Citizens’ Assemblies are fundamentally an innovative structure for engaging with the public that are characterised by two key features that differentiate them from our more well-established ways of involving the public in the work of government:
First, the participants are randomly selected to be broadly representative of the population at large (i.e. this is not about hearing from the ‘usual suspects’, the ‘loudest voices’ or the organised groups that exist to represent different interests); and
Second, they are taken through a structured process of learning, dialogue and deliberation before being asked for their opinions – ensuring that the final outcomes are the product of informed consideration and a process of public reasoning.
And as such, this is not just something new for Scotland, but something that needs to be seen as a crucial part of embedding a wider participatory agenda into the way we do government in Scotland.
This focus on participation is something that was firmly established in the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament from the outset and successive governments have looked for ways of giving the Scottish public opportunities to play a more active and involved role in influencing the decisions that affect their lives, their communities and their futures.
The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland is an opportunity to realise this ambition in a bold and decisive way. At the same time, it will position Scotland at the forefront internationally in terms of how innovative, inclusive and participatory democracy is understood and realised in practice.
Deliberative democratic innovations, like Citizens’ Assemblies, are gaining traction in the UK, and across Europe at present. Many of you will have seen in recent months that there have been numerous calls from politicians (from all parties), the media and civil society organisations for Citizens’ Assemblies to take place across the UK on a wide range of issues from Brexit to our approach to criminal justice and climate change.
In part, this demand has been driven by an increasing sense that the public are disconnected from decision making in the UK, giving rise to a lack of trust in politicians, and political institutions, to really serve the best interests of the public.
In contrast, the potential of deliberative processes like Citizens’ Assemblies has been held up as being to challenge this disconnect by giving ordinary members of the public an opportunity to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives, their communities and their futures in an informed and considered way. This has been picked up by many as a way of helping get our existing political institutions ‘back on track’ with the will of the public as a whole.
Deliberative democratic innovations like Citizens’ Assemblies, however, are not about challenging, or seeking to replace, our current systems of representative democracy – indeed across most western democracies where models like this have been adopted and used it is clear that they serve an advisory function only.
Instead, they seek to complement representative democracy structures by giving elected decision makers access to a different type of information and understanding of public opinion than might otherwise be available to them – i.e. the informed and considered views of a broadly representative cross section of the public who have had the opportunity to go through a process of learning, dialogue and deliberation on an issue before coming to a conclusion.
The word ‘dialogue’ is particularly important here. Dialogue is, intrinsically, a collaborative process of shared inquiry and, unlike patterns of debate which tend to entrench established points of view, allows people to expand their understandings and explore and discover common ground. Establishing ‘dialogue’ between people therefore is not simply about creating space for people to talk with each other but is instead about putting in place the conditions that enable conversations explicitly focused on building an understanding of different points of view.
When space and time is given to developing meaningful dialogue between a diverse group of people, the potential for them to discover aspects of ‘common ground’ is increased. Further, in something like a Citizens’ Assembly, it enables members to enter into the deliberation stage with a wider appreciation of what is important to others and why.
This foundation, in turn, supports the members to engage in effective deliberation – weighing options and making choices together in order to deliver (hopefully) a win / win situation – but if not, at least an outcome that everyone involved will accept as fair, informed, considered… and something that they all can ‘live with’.
When the First Minister announced, in April 2109, that government was to convene a Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland she made clear that this new initiative was about embracing a new approach by government to understanding the people of Scotland’s ambitions for their country.
- She established 3 broad questions for the Assembly to address:
- What kind of country are we seeking to build?
- How best can we 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 us the information we need to make informed choices about the future of the country?
This remit not only establishes the Citizens’ Assembly as a forum for having the, admittedly, potentially difficult and divisive conversations that are needed about Scotland’s future, but demonstrates a high degree of trust in the ability of the people to have a mature, informed and considered conversation about the future of Scotland.
First of all, the Assembly is taking place against the backdrop of significant uncertainty about Scotland’s place in the world, including our relationships with our near neighbours in the UK and our wider partners in the EU. IN particular:
We don’t know for certain yet whether we will remain in or leave the EU and, if we do leave the EU, when we will do so and on what terms.
The Scottish Government has made clear its intention to hold a further independence referendum and, most recently, the Programme of Government said that it intends to refresh the propositions set out in the previous White Paper.
The upheaval at Westminster further demonstrates the uncertain outlook for our constitution and our politics.
This backdrop matters. There is no doubting that different constitutional journeys will have a profound impact upon the lives of citizens. There will be choices to be made – certainly in elections and possibly in further referendums on EU membership or independence.
Not one answer
The conveners of the Citizens’ Assembly are very clear that our remit does not extend to making these choices for people; so, anyone who looks to the Assembly to validate a particular constitutional outcome is, I’m afraid, going to be disappointed. It would not be possible to take the range of evidence and undertake the deliberation required to work through any, let alone, all, of those constitutional choices and come to conclusions that meet the quality standards required and which could realistically be agreed and seen to have been reached fairly by Assembly members.
That said, the Assembly can help people to think through what they need to know when faced with such big choices and to set expectations about how citizens are supported to take decisions. It can help them explore how different constitutional changes might impact in real life and to answer the question set in our remit on ‘what information people need in order to be able to make choices about the future’.
Not everyone would agree – and they are entitled to that view – but I come to the Assembly firmly of the view that the constitution is instrumental; it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I don’t doubt the importance of matters about how we are governed and how decisions are taken, but it is the test of any arrangements in the real world in enabling the best possible outcomes for people that matters most to me; outcomes that are fair, that meet our needs now and into the future, and help us give of our best to each other and to the world.
