Comment Blog 22 May, 2024

Should the public make policy?

Patrick King
Senior Researcher

Citizens’ Assemblies can be a valuable way of facilitating deliberation on thorny policy issues and charting a course towards consensus. In the Republic of Ireland, they’ve been used to consider topics such as drug abuse and abortion, with an assembly on the latter leading to a decisive change in policy. And in February this year, it was revealed that Labour were considering Citizens’ Assemblies to “bypass Whitehall” and directly settle some of the UK’s most contentious policy questions.

By involving citizens ‘upstream’ of policy development, the argument goes, government can better understand opposition to change and break free from a dysfunctional status quo. At the same time, there are no shortage of issues an incoming government might seek to break the deadlock on – from a failure to build enough houses to the absence of a sustainable funding model for social care.

So how can government know when, and in what contexts, Citizens' Assemblies are likely to add value? At least two questions should be top of mind:

1) Is enough known about alternative solutions, their effects and trade-offs, to allow the problem to be framed in a sufficiently impartial way?

For many policy issues it is incredibly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to separate how something is framed from the solutions which appear likely or inevitable. Having citizens input on key public service challenges depends on us having a fairly sophisticated, accurate understanding of which causes are most important, how different causes relate to each other, and crucially, what we don’t know.

Yet, as Reform research has shown, the intractability of problems often results from an inability to recognise that the prevailing way a problem is framed – for example that “waiting times for A&E are caused by high levels of demand” – could be the wrong one. Citizens’ Assemblies will add little value if the premises they are considering are not themselves subjected to adequate scrutiny, and policymakers are unable to avoid ‘groupthink’ in their problem-diagnosis.

This means being alive not only to the possibility of ‘bias', but also to whether there is enough humility – and intellectual diversity – in a particular field to set the stage for a genuinely open and original debate about the way forward. Research shows that practices of problem-framing, and the possibility of radical policy innovation, are closely linked.

2) Is there clarity about the degree to which a Citizens' Assembly is representative, and what forms of representation matter most to the topic in question?

Citizens’ Assemblies are usually convened by a Chair or facilitator, and involve careful selection of around 100 citizens from a given area — aimed at representativeness. This is a crucial factor in the success of Citizens’ Assemblies, and should be a priority in their design.

However, there is also a clear trade-off between how many people are involved in deliberating an issue and the quality of discussion that follows (as anyone who’s been to a meeting with too many people will attest). And, even with ‘only’ 100 citizens, guaranteeing representativeness along every dimension that matters, including numerous forms of demographic and cognitive diversity, will be more an ambition than a plausible outcome.

In turn, since policymakers can’t be sure that these selection biases have been eliminated, they must be as transparent as possible about how the conclusions of a Citizens’ Assembly can actually be used.

In this way, a Citizens’ Assembly is less a pure translation of citizens’ perspective, but one avenue (of many) that can be used in policy development to generate new insights and innovation. Recognising this means acknowledging that Citizens’ Assemblies are really a kind of ‘representative body’, with all the baggage this comes with, and not the silver bullet of direct democracy we might aspire to.