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Citizens' Assemblies: Who Asks The Questions?

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Photo by Shelagh Murphy (Unsplash)

"It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen." Oliver Wendell Holmes

The sound of clacking keyboards increases by the day. Almost every think tank, every constitutional, legal and academic department in the UK and beyond is researching and holding panel discussions on citizens' assemblies.

One day, robust evidence will reveal how the Brexit process has impacted on perception and participation in politics in its widest sense. For now, there is no lack of suggestions about how to move forward. Citizens' assemblies have a romantic appeal - Question Time-plus events, where diverse views are given platform and expression, both painfully absent in the current civic system.

Any chosen model of CA has to operate within a pre-set legal framework. How, and for what purpose, individuals are selected for panels is the stuff of nightmares. Sortition, historically used for selecting officials for public office, might not sit well in a complex contemporary environment. Canada and Ireland, just two of some 50 countries considering or already implementing citizens' assemblies into the mainstream political process, are small nations. By contrast, India's Peace Assembly in 2010 is still considered a landmark event, galvanising an unprecedented number of young people. A large nation, but with strong regional administrations.

Crucially, who sets the agenda?

Questions and doubts emerge by the boatload. Why are sections of the population failing to engage in either party politics or public administration? Does the issue start at school? Is social media virtue signalling a cause or an effect? Where do the politically nervous, disinterested and disengaged go to participate in a safe opinion sharing forum when traditional community activities are absent? And, crucially, who sets the agenda?

Sheffield hosted a CA in 2015 on the subject of devolution and regional power, a small but significant event. Given the subsequent development and misgivings of the mayoral offices in the UK, it should have been much bigger.

Evidence from those participating in pilot CA events seems consistent on one point - that delegates are visibly changed by their interactions with fellow panel members. This melting pot of social groups is the stuff of research for years to come. The nearest approximation is the UK jury system, a system which is itself not without its shortcomings and which is under constant review.

Two common critiques across all CA models seem to be a.) the lack of clarity as to the structure in which they exist, and b.) what becomes of the outcome? If CAs just feed into a pre-existing, rigid, non-receptive vessel, any model is toothless.

Two organisations are at the heart of testing such questions. The Cornwall Citizen Assembly plan aims to hold the first post-Brexit CA. The second is DiEM25, the pan-European movement co-founded by Yanis Varoufakis and Srećko Horvat in 2016. One proposal in its anti-austerity economic manifesto is the creation of a European Constituent Assembly, a voter body which proposes and monitors legislation, as well as scrutinising a (hopefully) transformed EU framework.

The UK did not need Brexit to point out the dangers to democracy, but the fall-out of a close referendum may be a long overdue wake-up call. As with an immune system, democracy is constantly under attack; from parliamentary procedures which conveniently scupper inconvenient bills, the suppression of publicly-entitled information, unfair access to power by lobbyists, and media deliberately influencing fragile opinions with distortions of the truth. If CAs are to be effective, they cannot be single-issue focus groups. They must offer a comprehensive and shared understanding of public policy, its processes and the meaningful link between revenue raising and public spending. Because in the end, 'consultation' is not power sharing.

Julia Moore

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