Global Local: Community engagement


Participatory democracy:
Citizens’ Assemblies

Each week we focus on a different global topic, highlighting innovative content and insights from LGIU and our members around the world.  

We are used to hearing that democracy is in trouble around the world. But on a local level, two challenges – distrust and disinterest – are also fraying bonds between communities and their leaders. To counter political indifference and bring citizens into the heart of everyday issues, it’s worth considering an ambitious model for public engagement: the citizens’ assembly. 

Variously known as a citizens’ panel, jury, convention or initiative review, the idea itself dates back to ancient Athens, where regular people came together to discuss social issues and vote for city governors. With the same basic principles, a group of representative citizens is selected to meet, talk and deliberate on policy with expert witnesses and organisers. Over several months or years, they pick apart a subject – anything from infrastructure development and devolution plans to healthcare, crime, education, waste management or clean energy. Evidence is presented to make sure everyone is well informed, and facilitators make sure the debate is fair.

These conversations guide legislation, shaping policy around a broad mix of the individuals it will affect. Unlike other consultations, a citizens’ assembly gives members plenty of time to form and test their opinions, surrounded by people they may have little in common with. The exact size of such groups is up for debate too; Participedia pegs it between 30-160 citizens. Assemblies also require careful planning and management. The people you invite – as well as the topic on the table – should represent a rich array of demographics, continuing the deliberation whenever the assembly reconvenes. 

While a citizens’ assembly is by no means a quick fix for policy review, and can be costly, the benefits may be enormous. Your constituents bring their own points of view into black-and-white legislation, revealing what matters to them and how to realistically achieve it. Their advice is never binding, but often extremely informative.

Today, we’re illustrating how citizens’ assemblies can come to life, from case studies from Belgium and Ireland to inspiration from Japan’s futuristic roleplay during deliberation to encourage intergenerational equity.

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This week’s featured content

Deliberative Democracy in Belgium:
The introduction of a citizen’s council

By Patrick Jowett, LGiU Associate

Incorporating a citizen’s assembly as a tool for increased public engagement in governance has been a prevalent idea in divisions of green politics and environmental activism across Europe for some time now. The attraction of citizen’s assemblies to green politics is perhaps that the initial agenda is often clear and tangible to the public; as well as being an area that environmentalists often feel is underrepresented in discussion at government level.

The call for a citizen’s assembly at the regional level in Belgium also originates in green politics. Despite being criticised for suggesting an assembly in 2016, the Green Party’s wave of success in 2019 helped them become the second most represented party in the local government. Now, with more regions – including Brussels – stepping up to trial deliberative democracy through a citizen’s assembly, we put a spotlight on Belgium to dig deeper on how it all works in practice.

This briefing considers the recent history of citizen’s assemblies across Europe, developments within Belgium, and considerations towards future use.

LGIU Global Local Highlights

Disconnected Communities: could direct democracy be the path to a more representative form of politics?

Across Europe there has been a rise in the number of people who feel excluded from mainstream political decision-making. With this in mind, we explore ‘direct democracy’ (such as citizen’s assemblies) and question whether this could be a tool for local authorities to build more representative, trusted and cohesive models of governance.
Read our content here.

Youth Assembly on Climate Change – another innovative action underpinning participatory democracy in Ireland

This briefing looks at Ireland’s recent Youth Assembly on Climate Change. It covers an initiative that builds upon the ongoing experience with Ireland’s Citizens Assembly as covered in earlier LGIU briefings, marking a time of unparalleled politicisation of younger people across the globe in responding to Climate Change. 
Read our content here.

Innovation & Inspiration

Curated case studies and news from around the globe

Japan: Futuristic role-play with citizens helps municipalities bring intergenerational justice to meetings

Inspired by the principle of seventh-generation decision-making practiced in many Native American communities, Japan’s Future Design movement invites local residents to make local planning decisions – with a catch that they have to imagine themselves at their current age, but in 2060. Evidence shows that groups making decisions during the thought experiment favour much more transformative plans. Their recommendations help to shift policy to a more sustainable and intergenerationally just place, free from the short term trappings of those in election cycles. Future Design has now spread to major cities such as Kyoto and Suita, and is being used in policy planning by the Japanese Ministry of Finance.

The Alternative

USA: Storytelling used for creative engagement method in Philidelphia

The South Street Headhouse District in Philidelphia has trialled an interesting qualitative storytelling tool to engage with the community for place-shaping. Their ‘Love Letters to South Street’ project allowed local residents and business owners to share their favourite memories of South Street (both virtually and in-person) to be added to a virtual memory map. The stories helped officials understand what people valued about the space, and helped guide a co-creation online workshop making use of the geospatial map. The data and workshop provided an engagement-driven first draft of recommendations for South Street as a more people-centered public space, including greater emphasis on arts and culture.


UK: First UK city to host a citizens’ assembly for climate change produces ambitious targets from recommendations

In 2019, Oxford became the first UK city to hold a Citizens’ assembly on climate change. Alongside recommendations of improved building standards, renewable energy investments and a greener city centre, 90% of members agreed that the 2050 net zero target was not ambitious enough. In response, the Council created a Zero Carbon Oxford partnership to work with local actors on an ambitious plan, aiming to reach council-wide zero carbon by 2030 and city-wide by 2040. Read our blog on Oxford’s Citizen’s assembly here to find out more.

Oxford City Council

Policy & Resources

Research, analysis and examples of policy in practice from leading institutes and places like yours.

Resources: RSA: How To Run A Citizens’ Assembly
Looking for a starter guide to set up and host a series of debates? The Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has a detailed report for local authorities – the final piece of its Innovation in Democracy Programme (IiDP). Get essential tips from practitioners around the world, and see three IiDP assembly formats under analysis. 

Review: Carnegie Europe: Getting Climate Citizens’ Assemblies Right
This comparison of two climate assemblies in France and the UK demonstrates how budget, time, framing questions, awareness campaigns and other factors feed into the value gained from bringing citizens and local officials together. Even on a much smaller scale, Carnegie Europe’s insights are useful for directing every part of your programme. 

Case study: Participedia: Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review
Since 2008, Oregon’s state leaders have been inviting a select number of citizens to review ballot measures, giving five days for each group and proposal. Read about the initiative’s progress and how it’s structured for effective critique. 

Resources: Nature: Fair Algorithms For Selection
If you’re ready to develop a citizens’ assembly model of your own, there’s a big question ahead: what’s the best way to find representative citizens? The answer may lie in advanced database algorithms that draw some targets on random selection. This report explains the technical basis for diversity searches, before handing a link to the code for application. 

More LGIU Global Local content

Global Local: Call for case studies

We’re looking for your stories on specific upcoming topics for our Global Local bulletin. Help share insights with your global local government colleagues.
Click here for more info and how to get in touch.

Think Tank Review – June 2021

Our think tank reviews cover the latest research and thought leadership from research institutions in the UK, Ireland and Australia.
Read this month’s Think Tank Review here.

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