15 October 2019

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.

A co-design approach to citizen engagement

Citizen assemblies are one way for government bodies to bring citizens closer to decision-making, but there’s lots of room for innovation in how we go about engaging people. Over the last year, we’ve been working with Camden Council to pilot something slightly different. Called a Neighbourhood Assembly, the process engages a smaller group of residents over a longer period of time. With the Camden Neighbourhood Assembly, we’re looking to develop ideas that will improve health and wellbeing in the local area.

Five people gather around a wall of post-it notes.

This approach blends deliberative democracy and co-design approaches. Assembly members are exploring the evidence around health and wellbeing challenges, conducting research within their networks, then developing and testing ideas for change. They’ve been engaging local organisations, services and council staff in the process and using Camden’s digital consultation platform — We are Camden — to bring other voices into the room.

A woman prototypes an idea on a piece of paper

What’s particularly different with this approach is the output won’t just be a list of recommendations for the council to deliver. The ideas, focusing on social isolation and mental health, build on what’s already going on locally and will require a combination of the council, community partners and residents to make them a success. We’re not just working together to create ideas, but continuously working together to make sure they’re delivered the right way.

FutureGov design session

The co-design approach and a flexible membership base separates the Neighbourhood Assembly from a traditional citizens’ assembly but works well for the participants and for the council. This is just one example of different ways to bring residents and government bodies closer to solve some of the most pressing issues within their own community. Participants are able to shape both the process and the recommendations coming out of the assembly. The council benefits from an engaged group of citizens and new ways to solve major issues, while also getting a fresh perspective on services and organisations they know inside and out.

Why engage people?

Citizen’s assemblies are so hot right now. They’re being convened at various levels of government all over the world, and this is a good thing! Assemblies integrate more people in the decision-making parts of our government, involving people with lived experiences whose voices often aren’t heard in the decision-making processes. Assembly members are more representative of the communities they serve and usually look very different than the people traditionally elected.

Citizens’ assemblies are also a way to bolster the strength of democratic systems and demonstrate a new way of working alongside existing governments. In our minds, assemblies aren’t convened to replace existing government bodies. Instead, they work alongside or feed into these bodies to provide a citizen perspective on issues. Their opinions and feedback should be valued and recognised throughout any decision making process they feed into.

As populism grows, the need to bolster democracy becomes more and more urgent. Citizens’ assemblies, neighbourhood assemblies and other participatory processes are one way we can work to protect our systems. Interested in convening your own participatory process?

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