The public is ready for citizens' assemblies – civil servants should embrace this

Deliberative democracy will allow us to harness the collective intelligence of millions of citizens, not just depend on a handful of politicians and civil servants
Climate protestors call for citizens' assemblies in the UK. Photo: NurPhotoSRL/Alamy

By Peter Baeck

23 Feb 2024

Despite the UK being one of the world’s oldest democracies, we’re sometimes surprisingly resistant to the idea of introducing more democracy.

This week Sue Gray, Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, revealed that Labour are working on plans to bring in citizens' assemblies. For participation advocates like myself, this was good - if long overdue - news, not groundbreaking but a welcome development. But the kickback began almost instantly.

‘Citizen’s assemblies are a terrible idea’ opined The Spectator, Telegraph columnists sniped at their ‘stupidity’ – as did a member of Labour’s NEC – while a Times columnist called for Swiss style referendums instead and a Conservative MP fumed that decision taking was what MPs were elected to do, effectively branding assemblies a shirker’s charter for workshy politicians.

But there’s bad news for doubters - the public are keen to get involved and are not so happy at being left out of big national decisions.

People want their say – beyond just elections

At Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design, we’ve been researching the public’s view on participation for years, not just in the UK but across Europe, and the public’s attitudes are pretty consistent.

A recent survey by CCID  found that only one in eight people thought the UK government had done a good job of involving citizens in making decisions on how climate change is tackled. Unsurprisingly therefore, people thought politicians couldn’t be trusted to take care of this on their own: 72% of UK adults, including two thirds of Conservative voters (68%), said it was important that they were given a say in how to transition to net-zero. The recent populist tussles over climate strategies, such as ULEZ or 15 min cities are a good example where deliberative democracy could do a better job of steering us through sticky issues.

Shifting power means shifting culture

But public enthusiasm and effective deliberative mechanisms are only some of the essential components. Successful participative democracy also relies on respect, interest and understanding within local, national and UK government, from civil servants as well as elected politicians.

As a former senior civil servant, Gray was not blasé about the scale of the culture shift required, stating bluntly that “Whitehall will not like this because they have no control”.

But civil servants should embrace this because devolving policy making in this way is a chance to change the way government works for the better – so it understands problems more accurately, develops better solutions, and more keenly appreciates the trade-offs, consequences and downsides.

If the concern is that civil servants won’t have control over the process (i.e. they are worried that things will go wrong and they won’t be able to do anything about it) the starting point should be to understand their fears and concerns, and create a strategy and culture within government that understands the benefits of participation and ensures civil servants have the resources and skills to do it well.

Create a participation service

A government that truly understood the transformative potential of participation could bring citizen’s assemblies, and the many other deliberative methods available, together in a cross-departmental unit - the Citizen Participation Service.

By establishing a centralised centre of excellence for citizen participation in government – drawing inspiration from the original vision and ethos of the Government Digital Service – citizen democracy could be embedded across all departments, as a fundamental part of the policy and decision-making process.

Like the initial aims for GDS, it would help with setting strategy, standards and oversight for participation. It would build, maintain and improve cross-government platforms and develop innovative digital tools and offline approaches for public participation on priority policy areas, such as net zero and climate adaptation or housing.

Though there are lighter touch options such as a Public Participation Secretariat or arms-length Citizen Councils, a fully realised Citizen Participation Service would be a deep and fundamental boost to democratic decision-making in the UK.

Beyond Citizen Assemblies

It’s important to understand that no participatory activity works in a vacuum.

What happens before and after an assembly, for example, is just as important as the assembly itself. Who helps frame and set the agenda? Is there a real mandate and accompanying resources? Are there processes to follow through on the proposals and ideas from citizens and join them up with the rest of the policy making process?

A Citizen Participation Service would help ensure that deliberative mechanisms sync with existing decision-making processes and change mechanisms that improve how public services are delivered – with so many to choose from, there is a participatory model for all parts of the policy making process, and there is a public appetite to match.

When we asked people how they would like to engage in Net Zero, between 43% and 60% said they were likely to participate in approaches ranging from participatory budgeting and citizen science to citizens' assemblies.

Whilst citizens' assemblies shouldn’t become the default solution to all participation challenges, it would be understandable if Labour decided to start with a focus on this approach. That said, there are still decisions to be made to ensure that proposals developed by assembly participants have impact and the trust of the wider public. Would for example, a Labour government ever commit to putting proposals from an assembly to a referendum as was the case with Ireland’s Citizen Assemblies? 

If a future government was really ambitious for citizens' assemblies they could even move past specific one off assemblies (often defined by politicians) and create a standing citizen assembly that operates like a third chamber. Here they can draw inspiration from Belgium, where five years ago the Ostbelgien regional government set up a permanent Citizens Council and Citizens' Assembly. They leave the agenda completely in the hands of participating citizens and politicians have no control over the issues discussed. The assembly has so far covered topics ranging from immigrant integration to housing and healthcare.

Citizen democracy is radical, but not new

Whilst some of these ideas might sound radical, there is already a long international track record of citizen democracy, from Taiwan’s division of participation officers to Barcelona City’s Office of Citizen Science and France’s Interministerial Center for Citizen Participation. Alongside established methods, technology is opening up new possibilities, for example AI-driven systems such as Polis, a tool which uses AI to identify community consensus and enable informed decision-making in large online groups.

Recognising citizen’s right to participate in the decision making that will shape their lives, neighbourhoods and futures – beyond simply deciding which person will be their MP, mayor or councillor – is long overdue in the UK. As the challenges ahead get increasingly complex with difficult trade-offs and profound changes – from climate change to social care funding –deliberative democracy will allow us to harness the collective intelligence of millions of citizens to find a way through, not just depend on the skills and abilities of a handful of politicians and civil servants. If we all have a stake in the future, surely it’s only fair that we all get to help decide how we get there.

Peter Baeck is director of Nesta's Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

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