Some thoughts on Citizens Assemblies

The Scottish Government has opted for using a Citizens Assembly as a means of addressing some of the complex issues around devolution and independence.  Citizens Assemblies have been proposed as a way of resolving lots of thorny issues, such as Brexit, social care and reviewing legislation.  I can see that some people are enthusiastic about the mechanism, but I’m agnostic.  There are lots of existing mechanisms by which complex issues can be discussed and reviewed in some depth: there are inquiries, commissions, Royal Commissions.  There are reservations to make about them all, but I’m not convinced that  a Citizens Assembly can resolve the issues in a way that they can’t.

The first problem is the issue of capacity.  Commissions are commonly limited by the terms of reference they are given, their membership and the resources they can command.  The process matters, too; I’ve been critical of inquiries led by lawyers, whose training is not necessarily appropriate to the exploration and synthesis of complex issues where a selection needs to be made.

The second concerns the validity of the positions that people come to.  Any worthwhile inquiry will draw on a range of evidence, including both primary evidence and information from experts, and Citizens Assemblies can do this, too. Some commissions are led by experts; some aren’t. The expertise of a commission is no guarantee that they will get the judgements right, and there are certainly plenty of commissions who might be said to have gone off-track.  (For example, there are still many people in Scotland who commend the Christie Commission on public services, which I think got things radically wrong.)   I’ve served as adviser to a couple of parliamentary committees, and found that they were able to address issues in remarkable depth simply because they were able to draw on submissions and testimony from a wide range of witnesses, often completing work that compares well with academic research in much less time.

There may be a specific problem with the decision-making process in Citizens Assemblies, reflecting the large number of people involved. Group thinking is vulnerable to a tendency to conformity, potentially reflecting the vocal representations of a minority.  There is also potentially the phenomenon which psychologists refer to as a ‘shift to risk’, where groups will take collectively decisions that are riskier than any of the individuals in that group would accept.

Third, there is the question of ownership.  Inquiries that take a short time are often treated as if they were doing the bidding of particular political masters; inquiries that take a longer time are then abandoned by their political successors. People who agree with the conclusions will support the recommendations; people who disagree will say that the process was not representative, or not authoritative, or that conditions have changed.The Northern Ireland Citizens Assembly has struggled to have an impact in the absence of active political representation in the province.  One has to ask about Citizen’s Assemblies whether they will have more authority, or carry more commitment, than any other mechanism, and it is not clear they will.

An apology: something strange happened when I posted this entry, and what was posted was not the entry I’d finished, but an early draft.  This full version had to be reconstructed, because there was no trace left of all of the work I’d done on it.

One thought on “Some thoughts on Citizens Assemblies”

  1. Independence, i.e. taking responsibility for all aspects of our national governance, is a political choice based on belief. It can be rationalised in many ways but it is ultimately a matter of personal view. I cannot see how any Citizens Assembly will achieve any more than a badly run “Question Time” debate. There is no right or wrong in this; it is a political choice and there is inevitable conflict. More generally, we are governed badly and it is hard to see how this is going to be sorted. Few politicians seem to be interested in facts which don’t support their views. Nobody is listening to reason, which is of course depressing for academic researchers!

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