So, the Assembly will not dwell upon these constitutional issues, but will consider them in the context of the state of the nation and the outlook for the future. That will include presenting people with evidence, including the facts and figures presented in a balanced and accessible way, free from bias and spin, so that we develop a shared understanding of where we are and the opportunities and challenges ahead of us.
And, while the Citizens’ Assembly will be producing a report for government as a result of its deliberations on these topics, ultimately it is there to produce recommendation for activity on how people are supported, including the information they need to make informed and reasoned decisions when they are making choices about Scotland’s future.
The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland is the biggest, most ambitious example of a Citizens’ Assembly held in the UK to date – both in terms of the number of members and the fact that it will be meeting over six weekends between now and the end of April.
Citizens’ Assemblies are not experimental!
Their value to political decision making has clearly been demonstrated time and time again:
The Citizens’ Assembly of Ireland, for example, which brought together 100 people to explore five topics over 18 months –
- the repeal of 8th amendment (where their recommendations led to a referendum to change abortion law);
- The challenges and opportunities of an ageing population;
- making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change;
- the manner in which referenda are held; and
- fixed term parliaments.
The experience in Ireland has shown us that people are willing to give over significant amounts of their time, and engage constructively with complex and contested issues, when they see the issue as being of national importance.
For the Citizens Assembly of Scotland, however, while drawing on international good practice, we are developing a model that is distinctly Scottish – one that is responding directly to our own unique history, culture and context.
To do this we are drawing on seven key principles agreed to guide all aspects of the Assembly’s development and operations:
- Independence from government
- Cumulative learning
Independence from Government
An assurance of the Citizens’ Assembly’s independence from government was a key condition upon which Kate and I have taken on the role of co-conveners.
The Memorandum of Understanding that we have signed with Ministers ensures that we are able to pursue this role free from interference and intervention from government and gives us the freedom to deliver on the remit entrusted to us in the way that we see fit.
Our role as conveners is one of:
Stewarding the Assembly, by that I mean overseeing the planning arrangements in order that the Assembly delivers its remit and members are supported.
Convening meetings of the Assembly: by hosting and contributing to the meetings;
Representing the Assembly – by being a voice for the membership of the Assembly in the media and bringing the work of the Assembly to the attention to the wider Scottish public.
To further ensure we can do this the government has provided us with the support of an impartial secretariat. This Secretariat, staffed largely by civil servants seconded into this role, will take direction from us throughout the life of the assembly, rather than from Ministers. I am delighted that Ian Davidson, a deputy director with the Scottish Government, has taken on the task of leading this team and Ian is here tonight and I’m sure will be able to answer any difficult questions!
The independence of the Assembly is also being further assured by the appointment of independent contractors to recruit the assembly members (and I’ll come back to that shortly) and an independent design team and facilitation team who will work with Kate and myself to plan and deliver the Assembly meetings.
Transparency: at all levels of the operation of the Assembly, from the framing of the questions, to the selection of members and expert witnesses, through to proactive publication and live-streaming of deliberative sessions and clarity about what the outputs will be used for.
We have used geography, age, gender, ethnic origin, educational qualifications, limiting long term conditions to ensure the Assembly Members reflect Scotland as a whole. We had a more difficult decision to make on what we should do about voting intentions. Should we assume that any microcosm would automatically reflect political attitudes or should we specifically build this in?
Voting intentions with regard to…
Scottish Parliament: SNP, 30%; Scottish Conservative, 18%; Scottish Labour, 16%; Scottish Liberal Democrat, 6%; Greens, 4%; Other, 4%; Don’t know/ Undecided, 11%; Would not vote, 11%.
EU membership: Remain in EU, 56%; Leave EU, 30%; Don’t know/ Undecided, 6%; Would not vote, 8%.
Scottish independence: Yes – in favour of independence, 40%; No – opposed to independence, 45%; Don’t know/ Undecided, 6%; Would not vote, 9%.
In the end we decided to build in three political criteria based on voting intentions, attitudes to EU membership and Scottish Independence. You can see the percentages that we went for. How we did this was that we went back over 12 months of opinion polls. And so rather than take one snapshot we took a series of opinion polls over year. Some people looking at these pie charts, might think that SNP at 30% is way below where they are in the current opinion polls but as I say that was based on the last year. Some might say that support for independence is even higher than on the last pie chart but again because we didn’t just decide to take a snapshot but a long-term perspective, these are the figures that we came up with.
Age: 16-19, 21%; 30-44, 23%; 45-59%, 26%; 60-74, 20%; 75+, 10%.
Gender: Male, 48%; Female, 52%.
Ethnic Origin. White: Scottish, 77%; White: British, 12%; White: Other, 7%; All other ethnic groups, 4%.
Qualifications: Don’t know, 1%; No qualifications, 16%; Level 1-3 (Standard Grade, Higher), 52%; Level 4 (Degree), 31%.
Limiting long-term conditions. Has limiting condition, 24%; No limiting condition, 76%
Having gone though all these criteria, when we sent the team out to recruit people I have to say I was very worried that we’d end up ticking enough boxes that to tick all the remaining boxes we would need to find a Shetland Islander, without a degree, who planned to vote Conservative but was in favour of Independence and staying in the EU. Fortunately, that did not turn out to be the case. The good news is that we think we will soon be able to announce that the make-up of the Assembly is going to be very close to the mini public we set out to recruit.
I hope at the end of the Citizens’ Assembly process we have a better idea of the aspirations and the real concerns of the Scottish people and more clarity on the obstacles to dealing with them. At the end of the process the Members do not necessarily have to agree but I hope they will have more clarity on what it is they are agreeing or disagreeing about.
Edited/abridged version of the inaugural lecture given by David Martin, co-convenor of the Scottish Citizens’ Assembly, as Professor for Policy Scotland at the University of Glasgow