Frequently Asked Questions
What are the basics of a Citizens' Assembly?
- They are a form of participatory democracy involving deliberation between a selection of citizens
- A structured and organised way of feeding into representative democracy
- Often involving controversial or challenging issues without clear political consensus
- Participants are randomly selected. This is usually stratified, meaning the population is divided into a number of separate social groups (reflecting the diversity of the local population) and a random sample is then drawn from each group using the electoral roll, knocking door to door, etc. They aim to be demographically diverse.
- The right question: Carefully worded, easy to understand and broad enough to empower participants to think creatively, such as ‘How should Burnley respond to climate change?’
- Incentives: To show we value their commitment participants are paid to attend (we usually pay Citizens’ Jury members £20 per 2.5 hour session).
- Duration: Each jury should be at least twenty hours in length. This is not a focus group. Time is essential if we want to enable participants explore the complexity of the issue, to understand the opinions and experiences of other jury members, to challenge each other, to disagree, to ultimately strive (where possible) for consensus and to write a set of recommendations.
- ‘Expert input’: Members of the jury or assembly are helped in their deliberations through the input of outside experts who are invited to present and then be questioned or ‘cross-examined’.
- Facilitators ensure the process is not dominated by a vocal few and that everyone is able to have a fair say.
- An oversight panel: Key influential and powerful stakeholders meet regularly to check the legitimacy and robustness of the process. For example, for a constituency-based process it may include the MP, leaders of local authorities, chamber of commerce, relevant academics, senior business/third sector representatives etc.
- For lots more information, see our Resources.
From presentation by Alison Moseley, University of Exeter, ‘So you’ve declared a climate emergency – now what?’ Event Chaired by Professor Patrick Devine-Wright, May 2019
Who is calling for the Climate Citizens’ Assembly?
This is the third of Extinction Rebellion’s 3 demands. This Declaration is supported by a growing number of organisations and individuals across Scotland and was initiated by Extinction Rebellion Scotland, Global Justice Now, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Common Weal.
Why focus on climate?
We are proposing a narrow focus around a question such as:
‘How can Scotland take action on climate change in line with the science, in line with social, global and inter-generational justice, and in a way that inspires other countries to follow suit?’
However we are also clear that the CCA needs to address the structural causes of the climate and ecological crisis. We cannot simply tinker with a system that continues to drive emissions and global inequality up. We need the CCA to propose the kind of changes that enable us to show the world how to meet this challenge, and meet it in a way that deepens democracy and mutual care.
What’s the difference between Citizens' Assemblies, Citizens’ Juries, mini-publics, People’s Parliaments, People’s Assemblies and other similar terms?
These are all aspects of a wider move towards making better collective decision making called Deliberative Democracy. This aims to move away from the adversarial type of politics we’ve become used to, towards processes which are more inclusive, collaborative and considered.
Citizens’ Juries tend to be smaller (20-30 people) than Citizens’ Assemblies (which are usually between 50-160 people) and are normally thought of as more of a ‘temperature check’. ‘Mini publics’ refer to several formats by which governments try to be more inclusive of ordinary people’s views. People’s Parliaments and Assemblies are less formal terms for processes which aim to directly engage ordinary people with collective decision making – they’re usually generated by the people themselves and not set up (or recognised) by government.
Governments use different kinds of ways to consult public opinion and help them decide what to do next, but can ignore the ‘findings’ if they don’t like them. Deliberative democracy is not about consultation and participation, but a clearly defined role in making decisions.
Citizens’ Assemblies help governments get beyond the log-jams caused by entrenched, often party political positions. These positions, and the time frames of the election cycle mean it can be difficult for governments to take the really big steps that need to be taken to address the climate emergency. This is often because they are afraid the decisions will be unpopular with voters, and they’ll be voted out of power in the next election.
Is it a good thing that cities up and down the UK are declaring a climate emergency and setting up some kind of local parliament about it?
Yes and no. Great that they are taking the issue seriously, but it is important that the process is done properly – not just a quick and dirty bit of consultation that can then be ignored. There needs to be a clear commitment from the government authority to set up an open and fair process, including a budget for it, and to act on the decisions and recommendations.
See below for a bit more information about the kinds of professional organisations that can facilitate the process, and what they have to do.
So why does XR do things like People’s Assemblies which aren’t mandated by government?
Partly, they are to demonstrate that ordinary people are perfectly capable of deliberating on really serious matters that affect us. We need technical experts, but we also need to trust ordinary people’s common sense when the complex technical issues are explained and they have the time and space to discuss.
But we also do need to be clear that we don’t yet have a proper Climate CA established, and we mustn’t allow symbolic actions to stand in, instead of the properly mandated real thing!
How can a CA be both random and carefully selected to be representative?
What happens is a two stage process – e.g. letters are sent out at random to 1,000 citizens to invite them to be considered as members. Then of those who accept, 100 are selected based on ensuring the final assembly is a representative sample of the population.
Random means that everyone has an equal chance of being selected regardless of age, gender, geographic location, level of education or any other characteristic.
A process called ‘stratified random selection’ is used to ensure that if, say 30% of the population is aged between 20 and 40 years old, then 30% of the people participating in the CA will be in that age bracket. Similarly if X% of the population identify as being from an ethnic minority background, then X% of the participants will identify in that way.
That’s quite different to for example mainstream parliaments in the UK where women, ethnic minorities, young people, those living with disabilities are significantly under represented.
How does stratified random selection happen in practice?
One way of doing it is to select a range of postcodes that would give the right geographic spread (Highlands, Lowlands, inner-city, suburbs, small town, village, etc) and write an invitation to all within that postcode to find out if they would be willing and to ask other questions about things like age and gender. Once this information is collected, the right number of people of the representative age, gender, geographic location etc can be selected on a random basis.
Why should we trust Citizens' Assemblies? Most ordinary people don’t know or care very much about climate change, they don’t even recycle very much - what if they decide very weak actions? Or nothing?
There is growing evidence from experience of CAs around the world that, as with jury service, when ordinary citizens are given this responsibility they take it very seriously. Unlike politicians, they don’t have to get re-elected, they don’t represent any interest group, they’re there as themselves and have no other motive than resolving the issue well.
So neither we, nor anyone else has control over members of an Assembly. This process involves an act of trust by us all, but restoring trust always involves risk.
A key part of the CA process is to provide information and education, so even if people don’t know very much about the technical arguments about, for example, zero carbon targets, etc to start with, they will be supported to understand the issues before they start discussing different perspectives and making recommendations.
Do Citizens' Assemblies actually work?
Yes. Hundreds of examples from around the world show that they do. Diverse groups of people to make better decisions than homogenous groups as they are less vulnerable to the ‘echo chamber’, when people can get into the habit of only listening to opinions they already agree with. Decisions made by a representative sample of the population are more likely to be acted upon – not least by government who commissioned the process – if they feel they have been properly considered by a representative sample of the population.
Won’t vested interests dominate a Citizens’ Assembly that is being called for by groups like Extinction Rebellion and Friends of the Earth?
Once a government has decided to convene a CA, good practice is to hand the process over to an impartial, professional organisation used to facilitating such processes. They will set up an advisory group of stakeholders who will negotiate on the remit, question and powers of the CA to advise the facilitating organisation.
Extinction Rebellion would expect to be part of this stakeholder group as they have been calling for a CA on climate change. But other groups like the oil and gas industry would want to be part of this group too. This group will agree which technical experts will support the education and information that the CA participants receive. These will come from different groups with diverse views to offer, including, potentially, experts from the oil and gas industry, climate scientists such as Kevin Anderson, or indigenous peoples in different parts of the world whose lives are already being impacted by climate chaos.
So, members of the assembly will be exposed to different arguments, and to the scientific evidence as well as being given time to reach their own conclusions.
Who decides the question the Citizens’ Assembly considers, and who chooses the expert witnesses, and why should we trust those witnesses?
NB – If you are in touch with your MSP about a Climate Citizens’ Assembly these are probably the questions they will be most interested in.
