(Image: Steve, Southamptons Itchen Bridge, CC BY-NC 2.0.)
On November 21-22 thirty five citizens from Hampshire and the Isle of Wight spent the second of two weekend sessions in a hotel in Southampton discussing how they should be governed. It does not sound exciting but actually it was gripping. They were taking part in a citizens’ assembly pilot scheme which should significantly advance knowledge about whether and how assemblies can be used to enhance democracy.
The citizens’ assemblies, in South Yorkshire and Hampshire, were set up to give local people a chance to express their views on local ‘devolution deals’ responding to central government’s request that local councils come up with plans to ‘combine’ in return for being given new powers. ‘Democracy Matters’, an ESRC funded project under the aegis of the Universities of Sheffield, Southampton, University College London and Westminster and the Electoral Reform Society, organised the two pilot assemblies, known as Assembly North and Assembly South. I offered to facilitate in Assembly South; I was interested but had always been sceptical about the legitimacy of citizens’ assemblies. However, the experience convinced me of their worth.
Having observed Assembly South in action it seems to me that there are three broad reasons why these assemblies enhance the democratic process and why we should use them more in the future.
Improving political debate
Firstly, citizens’ assemblies may provide the best opportunity available for political debate that is based on detailed and impartial information. This in turn could raise the level of debate nationally. In Assembly South thirty five ‘broadly representative’ citizens were being tasked to debate what most people would describe as the dry and technical topic of local government reorganisation, most without much prior knowledge. In contrast to the often superficial information provided by the media, they were provided with well written and scrupulously impartial briefings and access to a full range of expert witnesses.
Participants were split into small groups of about six, each with a facilitator, which helped both information absorption and debate. One of the best methods used was ‘speed-dating’ of ‘expert witnesses’ such as Professor Gerry Stoker on the evidence for and against elected mayors around the world and Roy Perry, leader of Hampshire County Council, on why Hampshire councils were proposing setting up a combined authority. Because witnesses had to go to each small group to be questioned the power balance shifted away from the ‘experts,’ giving the participants control of the learning. Around the table I was facilitating, participants said that these sessions in particular had changed their minds, if not necessarily all in the same direction. In addition, it helped keep debate open that the assembly was chaired by two neutral people, a local journalist and an academic.
University of Southampton Professor Will Jennings commented, “This Assembly has challenged the myth that people are disengaged from politics. When they are given the chance to assess a range of different positions and possibilities they do it with gusto – people are more than capable of grappling with complex questions about the way we are governed.” Even though the number of participants was small, it is hoped that it will cause a ripple effect when they go back to their local communities and prompt well informed discussion there, especially as most indicated in feedback forms at the end that they wanted to continue to be involved in the debate in some way.
Second, citizens’ assemblies are a model for improving the accountability of politicians to the people, again in particular if the issues are complex. As Professor Gerry Stoker argues, “Instead of devolution being a stitch-up between local and national politicians, we need engagement from citizens to bring new insights and new ideas into the debate.” At the end of the assembly, most of the participants showed in feedback forms that they felt they were empowered because they had been able to present their views to local councillors about what type of ‘devolution deal’ they should negotiate with central government. The Hampshire council leaders (eleven in all, Conservative dominated) had drafted a devolution deal to combine all of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight with some detail on policy priorities. Assembly South discussed their draft proposal as well as wider devolution options.
By the end of two weekends the Assembly had provided guidance to local councillors. Citizens were split exactly fifty fifty on support for the councillors’ draft devolution deal. In addition, they voted for far greater public involvement in Hampshire on this issue to be ongoing and they supported the line that if some kind of devolution had to go ahead it should be to create a Hampshire and Isle of Wight body rather than for example a smaller one covering the Solent area only or a larger one covering Wessex or the South-East. When asked to choose between a wide range of alternative structures, they marginally preferred an elected assembly model. They also stipulated that in terms of policy, integration of health and social care should be the top priority for any devolved body. So in those respects they gave some clear indications to the councils about how to proceed.
In an ‘open space’ where participants had freedom to raise any associated issues they wanted - an important feature - they chose to debate and then vote on a huge range of issues from budgets to the voting system; they agreed by very large margins that central government should set minimum standards for service delivery whilst leaving room for local autonomy, local councils should be elected under some form of proportional representation, any elected mayors should be elected by single transferable vote, elected mayors should be subject to a system of recall and that local government needs to support and resource the use of ‘all possible channels’ to motivate public participation.
While Assembly North excluded politicians from taking part, Assembly South was deliberately designed to include them so that the two approaches could be compared. Local councillors made up about one fifth of participants. My initial observation from facilitating is that if politicians are a distinct minority and if they are prevented from dominating then there may be benefits to this approach. It puts the politicians on the same level as the non-politicians and may make them more likely to respect the process and the outcome if they hear all the arguments in depth.
The third reason we should use assemblies more is to include the full range of citizens, from all socio-economic backgrounds, that our current political system excludes. This is the area where most work needs to be done to improve the model. For example, only a ‘broadly’ representative sample could be drawn from the citizens who volunteered for Assembly South. How can enough people be encouraged to volunteer to generate a totally representative sample? What kind of environment for discussion will attract volunteers? Assembly South was held in hotels over two weekends. On the plus side attendance stayed high but this involved a strong social commitment. Would spending the money on paying people to attend day sessions have brought forth a more representative sample?