Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland

The Scottish government has announced that it is going to set up a citizens’ assembly “to help shape Scotland’s future” (turns out this is also a business opportunity):

The process of establishing the new Citizens’ Assembly to explore some of the major challenges facing Scotland has begun.

A contractor is being sought to randomly select 120 members of the public to serve on the Assembly. The individuals will be broadly representative of Scotland’s adult population in terms of age, gender, socio-economic class, ethnic group, geography and political attitudes.

The Assembly will consider three broad issues:

* what kind of country should be

* how can Scotland best overcome challenges, including those arising from Brexit

* what further work is required to enable people to make informed choices about the future of Scotland

Schedule and remuneration:

Members will be identified by early September, with the Assembly meeting on six weekends between the autumn and Spring 2020.

Assembly members will receive a gift of thanks of £200 per weekend to recognise their time and contribution. Travel, accommodation and other reasonable costs, such as child care, will also be covered.

CommonSpace has some reactions from experts. Oliver Escobar, senior lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on deliberative/participative democracy inquires about the institutional context of the assembly and wants to make sure it reflects an elite consensus:

This is a momentous announcement – a potential milestone for democratic innovation in Scotland.

But as ever, the devil will be in the detail of how this temporary institution will be set up. Its legitimacy and effectiveness depends on various factors. I will focus on three.

Firstly, how will the broader public be included in the conversation? For example, there could be an online crowdsourcing platform to feed evidence and arguments at various stages of the assembly. […]

Secondly, there must be further clarity about the task/job given to the assembly, because that determines the evidence, speakers and sessions needed to inform deliberation at various stages of the process. This also requires clarity about how the results will be used – what’s the power of the assembly? How to avoid subsequent cherry-picking of the proposals/recommendations? But also how to ensure checks and balances in the way the assembly connects to other parts of our current democratic institutions. All of this is about systemic coherence – the assembly cannot be an island, it needs to be clearly placed in the context of other institutions and how it relates to them.

Finally, and related, ideally cross-party support should be sought, so that this is treated and built like a civic institution, rather than a political process coming from one party. Some level of cross-party support and contribution may also be desirable for example in the Oversight Board, which is a key mechanism in citizens’ assemblies – it gathers folk from across the spectrum of a debate (as well as some more ‘neutral’ members), and it reviews the evidence presented, the speakers, the different perspectives, the design of the sessions, etc… [to ensure that] they are balanced during the assembly. The Oversight Board is the guarantor of procedural fairness – members may agree or not with the results, but ideally they must agree that the process was fair and balanced.

Thomas Swann, research fellow at Loughborough University is more assertively democratic:

Such a process of giving the people of a country real control over their lives and over the nature of the community they want to be part of needs to embrace this opposition between those who hold power and those who do not. For a Citizen’s Assembly to be truly transformative of people’s lives, it needs to be able to fundamentally change the fabric of society. While it is correct to put such a process above political party oppositions, it is wrong to attempt a compromise between the various interest groups in society and try to find a common ground, for this will always mean the people ceding control to elites. If Scotland is to be shaped by the people who live in it, then those people need to be the ones making the decisions about what it looks like in the future.

On a practical level, this means three things for a Citizens’ Assembly.

First, it must not be a site of compromise between elites and the people but a place where the people can define their desires and needs for themselves. Even though compromise might make some kind of resolution easier, it can be questioned whether such a resolution reflects the will of the people rather than of the elites.

Second, it must have the capacity to enforce constitutional change, subject to referenda, rather than merely proposing measures to a government that can decide whether or not to implement them. Ultimately, there must be a way of ensuring that the fate of the Icelandic constitution is not replicated in Scotland.

Third, it must be genuinely reflective of the people who live in the community. Citizenship as a formal legal status excludes many who are part of the community of a place, but for whatever reason – immigration status, age – do not meet the criteria to participate in its democracy. The Scottish Government has shown a willingness to extend political participation both to those previously considered too young and those who live in the place but are not formal citizens. This must be a part of any Citizens’ Assembly, and the voices of minority groups must be heard, perhaps by over-representing minorities in the make-up of the assembly.

One Response

  1. […] Nicola Sturgeon announced the initiative back in May, saying the Government was keen to follow the example of Ireland where the assemblies were used to find consensus on reforming Ireland’s abortion laws. [Details.] […]

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