Most MSPs find it difficult to get their heads around this, but, for the same reason that organisations like Extinction Rebellion are not allowed to set the question on their own, it is vital for the impartiality and credibility of the CA that the government is not able to decide these issues on their own.
Normally the Government would endorse and action the setting up of such a CA. They would then form a steering group of all relevant interested parties. Clearly oil industry unions would be one interested party, along with XR, renewable technology industries and climate scientists.
It would need to be decided whether the corporate oil world should be on it or whether their disinformation campaigns have disqualified them in the same way the tobacco industry disqualified themselves from being taken seriously.
Expert witnesses giving evidence to the Assembly would need to declare any conflicts of interest and be kept to their task by the facilitators, and CA members can also decide what other expert witnesses they want to call. If they are not credible witnesses they will not be taken seriously.
Would people give up the time to participate?
We believe so. It needs people to offer their time to this greater civic good. Most people who have participated in a CA report being very pleased to have done so.
Usually participants costs are covered – such as transport, allowances for child care etc, so financial reasons shouldn’t ever be a barrier to participation. This is partly why a proper CA requires a significant budget.
How long does a CA take?
Depends on the issue and on the question under discussion. Mostly they are held at weekends to make it easy for people to participate, but if they go on for too many weekends, people’s interest ebbs away and participation declines – and that would be a problem. The steering group which decides the final question and the technical inputs would also decide how many days are going to be needed overall.
If people only participate in the CA at weekends, do they use the week to consult with the groups they come from so they can come back the following week with a clear mandate?
No, that’s not how it works. Participants are chosen on the basis of them being, as a group, representative of the population as a whole. They are not there to represent any one group or view point. They are there to listen to the technical inputs and what the other participants say before coming to a conclusion. There’s nothing to stop people going home and telling family and friends what they’ve been learning about. It’s not like jury service when jurors are specifically told not to speak to anyone else. It would also be wrong for any pressure group to try and influence any individual CA participant outside of the context of the education and inputs provided as part of the CA.
I’d really like to be a Citizens’ Assembly member - will that be possible?
Participants aren’t chosen because they represent any particular viewpoint, only as a small sample of the population as a whole (see above).
In practice, there are likely to be 70-100 participants in the CA, and they have to be randomly selected so the chances of you being selected are actually pretty small.
If I can’t participate, will they at least video all the discussions, so we can see who is saying what?
It’s fine for the technical inputs and information that people are being given to be made public. That’s part of the process of being open and transparent.
However, the discussions that are held around individual small tables need to be private. Participants need to feel free to ask for clarifications without fearing that their misunderstanding is being filmed for the world to see.
Also people need to be free to change their minds. What they say on the first day may not be what they think on the last day, and it’s important that no one feels awkward about that, fearing that an observer might look back and mock them for being inconsistent in their views.
Isn’t the issue of global warming and the emergency it is generating, just too complicated? Would we ever get agreement?
That is a risk. But it is probably a risk worth running given that major necessary decisions are currently not being made.
A key factor is the question that the CA is asked to deliberate on. If the question is too broad, discussions could go on forever without ever coming to something concrete. However, CA’s (like the one in Ireland on abortion) have taken on big controversial issues and come up with useful decisions.
The advisory group sounds pretty powerful. How can we have confidence in it? Won’t government or traditional vested interests just dominate?
Running a CA is a technical and professional job and there are organisations in the UK who already have experience in ensuring that a properly facilitated unbiased process takes place. That relates not only to the selection of the question, but to the time allocated for different technical inputs and the facilitation of small group discussions which are at the heart of the CA process when it gets underway. This is designed to ensure that ‘the usual suspects’ don’t dominate discussion and leave important voices unheard.
What if the Government ignores the decisions of the CA?
We are seeking to build a broad coalition across society for the CCA to ensure that it happens and is taken seriously by Government. It also means that if the CCA is not established by Government, is established in an unfair and ineffective way, or if its recommendations/decisions are ignored, then we can consider – along with this broad support base – how civil society can establish the CCA and ensure its decisions are binding and acted on.