There are many examples of citizens’ assemblies or juries, and only a few can be described here. The Participedia website now lists over 2000 worldwide examples of various forms of participatory democracy. As is the way of such sites, the approach is extensive, and many entries are stubs waiting for someone to complete them and provide external links. Thus the quality of information available and its relevance here is variable. But many examples are quite detailed and informative, do include external links, and a browse can be fascinating.
For those who like podcasts, there is a whole series on facilitating public deliberations, currently (3 Jan 2021) running to 39 episodes, with talks by exponents of a wide range of deliberative techniques in many different contexts. Of course at the moment the field is highly constrained by the Covid pandemic, but at least here in Aotearoa New Zealand we are free to dream of better and more deliberative face-to-face participation by our fellows in the decisions which affect us all.
The sole quoted example from New Zealand is in connection with the development of the Auckland Unitary Plan, and used a number of self-selected groups, thus lacking the element of selection by lot. So it does not really qualify as a true use of mini-publics. However, there are three New Zealand examples of citizens’ juries, described below, and probably there have been a number of trials of participatory budgeting at local level of which I have no details.
First it should be noted that there have been no trials of full-on citizens’ assemblies in Aotearoa New Zealand that I have found. Three citizens’ juries have been all organised by the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago. Without going into the specifics of the topics being considered, the main organisational features of the three juries were:
1. In connection with policy decisions about screening for breast cancer the jury comprised
a group of 12 women aged 40-49 years selected from the general and maori rolls. 80
written invitations were sent out. 34 of the invitees could not be contacted, and of the
46 who remained 17 agreed to take part. The first 12 to respond were invited to attend. The
meetings took place on a Wednesday evening (introduction and familiarisation), all day Friday
(presentations by experts and their interrogation by the jury) and Saturday morning
(deliberation by the jury alone except for an observer).
2. In connection with the use of personal medical information for medical research the jury comprised a group of initially 13 citizens, from 96 taken at random from local electoral rolls to whom letters of invitation were sent out. In addition there was an independent chair and a facilitator. The juiry met over three days. On the first day the chair explained the process and indicated that the jurors should consider themselves as representing the community at large, and that unanimity was not necessary. Legal and ethical issues were also explained. During the second day, the jury heard from other experts who had been selected by the steering group, and could ask questions. The third day was for the jury to deliberate, with just the facilitator present, and for reporting back.
3. The most recent citizens’ jury was held in 2018. It considered the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted dying, and was a subject in the Radio New Zealand programme Our Changing World on 24 May 2018. This jury comprised 15 people from South Dunedin. The jury was unable to reach consensus on this complex issue, the outcome being described by Emeritus Professor Charlotte Paul in a post. The jury was convened while David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill was before Parliament, and the research team also felt that, since a deliberative and well informed jury had been unable to reach consensus, the issue was too complex to be submitted to a referendum. Nevertheless, following the passing of the Bill in November 2019, the final decision will still be put to a referendum attached to the 2020 election. So misinformation and emotion will rule. Might as well toss a coin.
Claudia Chwalisz, in her publication The People’s Verdict: Adding Citizen Voices to Public Decision-Making, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, available as a paperback or e-book), examines five Australian case studies, summarised as:
|Level of governance||Topic||Duration||No. of invitations||No. of participants||Cost (AUD)|
Melbourne People’s Panel 2014
|State||Infrastructure Victoria 2016: 30-year plan||6 days||12,000||43 (x2)||$325,450|
|State||VicHealth 2015:We have a problem with obesity. How can we make it easier to eat better?||4 days||15,000||100||$221,750|
|State||Citizens’ Jury on a Vibrant and Safe Nightlife for Adelaide 2013||5 days||24,000||43||$152,200|
|State||Citizens’ Juries on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle 2016||4 days||25,000||50/350||$183,000|
The table above reproduces Table 7 on p.41 of the book, which also gives a detailed breakdown of how the various assemblies were organised. It should be noted that the duration indicated was in all cases spread over several weeks, and a lot of organising took place before and outside the actual assemblies.
The Melbourne People’s Panel gave recommendations on the city’s 10-year financial plan ($5bn AUD), and 10 out of its 11 recommendations were adopted by the city. A council video introduced the idea and another short video showed something of what happened .
The panel, or two panels, one for the city of Melbourne and one for the more rural areas of the state, which were organised by the newDemocracy Foundation for Infrastructure Victoria, is introduced in a short video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-gmBlBarzw, and two separate videos give a flavour of the city jury https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTepsEeckms and the regional jury https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNjwWo57jvI.
Many folk will have heard of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly 2016-2018 that was tasked with considering five issues:
- the eighth amendment of the constitution
- challenges and opportunities of an ageing population
- the manner in which referenda are held
- making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change
- fixed term parliaments
The proceedings of the Assembly were live streamed, and can be viewed via the assembly’s Youtube channel via a link on the above website.
