[what it is, how people are selected, how the sessions are designed and what happens at the assembly]

What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

A Citizens’ Assembly is a deliberative democracy format which brings together a representative sample of people to learn about an issue and then, based on their discussions, make recommendations to those who have called the Assembly, often policy-makers.

Deliberative democracy formats like Citizens’ Assemblies or Citizens’ Juries are an effective way to involve residents in policy or decision-making about issues that will affect them or the area where they live. Citizens’ Assemblies are often used when issues are quite complex, or have really divided opinion (like the climate crisis) because the learning process, and discussions involving people who hold widely different views, can be an effective way to move beyond a divisive binary to find consensus.

How are the participants chosen?

The participants in a Citizens’ Assembly are generally chosen by sortition. The process of sortition selects a randomly stratified sample of the population in order to ensure that the participants are transparently representative of the wider population of the area in which the Assembly is held.

This involves a large number of letters being sent out to randomly chosen households, within the geographical area of the Assembly, inviting people to register to take part. From those that respond, the Assembly participants are selected against the area’s demographic data (eg data on postcode, age, gender, ethnicity, disability) in order to ensure that the participants are a representative sample.

When the participants have been selected, the ‘onboarding’ process begins. This involves making sure that they know what to expect, and that if they have any specific access requirements (including in the case of an online assembly, access to and confidence with, the required technology) the organisers are aware of these and make good provision to provide any training and ensure equality of access.

When the Assembly first meets, they spend time getting to know each other and finding out about what is going to happen and how the Assembly will be conducted – what will be provided and what will be expected of them.

How is the Citizens’ Assembly designed?

The organisation that calls the Citizens’ Assembly will put together an ‘Oversight Group’ with responsibility for overseeing the curation and design of the Assembly. They are a bit like the Board of Directors – they don’t do the detail of planning the sessions, but they shape the Assembly, devise the wording of the question the Assembly is set up to answer and ensure that those involved in the detailed planning stay on track.

The design of the Assembly is fine-tuned by a group of deliberative democracy specialists and facilitators. This ensures that it works, but also keeps the process transparent and accountable, preventing any vested interests that might be at play if the organisation calling the Assembly was also in charge of running it.

The Oversight Group is also responsible for suggesting the names of ‘Expert Witnesses’ who they would like to call to speak to the Assembly. It is important to choose ‘Expert Witnesses’ who will represent a range of view points in order that the Assembly participants get to hear a wide spectrum of opinion on the issue they are to discuss.

What happens during a Citizens’ Assembly?

A Citizens’ Assembly consists of ‘Learning’ and ‘Deliberation’ phases.

The Learning phase includes the participants hearing from a range of ‘Expert Witnesses’ about their own research, ideas and opinions in relation to the Assembly Question. Participants have the opportunity to ask questions of the ‘Expert Witnesses’ and to discuss what they have heard in smaller groups.

After this comes the Deliberation phase. This is where the Assembly participants discuss what they have learned throughout the Learning phase and, combining that with their own feelings, opinions and lived experience, work together to draw up a series of recommendations in answer to the Assembly Question.

The participants have to vote on the recommendations as part of the process of drawing them up. This is to ensure that there is always a majority consensus on anything put forward from the Assembly.

The completed recommendations are presented to the organisations calling the Assembly.

How is Coventry’s Citizens’ Assembly on Arts and Culture different?

We think Art for the People, Coventry’s Citizens’ Assembly is the first UK (if not the first worldwide) Citizens’ Assembly on Arts and Culture. Some of the ‘Expert Witnesses’ who will present to the participants are artists whose inputs will be newly commissioned artworks.

Our Assembly has been designed in the same way as any other Citizens’ Assembly (as detailed above). The Learning sessions will be held online and (covid permitting) the Deliberation sessions will be held in person.

To find out more about why Talking Birds decided to hold a Citizens’ Assembly, who we have involved in making the project happen, and to follow the Assembly as it progresses, use the menu bar below: