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Spotlight Exploring the cultural trends and issues impacting society today CITIZENS ASSEMBLIES Weighing it up Recovering from a global pandemic could be the ideal moment for a citizens conversation. Jane Simms explores the rise of citizens assemblies and the future of deliberation Among the reading matter for MPs to peruse over the summer whether or not their traditional recess is cancelled will be the final report from Climate Assembly UK (CAUK), the national citizens assembly that began in a Birmingham hotel in January and culminated, under lockdown, in participants homes in May. Commissioned by six House of Commons select committees, and run by public participation charity Involve, the assembly sought to address how the UK could best achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. The climate assembly was high profile environmentalist David Attenborough attended its first session and its 110 participants were highly engaged. Yet, for all the time and investment that went into it, its success will be judged, ultimately, on whether the government acts on its findings. At the time of writing, we dont know whether the report will even be debated in parliament. Citizens assemblies involve a representative sample of people deliberating and reflecting on complex or sensitive issues, gathering and evaluating information, in a series of concentrated sessions that are informed by experts and facilitated by unbiased moderators. The idea is to deepen democracy, give citizens a say in how they are governed, and build understanding among politicians about the trade-offs people are prepared to make which, in turn, informs and gives credibility to policy decisions. 14 CAUK is one of several citizens assemblies springing up around Europe. Much of the new interest stems from the success of an assembly in Ireland, which ushered in changes including same-sex marriage and abortion contentious issues that had proved impossible for government on its own to resolve. Although they seem like the public engagement tool du jour, citizens assemblies are not new. Some of the core tenets including deliberative democracy hail from ancient Athens: in 431BC the Greek statesman Pericles judged that [public discussion] is an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Basic principles The notion that everyday citizens should participate in public decision-making was revived in the early 1970s by American Ned Crosby and German Peter Dienel, who created independently of each other the citizens jury process and planning cells respectively. They only found out about each others work 14 years later, and became lifelong friends and collaborators. While the basic principles remain sacrosanct such as representative samples, neutral moderation, small group discussion, and the time and environment to deliberate properly both approaches have evolved over the years. For example, the Nexus Institute, run by Dienels son Hans-Liudger Dienel, now uses the internet to broaden public awareness and understanding of the process. The UK is a latecomer to the most recent iteration of the citizens assembly party because, suggests Viki Cooke, founding partner of international insight and strategy consultancy BritainThinks, of culture and political commitment its a long time in this country since national policy issues were looked at through this lens. But it seems like an idea whose time has come. Polly Mackenzie, chief executive of cross-party think tank Demos, says: Many of the big challenges we are facing are not simplistically responsive to a single expert answer: what matters is what we can agree on. Whats more, citizens assembly advocates could be pushing at an open door. In its manifesto, the Conservative party pledged to establish a constitution, democracy and rights commission, to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. However, some researchers who have been using deliberative tools and techniques with national and local government clients for many years, are concerned that some of the new purveyors of deliberative democracy are trying to prescribe and even brand tools and methodologies that should, arguably, be part of a generic approach. A focus on the means rather than the end risks the very democracy, empowerment and participation that deliberative approaches should be fostering, says independent consultant and MRS fellow Paul Vittles. The methodology should serve the process, not drive it. Vittles says that a healthy democracy needs both wide participation and deep deliberation, and that online forums can complement traditional face-to-face interaction something the fundamentalists in the deliberative democracy wave, as he calls them, resisted until Covid-19 forced them to change. He points out that Climate