Citizens’ Assembly

Electoral politics – the problem in a nutshell

In the UK, our outdated political system was invented in the Victorian era. It’s failing to drive the changes we need now because of serious problems with the way it works.

Think about these issues and see how citizens’ assemblies can make things better.

Opposition

Electoral politics
The foundation of “party politics” is one of opposition: the red team against the blue team (especially in the UK with a ‘first past the post’ system). The main party not in government is literally called “the opposition”. This poses an enormous challenge to constructive, collaborative decision making for this emergency issue.

Citizens’ assembly
Members of a CA are set the task of collaborating to investigate and find solutions. They hear balanced information from experts, stakeholders and people already affected by the crisis. They discuss in small groups. The groups are rotated. Independent professional facilitators ensure all members have a voice and all views are heard. Decisions are made together.

Lobbying and Donors

Electoral politics
Powerful corporations and wealthy individuals have easy access to our politicians that enables them to influence decision making. They invest heavily in lobbying MPs and donate huge sums to political parties. It is clearly unfair for these interests to have an oversized influence on policy making, especially since these vested interests often undermine the common good.

Citizens’ assembly
Assembly members are less likely to be influenced by lobbyists because an assembly is temporary and made up of randomly selected members. And a CA is run by an independent organisation free from interference by government, corporations, or anyone else – including Extinction Rebellion. The process is transparent.

Short term thinking

Electoral politics
The outlook and decision making of politicians is for the short term because they are focussed on their personal re-election and that of their party in the UK’s five year election cycle. The climate and ecological emergency requires long-term decision making now.

Citizens’ assembly
Members of a CA do not have these personal and party re-election influences. They are more likely to be thinking long-term because they are concerned for their futures.

Not representative

Electoral politics
UK citizens hand over their power to representatives (MPs) by voting for them. Our MPs hold the power in policy making, but as a group, they do not reflect the diversity of the UK population, and because of this are unlikely to represent them fairly. MPs are also often forced to follow “party lines” and this weakens the fairness of representation further.

Citizens’ assembly
Members of a CA are people from different walks of life (gender, age, ethnicity etc), randomly selected like a jury. The CA is a cross section of society, a ‘mini public’, a group of people with a range of lived experiences, opinions and attitudes.

Introduction to citizens’ assemblies

In the UK, Extinction Rebellion’s Third Demand is that the Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice.

What is a citizens’ assembly?

Citizens’ assemblies are not new, and are gaining popularity around the world. They empower people, communities and entire countries to make important decisions in a fair and deeply democratic way.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice will bring together a “mini public” of everyday people to investigate, discuss and make recommendations on how to respond to the climate emergency. These people will be randomly selected, like a jury, to reflect the whole country in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, education level and geography. They will hear balanced information from experts and those most affected by the emergency and then discuss what they have learned openly and honestly in small groups. Together they will work through their differences before drafting and voting on recommendations. The process is run by non-governmental organisations under independent oversight.

This isn’t pie in the sky – it’s proven practice. Citizens’ assemblies around the world show that ordinary people can understand complex information, weigh the options, and make informed choices. It’s the fairest and most powerful way to cut through party politics and empower citizens to work together to take responsibility for our climate and ecological emergency.

Citizens’ assemblies are used elsewhere to address important issues that electoral politics can’t fix on its own. Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly broke the deadlock on the controversial issues of same-sex marriage and abortion. The UK Parliament has experimented for example with Climate Assembly UK. You can find more examples of Citizens Assemblies in the section below.

To be effective Citizens Assemblies must be done properly or they lose their legitimacy. You can find out more in the document basic standards for citizens assemblies.

Why is Extinction Rebellion demanding a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice?

This is an emergency. The challenges are big, wide-ranging and complex. And solutions are needed urgently. 

Extinction Rebellion believes that part of the problem is the way electoral politics works. Members of parliament are lobbied by powerful corporations, seek sympathetic media coverage, and calculate their policies based on potential public reactions and opinion polls. These opinion polls often gather knee-jerk reactions to loaded questions, but do not inform participants or engage those with different perspectives. For complex issues like the climate and ecological emergency, our system of electoral politics needs an upgrade.

Here is how a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice can break the deadlock:

  • A Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice will empower citizens to take the lead and politicians to follow with less fear of political backlash.
  • Citizens’ assemblies are fair and transparent. Assembly members have an equal chance of being heard. Briefing materials, experts, and other presenters are vetted by diverse stakeholders and shared publicly. This produces informed democratic decisions.
  • Citizens’ assemblies are especially useful when difficult trade-offs are necessary. For example, experts might propose policies for how to meet a target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and the assembly could decide which they prefer. They would also consider how to mitigate the impacts of changes on the most vulnerable people.

A citizens’ assembly allows us, the people, to decide what’s best for our future, even if that means radical changes in the present. Because they are informed and democratic, the Citizens’ Assembly’s decisions will provide political cover and public pressure for politicians to set aside the usual politicking and do the right thing.

Why randomly select citizens for the citizens’ assembly?

Members of citizens’ assemblies should be randomly selected for 3 main reasons:

  • Random selection treats everyone equally. We’re all threatened by the emergency. The process gives all citizens an equal chance to help make the big decisions as we try to address the crisis.
  • It’s fair. The selection process ensures that the Citizens’ Assembly reflects our whole country in terms of characteristics like gender, age, income, and ethnicity. No particular group and no particular view is overrepresented or able to dominate the assembly.
  • It allows for honest conversation. Unlike elected politicians, ordinary citizens who are randomly selected have no political debts and don’t have to worry about pleasing a party or getting reelected. So they can speak honestly, listen to others and decide based on what they truly believe is best for the country. 

Remember, in our modern legal system we trust people randomly selected for jury duty to decide.

