You can find the answers to some frequently asked questions about citizens’ assemblies below.
1. General citizens’ assembly questions
- What is a citizens’ assembly?
A form of democracy where a group of people is selected like a jury and then sorted to create a ‘mini UK’. It will be made up of people just like you and me. They will learn about the climate and ecological crisis from experts, hear from the people most affected, and about possible solutions, discuss and talk respectfully in small groups and agree on the best way forward for everyone.
- Why do we need one? What’s wrong with our existing politics?
The government is unable to make the difficult and far reaching decisions needed. See the section “Electoral politics – the problem in a nutshell” on our citizens’ assembly page.
- Does it replace the government?
No – it will help the government. The government will ask the citizens’ assembly to recommend how to tackle the climate and ecological emergency, reach net zero and stop biodiversity loss.
- Who decides to have it?
The government must make the decision to hold the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice, as only they have power to implement the wide ranging changes needed.
- Who takes part?
Assembly members are not elected like our politicians, but they are selected through a lottery process, very much like a jury. From that group, they are sorted according to the makeup of the country as a whole, creating a mini public.
- How long does it last?
If the government commissioned a citizens’ assembly today, we could already have recommendations ready to implement within nine months.
- How much does it cost?
This depends on how the citizens’ assembly is run. However, as an example, the Citizen’s Convention on Climate in France cost €5.6 million. Scotland’s Climate Assembly was budgeted for £1.4 million. We know ignoring the crisis is going to cost us much more. To give some perspective, running the House of Lords for a year in 2019 cost £117.4 million.
- Who runs it?
A number of independent organisations specialise in running deliberative democracy processes. The citizens’ assembly must be seen to be independent of government, XR or any other outside interference, e.g. lobbyists.
- How is the question decided?
The question is very important. The question must include key elements such as biodiversity loss and global and social justice. The assembly members would ideally be involved in formulating the question. This could be their first task as a citizens’ assembly. Setting a date for net zero in the question is problematic, because it limits the evidence presented to the assembly members. A question should therefore be open enough to allow for a wide range of information to be presented to the citizens’ assembly.
- Are citizens assemblies a new idea?
Citizens’ assemblies are a form of deliberative democracy, where people learn, talk and listen to each other and make decisions together. This very ancient way of doing democracy is now increasingly happening around the world. Citizens’ assemblies are being used to solve tricky issues, not just climate. You can find examples on our citizens’ assembly page.
- How can we be sure the government will implement the recommendations?
Public opinion is a driving force behind government decisions, so before the CA starts, it is essential that the organising body educates the general public about citizens’ assemblies, so everyone knows the CA is happening, what is being decided on, and that government is expected to act on the recommendations.
- Will it be legally binding?
No – Extinction Rebellion are not demanding a legally binding CA. This is because it is very difficult to achieve in law, and in any case parliament can always undo previous decisions. A demand that a CA’s recommendations be legally binding not only delays action but is no guarantee that commitments won’t be rescinded in the future. Plenty of media attention and publicity are much more important, as this will ensure everyone knows the CA is happening and why it is so important. Public pressure is the most effective way to ensure the government implements the recommendations.
- Is it a perfect system?
No system is perfect. But we believe a citizens’ assembly is the best way for us to decide together how to address the climate and ecological crisis.
2. Organisation of the citizens’ assembly
- Who selects the experts and decides on the presentations?
An independent, advisory body. This group of experts and practitioners makes sure information is balanced and not controlled by vested interests.
- Who makes sure it’s fair?
An oversight body has an overview of all of the workings of the assembly. This could include randomly-selected members of the public.
- Where is it held?
The sessions normally take place over a number of weekends in hotel conference rooms where members are given accomodation and meals. Members sit round tables with space at the front where experts and others speak. There may be an area for visitors and/or press, but they can only witness the speakers, and not hear or take part in the facilitated conversations of assembly members.
3. Before the assembly – selection of participants
- Who is in charge of the selection process?
The independent organising body is in charge of the process.
- Who is eligible?
All people over the age of 16 who live in the UK.
- How are participants selected?
Potential participants are invited using specialist computer software. Thousands of invitations are sent out. Those who get a letter can register online or by phone. People who register are further selected by a process called ‘stratified sampling’. This sorts potential participants into demographic categories like age bands, region or gender. Further random selection then takes place in each category to make sure the final sample is random yet reflective of the population. At the end of all of this, the assembly looks like a ‘mini UK’.
- Do you have to be a UK citizen to take part?
