Citizen's Assemblies are currently all the range. Local authorities are applying the Citizen Assembly format from everything between future transport and climate change. And everyone involved in participatory democracy is selling how they can do assemblies better than others.
For those of you who don't know what Citizen's Assemblies are, they are a group of citizens brought together to debate a major issue, take evidence from experts, and devise recommendations based on the evidence. These recomendations can be accepted by national and local government, depending on how the Assembly is constituted.
There are many reasons why such a participatory approach is attractive. Citizens get the opportunity to really debate the issue at hand, and come to some reasoned conclusions based on evidence. It is a highly participatory process, though it is also a complex and sometimes expensive one to administer.
We highly recommend Citizen's Assemblies because they are incredibly engaging, and the people who take part get a lot out of it. And they can ensure that there are a wide range of opinions represented in policy making. But they are not without their challenges. As well as the obvious ones (time, cost, and representativeness), there are many other hidden traps in organising such assemblies that you must be aware of.
Diversity of experts
As much as the assembly itself must be diverse, so should those who present evidence. We don't necessarily mean diversity in terms of gender and ethnicity (though these are important), but a diversity of views on the matter being discussed.
Ensuring this diversity of view really depends on the matter at hand, and requires organisers having a good grasp of these diversity of views. For example, an assembly looking at transport improvements across a town will want to hear evidence from sustainable transport advocates and academics as much as it does from local road hauliers and taxi companies.
This diversity should ideally be driven by the assembly itself, informed by the balance of the wider evidence as advised by experts (and this advice be documented). For climate change, for example, those who are skeptical need not be excluded completely, but the balance of experts should represent the scientific view.
Evidence the evidence
The assemblies will hear a lot of evidence, and will need to take on and debate a lot. This is not an easy process to go through, and developing recommendations based on this evidence is difficult. But just as much as the experts should present the evidence for their view, the assembly must - in delivering their final verdict - evidence theirs.
We have been part of many workshops and assemblies where the recommendations presented are as much 'a feel of the room' as opposed to something that is backed by the evidence presented. There is nothing wrong with that, so long as when reporting the findings that is made clear to anyone reviewing the decision. Assemblies should be guided by the evidence presented, but that does not mean that it cannot take its own view. So long as it is clear on that.
Similarly, where recommendations are backed by the evidence presented, assemblies should not just assume that those outside will be able to connect the dots themselves. Make the links between the evidence and the recommendations clear, and it makes them more robust.
Don't have a self-selecting process
We understand. You don't know everyone, and recruiting people to be part of the Citizen's Assembly is really, really hard. Just putting a shout out on the website is really tempting as a way of saving time. Don't do it.
Take the time to be more careful in how you invite people to be part of your Assembly. Many public sector organisations have access to datasets that segment their population according to particular characteristics, such as MOSAIC. Put those subscriptions to good use to target your invitations.
Do these targetted campaigns and mailshots first, before extending the invitation wider. This way, you lessen the challenge posed to you that those who took part are not representative of the area that you serve.
As with all engagement exercise, done well, Citizens Assemblies are empowering and engaging. But a lot can go wrong in organising them. And hopefully by highlighting these few hidden dangers, you can go into your next assembly prepared to have a great time.