Legislatures in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the UK have all commissioned or run deliberative processes, and given the public opportunities to contribute to parliamentary scrutiny of government on a range of issues. One of the latest UK cases is Climate Assembly UK (CAUK), a citizens’ assembly commissioned by six House of Commons select committees to provide recommendations on how the UK can achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The evaluation of CAUK included interviews with MPs and parliamentary staff from the six committees and provides some valuable lessons about how parliaments can best make use of citizens’ assemblies. There are distinct challenges, but potential solutions too.
What is the UK Climate Assembly (CAUK)?
Climate Assembly UK (CAUK) is a type of mini-public, using an approach to public engagement that aims to create favourable conditions for deliberation. Participants are randomly recruited to be demographically representative of the population.
There were 107 participants in CAUK, who were recruited based on their views about climate change: both climate change believers and sceptics were involved. The participants were then provided with a range of information and evidence on the topic under consideration from a host of experts and advocates. The participants then discussed this information and their own views. These discussions are usually facilitated to ensure that they are deliberative. Good deliberation means that all participants get to contribute, and these contributions are focused, respectful and justified with reasons.
Citizens’ assemblies usually culminate with a set of policy recommendations. Given the process of learning and deliberation that the participants have been through to reach these recommendations, they are often thought to be of a superior quality than would be achieved through other forms of public engagement.
Indeed, CAUK participants became more knowledgeable on the issues of climate change and reaching net zero. Many participants also felt that the net zero target was more achievable by the end of CAUK than they did at the beginning. Yet, the benefits of citizens’ assemblies are only relevant if their commissioners – in this case the six House of Commons select committees – heed at least some of the resulting recommendations.
The impact of CAUK on parliament
The influence CAUK has had over the six select committees has so far been limited. While CAUK is seen to have been a success by the select committees and a number of them have launched inquiries referencing CAUK’s recommendations, it has had an agenda-setting influence at best.
So what needs to change for citizens’ assemblies to have more of an impact on parliament?
1. Clear plans
Little thought had been given to what to do with the CAUK recommendations by parliament until they actually received them. When commissioning, or organising, a citizens’ assembly there needs to be clear plans in place as to how the resulting recommendations will be used. Feeding them into a live committee inquiry can increase the chance of take-up by parliament.
2. Avoid elections
Shortly before CAUK started the UK held a general election. This inevitably led to a change of Chairs and members of the six CAUK commissioning committees, with some of the newcomers less supportive of CAUK and the net zero target. To reduce the disruptions that elections can cause to parliament citizens’ assemblies should be held towards the start of a parliament.
3. MP and participant interaction
Measures should be put in place to enable interactions between MPs and citizens’ assembly participants. If an MP is a member of a committee that commissions a citizens’ assembly then they should attend as an observer. The first-hand experience of seeing the process makes it much more likely that they will see the value of it, and this increases the chances that they will take on board the recommendations.
This would be easier to achieve if the citizens’ assembly were held in a parliament building itself. Similarly, citizens’ assembly participants could also attend parliamentary committee meetings and evidence sessions as they have done in Scotland. This can only help increase MPs awareness and appreciation of the assembly process, making them more likely to consider the recommendations.
4. Ongoing information
Many of the MPs interviewed as part of the CAUK evaluation felt they did not know enough about CAUK. Even if MP and participant interaction is achieved there needs to be regular updates about the progress of the citizens’ assembly provided to the relevant parts of parliament throughout the process, to ensure MPs are kept on board and can invest more in the assembly.
There are challenges for legislatures to make use of citizens’ assemblies successfully, but if these key lessons from CAUK are heeded, they could become a regular fixture of parliamentary public engagement.
Stephen Elstub is a Reader in British Politics at Newcastle University with interests in deliberative and participatory democracy. He is co-editor of the Handbook of Democratic Innovation and Governance (Edward Elgar).