The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: how did it work?

Citizens' Assembly

Yesterday saw the finale of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) and the announcement of its results. By its end, fifty members of the public – broadly representative of the UK population in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum – had spent around twenty-eight hours considering what the UK’s trade and immigration policy should be post-Brexit.

The Assembly demonstrated not only that citizens can have a detailed and constructive conversation about options for Brexit, but also that they can enjoy doing it. Assembly Members rated the Assembly an average of 5.5 out of 6 across the two weekends, with 86% of Assembly Members saying they ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement “Assemblies like this should be used more often to inform government decision-making.” A further 8% ‘agreed’.

So how did the Assembly work? This post tells the story of its two weekends.

To begin with a prologue…

It is essential for a Citizens’ Assembly to be balanced, both in terms of the information presented to participants, and how the participants are selected. The CAB team used five main techniques to achieve this balance:

  • The Advisory Board: The Assembly’s programme and briefing papers were vetted by an Advisory Board, comprising of supporters of both the Leave and Remain campaigns, as well as experts in balanced communication.
  • Assembly speakers: The Assembly’s speakers were carefully chosen to give equal representation to all sides of the post-Brexit trade and migration debates.
  • Participant recruitment: As already noted, participants were carefully selected to be as representative as possible of the wider UK population. They were also carefully seated, once at the Assembly, to ensure a balance of views and perspectives on each table.
  • Independent facilitation: Assembly Members were guided through the Assembly process by independent facilitators. They made sure that all Assembly Members were clear about every step of the process and that everyone’s views were heard. The facilitators made no comment at any point on the issues being discussed by the Assembly.
  • Design of the Assembly weekends: This is where the rest of this post will focus.

Weekend One: The “learning weekend”

Weekend One aimed to give Assembly Members the chance to:

  • Hear and explore key information on trade and migration;
  • Have their questions answered;
  • Think about and identify the arguments and issues they found most important; and
  • Find out more about the views of their fellow Assembly Members.

It began on Friday evening with two brief exercises: one to explore Assembly Members’ hopes and fears for the weekend ahead, and one to set the Assembly’s conversation guidelines – a set of rules aimed at ensuring the Assembly would be a good experience for everyone.

After a night’s rest, Assembly Members reconvened on Saturday morning for a detailed introduction to the Assembly – including its aims, personnel and funders – and an icebreaker to get Members talking to one another.

These were followed by the first main exercise of the Assembly: a discussion of what Assembly Members value, and would like to be able to value, about the country in which they live. Questions about the shape that Brexit should take are, at their heart, questions about what type of country we want to live in and how best to get there. The purpose of this exercise was to give Assembly Members a prism through which to view the rest of the weekend’s proceedings. Ideas put forward by Assembly Members and voted as important by at least one of them were collected in and saved for later.

The first panel of the Assembly provided Members with an introduction to the EU, UK and Brexit, and the issues – trade and migration – on which the Assembly would focus. Assembly Members were introduced to key concepts, including tariff and non-tariff barriers, the Single Market and the Customs Union, and immigration and emigration. No arguments were made at this stage about the relative merits or importance of any of the ideas introduced. At the end of the presentations, Assembly Members discussed and prioritised at their tables questions for the speakers.

After a break, the room split in half. Three tables asked their priority questions to the panel speakers, with any questions left unanswered at the end of the session collected in. The other four tables reviewed a themed wall display of their values from the earlier session. Each Assembly Member wrote a postcard to themselves listing the five things they most want to be able to value about the country in which they live. The groups then reversed.

Saturday afternoon started with the Assembly’s second panel, which focussed on trade. Four speakers – two emphasising the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union to the UK, two emphasising the advantages of cutting free – presented their arguments to Assembly Members. Two further experts followed with brief reflections on what they’d heard. Details of all speakers can be found here.

After the presentations, Assembly Members worked at their tables to discuss and prioritise questions for all six speakers. Speakers then visited each table in turn, spending ten minutes per table answering questions. Any questions left unanswered at the end of the session were collected in.

The Assembly’s first proper deliberation then took place. Assembly Members each wrote a postcard to themselves capturing the five most important arguments, issues or points they felt they’d heard on trade, and then discussed and agreed the eight considerations on trade that felt most important to them as a table.

Sunday saw a repeat of this process for migration. Assembly Members heard from a third panel focussed on migration, asked them their priority questions (in split plenary this time, not at tables), wrote a postcard to themselves about the most important arguments they’d heard and agreed their top eight considerations as a table.

This was the end of weekend one.

Weekend Two: The “discussion and decision weekend”

The aim of weekend two was for Assembly Members to discuss the options and reach decisions on:

  • Guidelines to inform what the UK’s trade and immigration policy should be after Brexit;
  • What the UK’s policy post-Brexit should be on (1) trade with the EU, (2) trade with countries outside of the EU, and (3) immigration;
  • How to fit trade and immigration preferences together.

Friday night of weekend two was dedicated to answering the unanswered questions from weekend one. It also saw two guest speakers address Assembly Members and answer their questions. Graham Brady MP, chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, spoke for leaving the Single Market and Customs Union; Labour MP Kate Green advocated the opposite.

On Saturday morning Assembly business recommenced in earnest. After the usual introductions and icebreakers, Assembly Members’ first task was to review the themed wall chart on values from weekend one, and the postcard they had written for themselves on the same subject. They then voted on the values that were most important to them. This re- focused Assembly Members on what they wanted for the country in which they live.

From there, Assembly Members were asked to decide their guidelines for the UK government on what the UK’s trade policy should be after Brexit. Assembly Members reviewed their trade postcards to themselves, and the top eight trade considerations put forward by all tables in weekend one. Assembly Members then worked at their tables to decide their five to six priority endings to the sentence, “The UK’s trade policy after Brexit should….”. Their answers were collected in, entered into the online voting platform Mentimeter and then voted on by all Assembly Members. The results of this vote and all subsequent ones can be found here. This process was then repeated to determine the Assembly’s guidelines for the UK government on what the UK’s immigration policy should be after Brexit.

Whilst the guidelines were for the UK government, Assembly Members went on to use them themselves to decide what they thought the UK’s policy post-Brexit should be on:

  • Trade with the EU
  • Trade with countries outside of the EU
  • Migration

The process for all three decisions was the same. Firstly, the Assembly’s Director, Dr Alan Renwick, presented a range of policy options to Assembly Members. Tables then spent an extended amount of time discussing the pros and cons of each option and attempting to rank the options as a table. This enabled Assembly Members to explore and argue the case for each alternative. Finally, Assembly Members voted individually, ranking the options in their order of preference. All the vote results were announced at the end of the migration discussion, mid-morning on Sunday. To see the results and options presented to Assembly Members click here.

Until this point, the Assembly had discussed trade and migration separately. However, they had heard at various points throughout the weekends, that the two areas are related: it may not be possible for the UK to negotiate everything it wants on trade and immigration. This then became the final topic of the Assembly. Alan Renwick presented Members with six combined packages of trade/migration policy, representing the main alternatives currently being advocated by UK political parties. Assembly Members discussed the pros and cons of each and ranked them at their tables. A final individual vote then made Assembly Members’ last decision of the process.


In the coming weeks, there will be more to come from the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit. We will undertake further analysis of the results, publish the Assembly’s summary and final reports, and advocate for its conclusions. For the Assembly weekends themselves, however, the process is at an end.

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