Citizens Assemblies are the idea of the moment. But will they actually help the current UK political crisis?

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Like many in the “new politics/new localism” movements, we have been great fans of citizens assemblies at A/UK.

A search through the Daily Alternative archive brings up examples from Ireland and Poland, helping to shape healthcare policy in the UK parliament, and aiming to contribute to Northern Irish reconciliation too. We have also written in many Editorials - see this one - about citizens assemblies as part of a wave of deliberative and consultative innovation, like Policy Juries and Peoples’ Panels.

However, we want to raise a small and querulous hand about the role of citizens’ assemblies as a way to break the logjam of opinion, and opposed views, in the current British crisis over Brexit and leaving the European Union.

To be sure, it’s exciting to see Assemblies being invoked by leading figures in the debate - everyone from Labour’s Keir Starmer and Gordon Brown, the Conservatives’ John Major, to the Greens’ Caroline Lucas and the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and musician Damon Albarn. (We should note as well the leading advocacy on this from our old friends in Compass).

Brown’s words sums up the general ambition - which would be grounded in an extension of the Article 50 deadline by a year, to give time for its realisation:

Brought together in public hearings in each region, a representative sample of 2016 remain and leave voters would take time to engage, deliberate and then pronounce on all the concerns that Brexit raises: about immigration, sovereignty, the costs of membership, and other burning issues such as the state of manufacturing, the condition of our left-behind communities, and the rising child poverty austerity has imposed.

They will have time to range more widely than the binary choices that the current debate has allowed; and they will, I predict, offer wiser and more imaginative answers than an inflexible government and a deadlocked parliament can now deliver.

The key phrase here is “they will have time”. What we’ve learned in studying citizens assemblies, and speaking with their practitioners over the last few years, is that the process can’t be rushed. Every stage of it - the nature of the organisations calling for it, the careful selection and sortition of the participants, the credibility of the experts advising those attending, the judicious nature of the facilitations and deliberative methods - has to be conducted well, wisely and in a trust-inducing manner.

There also has to be clear agreement on the deep and foundational nature of the issue at hand - meaning that the outcome also has to be genuinely open (the Irish discussion on abortion is an example). And one of the problems of how citizens’ assemblies are emerging in this moment of Brexit is that most of their public advocates seem to be Remainers. Indeed, members of those political, administrative and cultural elites against which much of the Leave vote kicked.

The real danger is that citizens’ assemblies would be slated as what organisational experts sometimes called “facipulation”. Meaning, facilitation that implicitly guides participants to a conclusion desired by the organisers of the process.

We found some amplification for our anxieties in a piece from the Conversation website by John Boswell, associate Professor in Political Science, University of Southampton:

[I do not] dismiss the value in injecting a little more light (rather than heat) into Brexit discussions or engaging with everyday citizens (rather than in-fighting elites). Citizens’ assemblies are just one of a broader family of democratic innovations and novel participatory practices. And among this family, they strike me as being uniquely ill-suited to this political context. 

Citizens’ assemblies mirror the structure of legislatures – and so it is only natural that they prompt concerns about their democratic credentials. Citizens’ assemblies are founded on a notion of descriptive representation (representatives who mirror the demographic characteristics of the citizenry) rather than electoral representation.

They have no formal mechanisms of accountability. Though they resemble a very old way of doing democracy – and a way that interests and excites some contemporary philosophers and social scientists – they remain counter-intuitive and alien to most people. 

The fundamental difficulty, then, is that citizens’ assemblies are seen to epitomise a top-down, technocratic method of engaging people. These events need to be carefully designed by experts, with scientific methods of sampling and recruitment. They need to be carefully stage-managed by experienced professionals.

In a context of widespread distrust, where “people have had enough of the experts” – and “expertise” is so clearly aligned with one side of the debate – engineering a citizens’ assembly on the topic only seems likely to inflame these sentiments.

Boswell suggests that there might be forms of involvement more suited to the rowdy moment of British politics that we’re now in. Maybe a version of the Australian community cabinets, when politicians are taken (in a bus!) to meet citizens directly in public meetings (Scotland’s summer cabinet tours are similar). Or a version of the “lively, mass-mobilising  national public policy conferences of Brazil

We’re not so sure about Boswell’s alternatives. And we would give a properly consensual, properly resourced, and properly scheduled citizens assembly process for Brexit deliberation a chance. It’s worth noting that Involve, the most esteemed of the citizen assembly practitioners, did (with a number of other parrtners) conduct one in 2017 - where the outcome was at the softer end of the Brexit options.

But advocates must take extreme care, and practice serious empathy, when bringing these processes to stressed communities who, understandably, have had their fill of “yet another consultation”, which could bring no real consequence for their lives.

Our focus in A/UK persists - of growing civic and local power, by amplifying the existing energy and creativity of communities, and being sensitive to new structures emerging from that.