No. We expect all people who live in the UK will be eligible whether they are a UK citizen or not.
- How do we make it inclusive?
It’s important that no community is excluded, for example the organisers should find a way to include people with no postal address.
- If I am selected do I have to take part?
No. You might receive an invitation letter because the selection process is random like a jury. However, you can choose not to participate.
- What about people who work weekends? Do assembly members get paid?
Assembly members can be paid a stipend to help cover loss of earnings. This ensures that people who work weekends, shifts, nights, are not excluded to take part in the assembly.
- Can I be a CA member?
Because the initial invitation letters are sent to random people, it is unlikely you would be selected, but you never know!
- Can CA members be influenced by lobbyists? How is the assembly kept free from bribery and corruption?
Most participants come with an open mind to seek solutions for the common good – they are not there for their (political) career. Each member has an equal voice, so the power of individual voices determining outcome is minimal.
Presentations are public and interests of presenters are declared.
Reasons for supporting decisions made will also be documented and will be open to the public.
CA members are anonymous during the process and can choose whether to remain anonymous at the end of the assembly, meaning companies or individuals wishing to influence the assembly do not know who the assembly members are.
4. During the assembly
- How do CA members learn about the Climate and Ecological Emergency?
The first few weekend sessions of the citizens’ assembly are devoted to learning about the climate and ecological crisis because participants need a good enough understanding of the issues to inform deliberation and recommendations.
Participants hear presentations and get written materials from a range of speakers and topics including:
- experts – these would include climate and environmental scientists, economists, historians, and engineers
- stakeholders – like energy companies, activists, environmental organisations
- rights holders – such as farmers, company workers, and people who are affected – this would include indigenous peoples living on the front lines of the climate and ecological emergency.
- How are groups facilitated?
Professional facilitators support the assembly process to ensure all voices are heard and no one dominates discussions. When people of diverse opinions meet face to face in these environments, they tend to temper extreme opinions and are willing to find common ground. Translators and sign language interpreters will also be available.
- Some people are more dominant than others due to cultural/educational background, confidence and personality. How is this addressed?
Professional facilitators support the process to ensure all voices are heard and no one dominates discussions. When people of diverse opinions meet face to face in these environments, they tend to temper extreme opinions and are willing to find common ground.
- What if table ‘facilitators’ are biased?
Facilitators don’t take part in discussions so opportunity to exercise bias is limited. Their role is purely to ensure the deliberation runs smoothly.
- How are the recommendations agreed?
After the deliberation phase, each group agrees to a set of recommendations about that subject. The recommendations are sorted and put to whole group votes, and the most popular are the ones which go forward into the report.
The assembly then produces a report which includes reasons for backing the recommendations, the consensus for each recommendation, as well as a summary of different views. The report will be published according to the timescale agreed at the beginning of the process.
5. After the assembly
- How will the government decide which recommendations to take forward?
It must be agreed at the outset what happens to the recommendations. For example, in the proposed cross party Climate and Ecology Bill (CE Bill), recommendations agreed upon by 80% of the CA will be included in the strategy put forward by parliament. Parliament will debate any recommendations with less than 80% of votes, and provide a report explaining its reasons for not taking forward any of those.
- What if the government doesn’t implement the recommendations of the assembly?
Public opinion is a driving force behind government decisions, so before the CA it is essential that the organising body educates the general public about citizens’ assemblies, so everyone knows the CA is happening, what is being decided on, and that government is expected to act on the recommendations. It is also vital that there is wide publicity about the CA taking place, so that everyone in the country knows that there are people like them making major decisions that are going to affect everyone. It would need to be in the news, in the papers, everywhere. Without publicity, the government can easily get away with not implementing the recommendations.
- What if I don’t agree with the recommendations?
We have to trust our fellow citizens. The Third Demand is a CA free from interference from government, corporations or anyone else, including XR. In an open and fair CA, members have support to learn about the Climate and Ecological Emergency, so they will reach an informed judgement. From previous CAs on numerous issues we have seen that citizens are inclined to follow the evidence, e.g. climate science, and make ambitious recommendations in the best interest of all.
- Who will check that recommendations are followed up?
If there is wide public understanding of the citizens assembly, and therefore the urgency of the crisis, we would expect that public pressure would ensure the government carries out its commitments. It was interesting that after the French Climate Convention some members formed an association called the “150” to follow up and monitor the actions recommended to the government. We expect the report from the CA will have recommendations on how to follow up and monitor progress.