Citizens’ Assemblies will be key to reshaping Wales after Covid-19

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Geraint Talfan Davies

There is a growing ferment of ideas about the need to reconfigure our society in the wake our triple-whammy of tribulations: austerity, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is also a welter of ideas about how to do so. Articles and books by the dozen are filling both the in-boxes of the interested and the bookshelves of the obsessed.

One of our active public intellectuals, Professor Laura McAllister, put a toe in the water last weekend with an article in the Western Mail’s Weekend Magazine that sketched a number of ideas and a few warnings. Since she is a professor at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, expect more. As someone who has played a part in almost every serious look at the future of government in Wales, she is someone to whom we should listen.

She believes that Welsh society is too tolerant of failure and needs to be ‘radically reconfigured’. But the core of her message was that radical change must come from below, and that for two reasons: first, government and public organisations are too conservative and, second, the public is too disconnected from political parties.

Instead, she believes we should try to harness the community energy that Covid has unleashed and “put the public in the driving seat through a more expansive citizens’ assembly”.

This raises two questions, not only what should we do post-Covid, but also how should we decide what to do? Of course, someone is bound to ask “Why a citizens’ assembly? Why do we need to confuse the issue with another forum for debate? Surely, we already have enough governments and parliaments.”

But we all know that the gulf between politicians and publics can be large. Cynicism about politics is rife, making democracies vulnerable to unscrupulous populists.

At the UK level the democratic process is arranged in order to find winners. Winners form governments. Governments govern and oppositions oppose. Our democracy is said to depend on this clash of views, although the adversarial nature of the confrontation often gets in the way of reasoned debate to an extent that is often a turn off for the public. In recent years the Westminster system has been under deep stress.

It was decided to elect the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments by a system of proportional representation partly to offset this tendency. But that has not been enough on its own. So, if a citizens’ assembly is not be confused with the Welsh Assembly – that we are now learning to call Senedd Cymru or the Welsh Parliament – what is it?

 

What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

It is not an assembly of the great and the good. A citizens’ assembly is a deliberative process in which a hundred or more citizens, selected at random to be representative of the population – in age, gender, class etc. – are brought together for a day or a weekend or a series of weekends, to hear evidence from experts on a set of issues, to debate and discuss and to come up with recommendations that can be put to government – a bridge between the people and the politicians.

It is a tool that is increasingly in use around the world, and takes various forms. Several American states have used the concept in different ways, often prompted by disaster: in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, in New York after 9/11. Several other states, too, have built on the American tradition of town meetings.

Germany began the use of ‘planning cells’ in the 1970s – using gatherings of 25 people to debate very specific things such as ‘future telephones’ and energy conservation. The planning cells idea has also been taken up in the Basque Country. In the 1980s the Danes began to hold ‘consensus conferences’ of citizens to discuss lay responses to technology questions. Citizens’ assemblies have also been used extensively in Canada and the Netherlands.

Closer to home, in 2018 when the UK government began talking of piloting citizens’ assemblies in England, 70 local authorities expressed interest. Eight were approved at a cost of £60,000 each.

In autumn last year the Scottish Government embarked on a six-month process that envisaged up to 130 citizens taking part in six weekend-long sessions. Only four sessions had been held before the remaining two were cancelled because of the pandemic.

And in Wales, the Welsh Parliament – rather than the Welsh Government – brought 60 people together at Newtown last summer for a weekend to discuss priorities for Wales. Plans by the Senedd’s Committee on electoral reform to follow this up with another event this summer had to be abandoned because of the pandemic, but it is intent on pursuing the idea.

The Irish experience

But on these islands it is Ireland that has seemed to take the Citizens’ Assembly concept most seriously, in a way that has had a spectacular political impact.

Following the 2007-08 crash that seemed to pose an existential threat to Ireland, a working group drawn from the university sector’s Political Studies Association began to explore the concept. By the time of the February 2011 Irish General election the two main parties, foreseeing a need for constitutional change, had committed to convening a citizens’ assembly, while Irish Labour wanted a Constitutional Convention.

In the summer of 2011 meetings were held in seven towns across Ireland to determine an agenda for the first ‘We the Citizens’ assembly that followed shortly afterwards – a necessary pilot, funded by an American trust, Atlantic Philanthropies, that had pushed the proponents of the initiative to be more ambitious.

