Citizens assemble! Involving local people in shaping climate action in your area

05 August 2019

Citizens assemble! Involving local people in shaping climate action in your area

Across the country, local authorities are declaring climate emergencies. And having declared an emergency, local people may well ask ‘what now?’ Extinction Rebellion are calling for government to establish a UK citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis, but it is local government who are taking the initiative with some councils starting to explore how to set up their own.

Whilst lots of councils have resident panels they use to consult about various issues, citizens assemblies remain unknown territory to most. And yet they present a huge opportunity for radically changing the way we involve people in decision-making, beyond traditional consultations and engagement processes.

In Ireland, citizens’ assemblies have been used on issues including the referendum on abortion, and in the UK on issues including adult social care funding. But could they also become a vehicle for a new kind of deliberative democracy in our towns, cities and counties? If your council is keen to engage local people in the climate change debate – or another complex issue – through a citizens’ assembly, here are some things to think about.

 A citizens’ assembly should:

  • Be representative: participants are chosen randomly and then selected based on a range of criteria so that the membership reflects the local population in terms of things such as gender, age, ethnicity and socio-economic profile. The sampling framework may also take into account people’s views on climate change and related issues, so that you don’t accidentally end up with a set of people weirdly skewed towards a particular viewpoint on the key issue. A citizens’ assembly in a single local authority area could involve 50-100 people – if it’s smaller than that it’s hard to ensure that diverse views are heard.
  • Make complex issues accessible: the value of a deliberative exercise like a citizens’ assembly is that it moves beyond shallow or knee-jerk reactions. Through giving participants information about a topic and requiring them to think about tensions and trade-offs, the idea is that people from any background and with any level of prior knowledge can make meaningful contributions to the discussion. This can involve them reviewing materials, examining evidence, hearing from expert witnesses and discussing different scenarios.
  • Maintain independence and objectivity: the integrity of the process is crucial. In what can be a highly sensitive context, being able to demonstrate independence and objectivity will be essential if decision-makers – and the wider public – are to trust the credibility of the process and its outputs. An advisory group made up of stakeholders can be helpful in overseeing the way an independent provider goes about their work.
  • Enable practical recommendations to be agreed: having first gathered information about the issue, then discussed it, the group will need to draw some conclusions that point towards a set of recommendations to decision-makers. The practical focus of the process means that discussions will ideally lead to a consensus, but it’s important not to engineer a consensus that doesn’t exist – and sometimes it will conclude with different views advocating different responses.   

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From the deliberative engagement processes that we have designed and run, we have seen again and again the capacity of complete strangers to come together, engage with a range of information, discuss their views and make collective decisions as a result. We have also seen how the format of the sessions themselves can empower and energise people so that they leave not only knowing more about a complex topic but feeling excited to have been so deeply involved in a discursive process.

As such, this new generation of C.A.s set up around climate change could give our public bodies an important testing ground for exploring how more inclusive, active, deliberative democracy can work across a range of issues. They may also give their participants an appetite for being more involved and more vocal around issues in their communities.

 

Is a citizens’ assembly enough?

C.A.s can become the centrepiece of citizen engagement on important topics, but they don’t need to exist in isolation. There will be people who want to get involved but who – because of the random selection process – won’t be part of the assembly. Those people need to understand the rationale for the C.A. and the idea that it has to be a random sample to have validity, but they could also be given space to contribute through some open invitation public workshops, or an online forum, for instance.

There might also be specific groups of people who are relatively small in number as a proportion of the population whose voices you want to amplify through other forums. This could involve running some additional engagement events with these groups, through existing networks and organisations.

 

How we can help

Traverse works across public services, locally and nationally, to help organisations involve their citizens and service users in how decisions are made. Running panels and forums, open events and workshops with seldom heard groups, we’re experienced in bringing a diverse range of voices into the debate.

We’re used to working on complex topics where the key challenge is making the issues accessible; on highly sensitive topics where there are high levels of scrutiny and stakeholders with strong views; and on projects where advisory groups work closely with us to co-design the approach.

Our experience means that we understand the challenges and potential pitfalls – from recruitment to venue layout to agenda-setting – and we also know the importance of designing materials that bring topics to life.

So, if you’d like some help thinking about a new citizens assembly in your area, or in discussing other options for engaging people on important issues, get in touch.

 

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