During October and November 2015, around ninety citizens (including fifteen politicians) will be part of two ‘citizens assemblies’ that will discuss and recommend the best way for their area to be governed into the future. These citizens assemblies will be the first of their kind ever held in the UK and the first opportunity since the Scottish referendum for English citizens to look in-depth at where power should lie.
What is a citizens assembly?
A citizens assembly is a forum that brings together citizens, politicians and experts to investigate, deliberate and decide on important political and policy issues.
What does this assembly hope to achieve?
These two citizens assemblies intend to not only find out more about what people think about a range of options that move more UK decision-making and responsibility to the local level, they also will examine the best way to run these types of public forums. Hopefully, they can provide a template for other regions, or even the whole of the UK, to do similar in the future.
What will they be about?
The main topic for consideration in these assemblies will be attitudes to politics, government and various decentralisation options that are currently available to the UK. Expert briefings, advocate presentations and public submissions will all inform the deliberation and decision-making of assembly participants.
Why are they important now?
The governance arrangements of the United Kingdom are changing. Already new powers have been devolved to some of the nations, while currently the Westminster Parliament is debating further devolution bills and the Chancellor is considering bids from areas of England for greater power and control. But if these changes are to last, they need to be shaped by the people. Citizens assemblies are a practical and effective way for people to be more involved and have their voices heard in decision-making on political and policy issues.
Who is behind these assemblies?
The assemblies project started in a conversation between a diverse group of organisations and individuals who felt that a more deliberative approach to democratic reform was both desirable and useful. This conversation prompted the Electoral Reform Society to come together with academics from the University of Sheffield, the University of Southampton, the University of London and the University of Westminster to put in place a process to start renewed civic engagement on the question of future governance in the UK. With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, this partnership will be hosting the two assemblies in late 2015.
What will the researchers be looking at in the assemblies?
This research has two main questions. The first is about what participants in two English regions think about the various options for decentralisation that have currently been put on the table. This will be important information for politicians, civil servants, advocates and public debate more broadly. The second will be to analyse how assemblies can support quality deliberation and decision-making. For instance, the Sheffield assembly will invite only citizens, while the Southampton assembly will invite one third of its participants from local politicians. So, an important feature of this research will be understanding the difference that involving politicians in the process makes for the outcome.
How does an assembly work?
While different assemblies have worked differently in the many different places around the world where they have been used previously, all citizens assemblies share two key features First, working with a steering group selected by the participants, the support team guide everyone through the stages of learning, consultation, and deliberation/decision. In the UK assemblies this will happen over two separate weekends, where participants will work in large and small groups to develop recommendations to report at the end of the final weekend. These assemblies won’t be like school or university lectures or, by design they will be interesting, thought-provoking and linked to the real world. Second, participants are randomly selected, to broadly reflect the make-up and backgrounds of local residents.
Where will these assemblies be held?
One assembly will be held in Southampton for the citizens of Hampshire and another in Sheffield for the citizens of South Yorkshire. These locations have been selected because of their proximity to the two universities leading the project, as well as the significant recent activity around changing governing arrangements in these regions.
How will these assemblies make a difference?
There is nothing quite like doing the right thing at the right time to catch people’s attention. So with the various devolution deals being negotiated, bills being considered and plans being made, this is the perfect time to voice the views within the halls of government. The project team have also established an extensive network of academic experts, non-government organisations, policy think-tanks, advocacy bodies and community groups who will work with us to produce and share influential information from this project.
Beyond this, the project will present its findings to the media and the public to support further debate. It will also produce practical guides on running assemblies for civil servants and local authority leaders so that they can use similar strategies for involving people in decision-making in the future.
How can I be involved?
Participants will be identified randomly by polling company YouGov to reflect the demographics and diversity in each region – so you can’t volunteer to be a part of an assembly without receiving an invitation. However, if you would like to contribute, the project website (see below) allows the public to make submissions that will be reported to the participants during the assembly learning and consultation processes. Of course, you can also follow the progress of the assembly online as new information and resources will be regularly posted on the website.
How can I find out more?
The assemblies project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, while it will be conducted by an expert team drawn from the University of Sheffield, the University of Southampton, the University of London, the University of Westminster and the Electoral Reform Society.