I spoke on this topic at FutureGov’s #DesignForGov event earlier this month.
Governments are responsible for protecting and providing for the people they serve. But often, policymakers and legislators do their work behind closed doors, far away from the people on the receiving end of services and policies.
The growing separation between decision-maker and citizen means that policies and services don’t actually give people what they need. There are ways to address this growing divide, and one of those is participatory processes like citizens’ assemblies.
What is a citizens’ assembly?
A citizens’ assembly (also known as a citizen’s jury, mini-public, or a reference panel) is a demographically-representative group of people who come together to provide recommendations on a particular issue. Usually, this is to support a government or decision-making body and can be hosted to address many issues, from transportation to healthcare, electoral systems, firework usage, and European identity to name a few.
Though a citizens’ assembly tends to follow the same format of education and deliberation, there are lots of ways to customise it to fit your needs and the needs of your citizens. It could be formatted as a long engagement over several months, or concentrated over a few days. It could be offered in multiple languages, hosted in a government space or somewhere more neutral.
What’s crucial to its success is that the participants have a clear request or mandate to discuss.
Convening an assembly because it’s cool, or because a government wants to be seen doing “good public engagement”, does a disservice to the model. Convenors should be committed to taking the recommendations from their citizens into consideration and feeding back to those involved. If participants are not given a true voice and real power, the model becomes a highly organised focus group without any real purpose and fails.