Dr Susan Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath.
Effective campaigning by activists such as Extinction Rebellion and Youth4Climate Strikers has led a number of municipalities, town and district councils to declare climate emergencies. Among Extinction Rebellion’s demands is that of using Citizens’ Assemblies to develop policy responses. Oxford City Council is the first to have declared its intention to involve a Citizens' Assembly in making “final decisions on adoption of carbon abatement measures and targets”.
Citizens' Assemblies are a way of engaging the public in a deliberative discussion of difficult issues through a process that offers potential for well-considered recommendations. Typically, they involve a stratified random sample of between 50 and 150 members of the public who engage in a carefully structured exercise of learning and consultation with experts, followed by deliberation and decision making.
National level use of a Citizens' Assembly for climate change policy was pioneered by Ireland, during its Citizens' Assembly held 2016-18. This considered five major issues, one of which was abortion (which led to the successful referendum) and two weekends were spent addressing climate change. Its ambitious set of 13 main recommendations (with over 80% agreement) were unsurprisingly broad, ranging from: the State should take a leading role in mitigation measures; to setting up an independent body to be given legal powers to address climate change; and willingness to pay higher carbon taxes. These offer the basis for a significant shift in Government policy-making.[i] The Irish Climate Action Committee was set up to respond and has recently produced 42 policy recommendations with the primary one being the need for a new governance structure, and a stronger mandate for setting carbon budgets.
So what do Local Authorities thinking of adopting Citizens' Assemblies as a means to take policy forward need to consider? What are the potential benefits and challenges?
The benefits Citizens' Assemblies offer are that they are:
- A means to get beyond the potential grid-lock of everyday politics - one of the key reasons for Extinction Rebellion promoting them.
- A means to expand beyond green groups and self-selected interested parties in debating policy development for controversial issues raised by the climate emergency.
- Potential for public credibility of the recommendations and subsequent decisions made.
- They can be used to engage poor and marginalized people with the issues by ensuring they are represented.[ii]
- They can engage and generate “other regarding” perspectives which in particular can extend to future generations and the non-human world.[iii]
The first set of challenges concerns the form of deliberation itself. Citizens' Assemblies can be assessed on three criteria: authenticity, inclusivity and whether or not the deliberation has consequences.[iv] Experiences of Citizens' Assemblies and Juries have established excellent practice in ensuring authenticity through careful listening, respectful discussion and enabling reflection on political preferences. Inclusivity is intended to be addressed by random sampling stratified by area, gender, age, education and potentially other socio-demographic and economic criteria. However, minorities can still be under-represented - not least because they may be less likely to respond to formal invitations, so very careful management is needed. Additionally, inclusivity must be practised in the style of discussion ensuring proceedings allow for a pluralism of speech cultures that might contrast with conventional understandings of dispassionate argument. [v]
A further critical issue regards what the consequences of their recommendations will be. There could be a priori commitment by the Local Authority that the recommendations will be adopted if they are agreed by a super-majority (which might be set as high as 80%). This has been done in the case of Citizens' Assemblies in Gdansk, and for Citizens' Assemblies on electoral reforms in two Canadian Provinces. This is a critical issue because if recommendations have little impact on council policy, then the potential for their future use will be quickly undermined, and repeated use will quickly erode credibility.
A second set of concerns is the questions for deliberation. This could be as wide as “How can Bristol respond to climate change in order to achieve net zero emissions by 2030?” , and while offering scope for ambitious and aspirational recommendations, they increase the risk of disaffection with the process if they are not followed through. Alternatively, topics can be narrower such as proposals for specific transport infrastructure, and the introduction of mass transit schemes and detailed options for routes. Gerwin[vi] argues from the Gdansk experience, that topics should have technical solutions but the issue should concern the values and intentions of citizens in determining the way forward. At this level Citizens' Assemblies will be undermined if questions posed largely reflect Local Authority decisions already made.
Further challenges involve resource allocation and communication with the public. Investing the resources of time and money for preparation, implementation and effective facilitation is vital. Poor implementation risks greater disaffection with local democratic systems.[vii] However, this in turn risks criticism of the funding required in a time of continuing budget cuts. They may save funds used to consult in other ways, but how they complement or substitute for existing systems of citizen engagement needs careful consideration. Experts recommend that those not involved directly must also have avenues for expressing their views. [viii]
Additionally, the actual purpose and functioning of Citizens' Assemblies needs to be communicated very effectively to the public in order that they are seen as a legitimate modality through which Local Authorities engage citizens in decision making. This appears to be a weakly understood aspect of experience to date – in part because few have actually been run in relation to formal decision making systems.
[i] Foley, E. (2019). How Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly helped Climate Action.
[ii] Dryzek, J. S., & Niemeyer, S. (2019). Deliberative democracy and climate governance. Nature Human Behaviour. doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0591-9
[iv] Dryzek, J. S. (2009). Democratization as Deliberative Capacity Building. Comparative Political Studies, 42(11), 1379-1402. doi:10.1177/0010414009332129
[v] Curato, N., Dryzek, J. S., Ercan, S. A., Hendriks, C. M., & Niemeyer, S. (2017). Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research. Daedalus, 146(3), 23-38.
[vi] Gerwin, M. (2018). Citizens' Assemblies: Guide to democracy that works. www.citizensassemblies.org: Open Plan Foundation.
[vii] Flinders, M., Ghose, K., Jennings, W., Molloy, E., Prosser, B., Renwick, A., . . . Spada, P. (2016). Democracy Matters: Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution. London: Electoral Reform Society.
[viii] Prosser, B., Renwick, A., Giovannini, A., Sandford, M., Flinders, M., Jennings, W., . . . Ghose, K. (2017). Citizen participation and changing governance: cases of devolution in England. Policy & Politics, 45(2), 251-269. doi:10.1332/030557317X14895974141213