Subsequently, a new Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality has been convened, and held its first meetings on the 15th and 16th of February 2020. The Assembly comprises 99 citizens and a chair person. Subsequent meetings in March, April, May and July all had to be postponed on account of the Covid19 pandemic, but an online seminar was held to 4th July to keep the participants in touch. It is not yet known whether it will be possible to complete the work of this Assembly.
UK Climate Assembly
The UK Climate Assembly has now finished, having been obliged by the Covid19 pandemic to hold its final sessions online. It published its final report on 10 Sep 2020. What now remains to be seen is the degree to which the recommendations in that report find their way into policy and action.
The assembly of 108 members selected by civic lottery, has its own website with many internal links to details of its organisation and the process of its sessions. The assembly was an initiative of the UK parliament, rather than the UK Government, being convened by 6 Select Committees to which the Assembly has submitted its final report. The budget of GBP 320,000 was provided by a combination of GBP 120,000 from the Select Committees, and GBP 200,000 from other donors, who played no part in the proceedings.
The organisation of the Assembly was contracted to the independent organisations The Sortition Foundation, contracted to conduct the civic lottery and recruit members of the assembly, and Involve , contracted to manage the actual running of the assembly. The not-for-profit social enterprise mySociety is running the assembly’s website and managing its image.
Local government devolution
In 2016 in the UK two local assemblies were organised by the Electoral Reform Society in the context of local government devolution, and a short video was prepared in which participants described their experiences.
Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care
More recently, two UK parliamentary select committees jointly commissioned a citizens’ assembly on social care, which took place over two weekends in April and May 2018. The Involve Foundation, who facilitated the assembly, has put up a short (3 mins) video, which includes what some of the 47 participants thought of the process. Involve have also put up a report dated 25 May 2018 on how the assembly worked.
Manchester Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit
A well organised mini-public took place in Manchester over two weekends in September 2017. It was hosted as a research project by the Constitution Unit at University College London. It was on the subject of what kind of Brexit the public preferred, whilst not re-litigating the original Brexit referendum. The assembly was highly successful internally, which is to say it worked well and the participants were highly satisfied and produced clear preferences for the way ahead. Externally, the recommendations seem to have sunk without trace in the Brexit mess of the previous and current UK Parliament and Government.
Various reports on the assembly, both summary and full, were prepared, and provide a good description of all stages of the process.
Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly
At a more local level, the Greater Cambridge Partnership held a citizens’ assembly with 60 randomly chosen participants to consider how to reduce congestion, improve air quality and provide better public transport. The assembly was held over two weekends in September and October 2019, and a summary of the proceedings and links to reports and videos is available.
The Scottish Government set up the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, comprising a minimum of 100 members broadly representative of the population aged 16 and over. The Assembly has so far met over five weekends, the first four in person, and the most recent one online on 5 Sep 2020. Three further online meetings are planned.
The assembly has considered three broad questions: what kind of country are they seeking to build; how best can they overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit; and what further work should be carried out to give them the information they need to make informed choices about the future of the country. The assembly has its own website.
Scotland has also been into participatory budgeting for some years now, and there is a dedicated website giving a lot of information on this very active area.
Wales held its first citizens’ assembly over the weekend 19-21 July 10 2019. The 60 members considered how people in Wales can shape their future through the work of the National Assembly for Wales, with its limited devolved powers. The website contains a link to the full report on the citizens’ assembly which was presented on 27 Sep 2019 and describes the methodology and results in full.
Canada has also been pretty active in this space. Perhaps the best known example is the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, which involved 160 residents of BC, 158 selected randomly and 2 indigenous through targeted recruitment as the random selection process did not produce any indigenous participants. The Assembly met many times between January and December 2004, and sessions included a learning phase, a public hearings phase and a deliberation phase. The Assembly’s recommendation, for moving from a FPTP system to STV, was published in December 2004 and put to a referendum held in May 2005 concurrently with the provincial election. The proposal was rejected. Possible reasons for the rejection were thought to be inadequate publicity for the proceedings and recommendations, so that many voters were unaware of the existence of the assembly and of its reasoning and of the large majority (147 to 7) of the assembly who voted for the final recommendation. The Participedia website ( https://participedia.net/case/1 ) has a detailed writeup and links.
Possibly the most active and successful field in the USA is participatory budgeting, led by Josh Lerner who has also produced two books I have found very inspiring (Making Democracy Fun, MIT press, 2014; Everyone Counts, Cornell University Press, 2014). The PB website is full of information about projects and method ( https://www.participatorybudgeting.org ).
There has recently been an interesting exercise in deliberative polling carried out over a long weekend from 19 to 22 September 2109. A key finding was that on each of the topics considered there were dramatic changes of opinion between the two pollings, one at the outset and one after the discussion sessions. The topics were immigration, taxes and the economy, health care, foreign policy, and the environment, which previous polling had indicated as the most important to voters in the current US electoral cycle. There was also a very high percentage of favourable evaluations of the process on the part of the participants. A four page executive summary of this America in One Room exercise is here https://cdd.stanford.edu/2019/america-in-one-room-results/.