That weekend meeting in a Dublin hotel discussed the appropriate balance between taxation and spending, property taxes, water charges, sale of state assets and student fees.

After the success of the pilot, a year later a Constitutional Convention was launched which met regularly until 2014. It was structured slightly differently, with 66 ordinary citizens joined by 33 MPs and an independent chair. Building on that experience a further Irish Citizens’ Assembly, this time without the politicians – because the key topic was to be abortion – was convened between 2016 and 2018.

The last of these, spread over two years, cost €2.35m. This included a small payment to each of the 100 citizens who took part, as well as the servicing of the 10 weekend-long meetings by the civil service. The plenary sessions, but not the groups discussions, were broadcast on a website.

It was as a result of these initiatives that Ireland voted in subsequent referendums to legalise abortion and to allow gay marriage – decisions that were previously thought to be almost inconceivable in a conservative, Catholic society. Ireland’s blasphemy law was also abolished. These changes are evidence of the capacity of citizen’s assemblies not only to take the sting out of issues usually deemed ‘too difficult’ but also to prompt much wider interest throughout society.

Professor David Farrell, a Dublin academic who led the charge on citizens’ assemblies, is clear about their potential: “Citizens’ Assemblies can move the needle of public sentiment, guide the minds of the political elite and allay citizen cynicism in politics and democracy, particularly in a moment of crisis.”

He is now advising the German-speaking region of Belgium which, last year, became the first place in Europe to set up a permanent citizen’s assembly alongside its Parliament.

What are the lessons for Wales?   

First, Wales needs more bridges between government and people, especially if the prospect of increasing the number of Senedd members from the present paltry 60 has been put on hold. If the established government of an independent nation feels the need for this enhanced connection then surely a younger legislature in a country with much more limited media needs it even more.

Citizens’ assemblies would not be there to challenge the authority of the Senedd, but to improve the quality of our representative democracy, to deepen its roots and to buttress it against corrosive cynicism.

Second, after a torrid three years in which the Brexit debate has split the country this could be a way of bringing the country together. Had citizens’ assemblies been built into the Brexit process across the UK at a much earlier stage, the debate might have been shorter, more reasoned  and less divisive. The one attempt, carried out by the Electoral Reform Society, produced a more nuanced view of Brexit than one might have expected.

The Senedd has put a toe into the water, but the question for us in Wales is whether we want to see this as a passing novelty or a permanent part of our democracy – a permanent expression of the engaged community that the pandemic has exposed for all to see. I believe it should, which is why I would be sceptical of Professor McAllister’s wish to rely on crowdsourcing the funding. Governments, too, must be committed to the process.

In the current circumstances, there will be those who will see this as an unaffordable luxury. But let us not forget that Ireland went down this road in the middle of the cruellest economic circumstances. As its Constitutional Convention met, unemployment was at 14.8 per cent.

David Farrell refers to Churchill’s remark that “one should never allow a good crisis to go to waste.” That is true for us in Wales today.

Perhaps it is time to assemble a coalition of Welsh civil society to press the case – the IWA, the Bevan Foundation, the WCVA, the Wales Governance Centre and others. For instance, citizens’ assemblies would certainly be relevant to the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ current project on ‘Rethinking Wales’. But government, too, must be drawn in.

The first task of such a coalition would be to persuade all political parties, bar none, to make a bold commitment to citizens’ assemblies in their manifestos for next year’s Senedd Cymru elections. After all, what party is going to be willing to stand up in public, and say they are not interested in the opinions of the people who elect them?

This article was first published in the Western Mail on Saturday.

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Steve DugganWalter HuntConvention.cymruSian IfanJonathan Gammond Recent comment authors
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Erisian
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Erisian

What a joy to hear some sense – such a change from recent events and the thinking that has accompanied / caused our misery.

