by Sarah Wollaston and Clive Betts, chairs of two Select Committees to run an Assembly on social care. Along with the experience we had from the Brexit Assembly and two earlier assemblies we ran on devolution, we had strong evidence to show that they could work in the UK context.

What really allowed the idea to enter the policy space in the UK was the way the Brexit process was becoming such a disaster. Nobody could avoid that conclusion. This created the space for two or three MPs, Stella Creasy (remainer calling for a second referendum), Lisa Nandy (a leaver) and Caroline Lucas to call for a Citizens Assembly to break the deadlock. These politicians weren’t agreeing about what should happen with Brexit, but they were agreeing that there needed to be a different process.

I was delighted to be a signatory to the letter to the Guardian which was organised by Neal Lawson at Compass calling for a Brexit Assembly. My friends said, “Oh look – nineteen famous people and you!” You’ll appreciate that two days after that letter went into The Guardian, it was picked up by the Daily Mail and the headline was “Luvvies will sort out Brexit!” I can retire happy now!

RB: But that was far from the end of the matter?

GS: I am flabbergasted by the extent to which citizen’s assemblies are in the political discourse at the moment. It’s not just amongst MPs and the political establishment, but right through to Extinction Rebellion (XR). XR’s third demand is a citizens’ assembly to oversee the government response to the climate emergency. It’s been fun working with XR activists to begin to flesh out how that might work.

Meanwhile the letter helped influence the Guardian’s editorial stance towards a citizens assembly and coincided with back benchers proposing ways for Parliament to get out of its stalemate. Our earlier Citizens Assembly on Brexit was long over and no answer to the current deadlock. But Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy were bringing people together to talk about this as an option, and to put forward an amendment in the indicative votes. It did not get selected, which was fortuitous because the timetable suggested it could be done and dusted in ten weeks, which was clearly impossible.

Those of us advising the MPs were consistent in arguing that it needed more time.

What I and others have been emphasising is that citizens assemblies take time, that you just can’t rush them. Moreover, we have never run a citizens assembly in a febrile atmosphere like Brexit has produced. You need buy in from across the political divides. We are in a phase of people thinking , “Ah, citizens assemblies will sort out everything” and inevitably there has to be a rowing back from that position.

RB: How long should such a citizens assembly, as a better way of returning to the people, take?

GS: Six months minimum, maybe longer. But I would also want to know from the start that there was political buy-in.

I think even now you can do a citizens assembly on how you get out of this mess. But it needs time. We would have to say to the EU, “We need to have at least a year.” I think the UK would get a hearing for this approach. Following his rather rushed and unfocused national conversation, President Macron is setting up a mini-public on climate change, so he is clearly into this sort of engagement. But the space for a citizens assembly has to be created. We have to have acceptance from the political parties that this is the right thing to do. It could be done. But the political conditions aren’t there.

RB: And your colleagues who don’t agree with you on this think what?

GS: Quite reasonably, some are really worried that this could be a terrible test case for a citizens assembly, and that the chances of it going badly wrong are high just because of the political context. We know we can run a citizens assembly on such a contested issue, but we do need the context to be right. There is concern that this could put back the cause of citizen assemblies, because the politicians are not ready for it. But at the same time of course XR and the SNP are talking about citizens assemblies, and Graham Allen, the former Nottinghamshire MP, is working with Involve on a citizen–led constitutional convention. The idea is everywhere.

We know we can run a citizens assembly on such a contested issue, but we do need the context to be right.

RB: How does Graham Allen’s project fit into this?

GS: As you know, Graham has been working for years to try to realise an idea proposed by people like Stuart White, writing on openDemocracy, of their being a citizen-led constitutional convention which would have citizens assemblies at its heart. Together with King’s College and Involve, he has funding for a scoping project to design the process. They’ve brought in people like myself and Democratic Society to think through how citizens assemblies can be central to the design. Once the design is in places, they can go back to the foundations to say, “OK. Are you going to fund this constitutional convention?” He has buy-in from quite an impressive range of political figures within and outside parliament – although not official support from the political parties.

RB: What about Gordon Brown’s proposal for a rolling People’s Royal Commission on Brexit?

GS: I think he has muddied the waters somewhat. President Macron has recently run a number of assemblies as part of a national conversation on a whole range of problems that France is facing at the moment. Brown wants something similar for the UK. But this may well lead to confusion.

A citizens assembly only really works well when it is given a clear task and where its link to decision making is well understood.

Part Two forthcoming – how to make citizens assemblies work

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