Is there anything to be said for thinking about citizens’ assemblies?

Irish CC in actionNicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, recently promised to introduce a new Scottish independence referendum before the next Holyrood elections in 2021. That timeline is thought ambitious by many in Scotland, and for some her more significant announcement was that there would be a citizens’ assembly to debate “what kind of country are we seeking to build?”. Sturgeon’s proposed questions were: “How can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit? And what further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?”

That’s a lot to ask, but seemingly citizens’ assemblies are ready for anything. In Ireland, they have been suggested as a way to find solutions to climate change, the housing crisis, the health crisis and what to do about a Dublin mayor. Whatever the problem, advocates take a paraphrased line from Father Ted: “Is there anything to be said for another citizens’ assembly?”

As we see from Scotland, the idea is gaining support elsewhere. The UK’s inability to agree what sort of Brexit it wants has led a diverse group, from Damon Albarn, the lead singer of Blur, Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, The Guardian and several MPs to see a citizens’ assembly as a way to give coherence and legitimacy where none exists.

The demand is based on the apparent success of the Irish citizens’ assembly, which preceded last year’s referendum to remove the constitutional restrictions on abortion. The assembly was set up by the Irish government formed in May 2016 in part to deal with a problem of party politics. Few parties are ideologically coherent, and most in Ireland had divisions on the issue of abortion. An earlier attempt by Fine Gael to introduce a very limited reform of abortion law split the party. For years, the Irish political system was in a self-imposed state of paralysis. Few thought anything could be gained by facing up to the many challenges the restrictive abortion regime created.

So the citizens’ assembly helped solve a political problem. If politicians couldn’t agree on awkward questions such as abortion, they could outsource them. It involved 99 randomly selected citizens and a chairwoman, who over the course of many months considered moral, legal and medical aspects of the abortion question. The approach was deliberative, the information broad and accurate, and the tone inquisitive rather than inquisitorial.

This followed a similar exercise a few years earlier that led to the change in the law to allow same-sex marriage. Given that most outsiders still regard Ireland as a conservative Catholic country, these changes were remarkable and the process that led to them was naturally of interest. Some observers give the assemblies a degree of importance that they might not warrant.

Exit polls following the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 and the abortion referendum last year showed that attitudes to abortion were remarkably stable over the three years before the referendum, and only 1 per cent of respondents identified the recommendation of the citizens’ assembly as important to their decision. The assembly’s main impact was to demonstrate to cautious politicians that a more liberal abortion law was not something advocated only by human rights lawyers and feminists, but a reform that many people could support. The Oireachtas committee that considered the assembly’s recommendations was more remarkable given legislators’ willingness to shift their opinions.

These facts appear to have been lost in the post-referendum excitement by evangelists for citizens’ assemblies.

Even if it had been the case that the citizens’ assembly somehow helped to pave the way for the result, we should still be cautious in relying on these types of innovations.

The purpose of randomly selecting ordinary citizens is to create a body that reflects society. Ninety-nine is far too small a number to enable any realistic chance of it being truly representative. In Ireland there were problems in the recruitment process for the citizens’ assembly and constitutional convention, as some highly unlikely events happened, including a husband and wife being selected.

As part of a group that ran a pilot citizens’ assembly called We the Citizens, we discovered that recruitment is hard, because most normal people don’t want to give up their weekends to discuss arcane constitutional issues. Those who do will not be representative, and are much more likely to have strong opinions and interests. Some categories of people are then systematically unrepresented, including, for example, young mothers who will find it hard to come unless suitable childcare is provided. Increasing the size of an assembly, however, would reduce the possibility of real debate.

Another claimed benefit of citizens’ assemblies is that they are deliberative and neutral. This is harder to achieve than the evangelists assume. The need to produce politically sensible results was ever-present in the Irish constitutional convention. The chairperson is central to ruling some questions in and easing some lines of argument off the agenda. We discovered in that earlier pilot that the choice of experts is highly influential. People tend to follow the expert line, and if experts agree, the members are easily moved. The organisers of deliberative processes such as these frame the questions in ways that bring certain outcomes.

Indeed, the enthusiasm for the citizens’ assembly really only came about after the fact because those on one side of the argument got the result they wanted. Had it gone the other way, we might have seen more questions over its legitimacy. It was the conclusive nature of the result of the referendum, not the citizens’ assembly, that meant that the abortion issue was “settled”.

Scotland is announcing a citizens’ assembly in advance of a referendum. But it seems to want to give it a broad agenda to consider the ‘future of Scotland’. It would be better if it was tasked with a set question. In Ireland the assembly advised as to whether there should be a referendum or not. The details of the Scottish version will be announced later this month, but if the referendum is inevitable it is not clear what the goal of the assembly would be. If it is to unite a divided country in advance of a referendum, don’t expect it to work.

Originally published here.

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