Kerry Davies
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Kerry Davies

Carwyn Jones was banging on about a citizen led constitution for most of the time he was FM but in a UK context rather than a Wales one. Granted that one for Wales would be useful, we desperately need one for the bigger questions of FPTP, English devolution and decentralisation which must be addressed on a UK wide remit.
I am none too optimistic that can take place despite the shining example of what was achieved by the All-Ireland convention. Westminster and England are still convinced they exist in an imperial world.

j humphrys
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j humphrys

“Professor Laura Mcallister has played a part in almost every serious look at the future of government in Wales”. Members of the jury, do you fine the defendent guilty, or not guilty? Anyway, as someone who much prefers playing my music and trawling life in general, I don’t fancy having to keep an eye on what mischief the local busybodies of the “people’s assembly” are up to. A small country like Cymru, should stick with what we have, and our media, such as it is, should keep a beady eye on everything they are proposing, and with no lobbying from… Read more »

j humphrys
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j humphrys

Whoops! I mean by “what we have”, our Senedd as the future governing body of Cymru, of course.

The Bellwether
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The Bellwether

Although the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘teapot’ sprang to mind after reading this, I think Citizens’ Assemblies are probably a reasonable idea and should be seriously considered especially with the (amazing) Irish example in mind. My one proviso is that selection of members could be abit like jury service to ensure that local busybodies, pub loudmouths and secret politicians (there’s always one!) can’t get a look in.

Walter Hunt
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Walter Hunt

The Republic of Ireland’s experience with citizens’ assemblies is an intesting one, but I think the real lesson for Wales from over the Irish Sea is that that country choose independence from the UK a century ago.

Nigel Bull
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Nigel Bull

Having been the Foreman of a Jury during a very long trial during the eighties with 3,000 pages of evidence, I shudder at the thought. Up I turned with my Guardian to find an older lady teacher carrying one too. Of the remainder, eight brought a Sun and two a Mirror, that was the twelve good men and true. Trying to examine the evidence in a rational manner without giving in to opinions like and I quote “They must be guilty or they would not have been charged” or “we must make a decision soon as I am going out… Read more »

Convention.cymru
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Citizens’ Assemblies are only part of the answer. There is only one way to effect serious constitutional change. You have to write a Constitution. To do that you need to call a Convention. Citizens’ Assemblies are part of the process by which this serious process might start. But it won’t get the job done. It is striking that so many leaders of though in Wales have – for at least a generation – failed to grasp what 50 US State and the whole of the British Empire did to achieve what they have now by way of self-rule. Go to… Read more »

Jonathan Gammond
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Jonathan Gammond

If they are randomly selected groups existing for a temporary period to discuss and make suggestions on a particular issue, they are excellent way to bring more considered opinions into the political arena and improve the overall level of debate and public involvement.
Politics is too dominated by organizations that many choose not to join compared to fifty-seventy years ago when both the Labour and Conservative parties were mass membership parties. The other parties bave always been fringe.

Convention.cymru
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Yes, JG, you put your finger on a definite problem. That is why you can start with assemblies, meetings. But at some point the movement has to have legal and political legitimacy. History illustrates this. You can have “Committees of Public Safety” French Revolution-style. Which ended by terrifying people. Or you could have “Committees of Public Safety” North Carolina-style. Which were quite different, They started by being random-ish, and were peaceful. But the time came when they had to act more formally. And they did use Conventions and did declare independence from London. The names can vary, but the process… Read more »

Sian Ifan
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Sian Ifan

Sounds like a good idea! but what really GTD a ‘CRACHACH GODFATHER’ means is another platform for ‘Y CRACHACH more NEWYDD’ and their ‘CRACHLETS’. It’s all ‘ETERNAlly’ theirs, time to wise up! Gethin. PS: Post Covid 19 our country will have to better, so why not peoples ‘COMMUNES’ plus ‘ANTUR GADARN too?

Walter Hunt
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Walter Hunt

“our triple-whammy of tribulations: austerity, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic” is a curious start to an argument for greater public
engagement as the first two arose from public engagement:, i.e. GE2010 and 2015 and 2016 referendum! Who will set the agendas of these citizens’ assemblies? Could they be misused to give legitamacy to a particular political agenda e.g. coronial austerity cuts? If you want to “put the public in the driving seat” or strengthen civil society, what about worker and citizen stakeholders in consultation and oversight roles where decisions are made in public bodies?

Steve Duggan
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Steve Duggan

I agree Geraint, It is a good idea involving the general public in decision making. Half the problem with the country is the gap between politicians and everybody else.