What is a Citizens’ Assembly

The Your Voices Blogs series is your opportunity to write about what matters to you. In the first of the series, Calum Hodgson writes about Citizen’s Assemblies and what they could mean for Scottish democracy. If you want to add Your Voices get in touch by email: info@voicesforscotland.scot

How do we solve the problem with democracy? When I say ‘the problem with democracy’ you’d be forgiven for asking ‘which one?’. There’s, sadly, too many. Accountability, corruption, antagonism, tribalism. Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. But it must have some good parts, right? It’s been around for long enough. It may feel as though our democracy is unchangeable, or stuck in its ways, but that’s not true. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century we increased the democratic franchise to all adults; we’ve created new, more proportional, voting systems which are being implemented in parliaments throughout the world. However, despite our incredible progress, the above problems still exist. How, then, do we solve these? There’s one possibility. Citizens’ assemblies.

What is a citizens’ assembly? I had the same question. Simply put, it is an assembly of citizens. I know, obviously… Ordinary people, chosen by a lottery and determined based on population diversity. There’s a lot to like with a citizens’ assembly. For one, it’s been proven to create more considered, thoughtful policy recommendations. In Ireland, they set up a citizens’ assembly to discuss the issue of abortion. Polling previous to this had consistently shown a majority in favour of maintaining its illegality. However, over the course of several months, citizens were given the space to listen to experts, deliberate, and then voted to legalise abortion in certain circumstances. Citizens, when given the opportunity to actually engage with our democratic system, can produce surprising results, but it’s not a mystery that when given people the space to learn the facts and different viewpoints we create more considered visions of our society. By having the space to discuss, deliberate, and learn from each other, a citizens’ assembly removes the antagonism and tribalism that we see in our current system.

And what of accountability? With policy decided by unelected strangers, it’s not a million miles from some weird cross over between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. And personally that doesn’t sound like a step forward. Well, those fears are unfounded. Yes, the participants are selected by lottery and not votes, but they’re chosen based on their participation in our society, not by some antiquated metric of someone’s ancestors land ownership. A ‘House of Citizens’ is made up of those who truly represent our country, not some representative for a varied and diverse constituency. Not only this, citizens assemblies can be used for national issues or local. A community can come together to discuss the issues facing their neighbourhood just as a nation can come together to work to solve national concerns.

So, what is a House of Citizens? It’s a new way of exploring how our democracy works. And right now, our democracy does not work. If we want to truly tackle the problems of accountability, trust, and participation, we need a system that puts the members of a community at the heart of the decisions being made for that community.