Legally binding or not?

People often ask if the government will be legally obliged to take on the   recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice.  The answer is that Extinction Rebellion does NOT demand a legally binding citizens’ assembly.

For the recommendations to be binding, a change in UK law would have to be made, requiring parliamentary scrutiny and consent. This  change in UK law is unlikely to be agreed by the UK parliament and would certainly delay action on the CEE.  In any case, parliament could reverse its decision in the future. 

More important is that the citizens’ assembly has full support and understanding of the public. If enough people understand what a CA is, and if it is seen to be fair, transparent, and robust, it will be seen as legitimate and the government will be obliged to take the recommendations on board.

How to address deep seated issues concerning fairness and justice

Racial, social, economic and global injustice is at the heart of the climate and ecological crisis.  It is essential that this is recognised and considered throughout the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice. 

Who takes part?

  • A fairer representation of people than in the current parliamentary system. For example, how many MPs are unemployed or living from one paycheck to the next? In a CA, the wealthiest 1% will only have 1% representation.
  • To reduce barriers to taking part, accommodation, and travel expenses paid for and a payment can be made to cover carers responsibilities or loss of income.
  • Anyone who lives in the UK can take part – ‘citizen’ in this context really just means ordinary people, not career politicians. 
  • A diverse assembly considers a wide range of perspectives and ultimately makes for fairer decisions.

How are the citizens’ assembly members briefed?

  • XR expects assembly members to learn how this crisis came about – this would include historical responsibility, colonialism, global justice, and the economic structures that have created the crisis.
  • Assembly members will be trained to identify bias – whether it’s their own or that of the speakers.

What do they hear?

  • Speakers will include not only ‘experts’ such as scientists and academics, but people with lived experiences.
  • These will include voices from people already affected by the CEE –  from the UK such as farmers with failed crops or families with flooded homes, and from other countries for whom famine, floods, drought, and fires are a daily reality.
  • Assembly members must have the power to invite additional speakers if they feel certain topics or groups of people have not been properly addressed.
How do citizens’ assemblies differ from people’s assemblies?

Extinction Rebellion’s third demand is for the UK Government to create and be led by the decisions of a UK-wide Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice.

There is often confusion between the two terms: citizens’ assemblies and people’s assemblies. Both give ordinary people the opportunity to discuss and reflect on important issues. Professional facilitators provide structure to the discussion and ensure no one dominates. However the purpose and structure of citizens’ and people’s assemblies is very different.

Citizens’ assemblies are made up of ordinary people randomly selected from the population,like a jury. The selection method ensures that assembly members accurately reflect the whole population in terms of key characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, education level and geography. This means they will reflect and represent the interests of the entire population better than members of Parliament. They also have a structured learning phase in which members hear from experts and different groups affected by the issue. Citizens’ assemblies are usually focused on informing policy and are particularly useful on issues that are too controversial or long-term for politicians to deal with by themselves. This formal process takes months to plan, and can last from a few months to over a year.

In contrast, people’s assemblies are organised discussion forums – open to anyone who would like to attend. A people’s assembly is a way to structure meetings with a large number of people to generate ideas, discuss issues and make decisions. People’s assemblies can last between one and four hours and can take place anywhere. People’s assemblies are sometimes used by local councils and local communities in the UK. Extinction Rebellion has used people’s assemblies to generate ideas, gather feedback and make decisions on the street.

Learn more

Here’s more about citizens’ assemblies.

See our CA FAQs page for more technical detail Watch “The Deliberate Rebellion” (12 min video) Watch the Citizens’ Assembly Talk (40 min video)

Citizens’ Assemblies in the UK

Don’t just take our word for it! Around the world everyday people are taking part in real decision making through processes such as citizens’ assemblies. Here are the most significant that have  happened here in the UK.

Climate Assembly UK 2020

Climate Assembly UK took place in early 2020. Its purpose was to consider and make recommendations on the question: “How can the UK reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050?”. Its report was published in September 2020.

Limitations and failings
Extinction Rebellion finds Climate Assembly UK to have been inadequate in several important respects. Here is a short summary:

  • Inadequate 2050 target The assembly was working to a net zero target date of 2050 which is way too late. The target date was not for the assembly to consider.
  • Ignored the UK’s international emissions Only domestic emissions were considered. A significant proportion of the UK’s carbon emissions actually come from the overseas transport and manufacture of goods for UK consumption.
  • No publicity or public engagement The wider public was not aware of Climate Assembly UK and there were no outreach attempts to inform the public of the process and why it was important. Additionally, there was no mechanism for the public to send their comments.
  • No government buy-in The assembly was commissioned by six Select Committees of the House of Commons, not the UK Government. As these are advisory groups, there was no requirement for the Government to act on the recommendations. The outcomes have been ignored and there has been no government response.
  • Smaller thematic groups By splitting the assembly up into smaller groups you lose the diversity and collective intelligence of the group as a whole. 

Positive outcomes
However, there were important positive outcomes. The assembly’s report conveys assembly members’ agreement on themes that recurred throughout their discussions that called for:

  • Improved information and education for all on climate change.
  • Fairness, including across sectors, geographies, incomes and health.
  • Freedom and choice for individuals and local areas.
  • Strong leadership from government.
  • Attitude towards climate change was one of the criteria used to select the group of assembly members. This ensured there was a balance of views on the urgency of the climate crisis.
  • At the end, members were given freedom to make their own recommendations unconnected to the original question. They were asked: “Is there anything else you would like to tell government and parliament about how the UK should get to net zero?” Their decisions were based on their own experiences, values, views and the information they had all heard throughout the assembly. 39 additional recommendations were put forward, which were much more radical. They highlighted systemic issues on themes including transparency, accountability, international action and impacts.
    Key recommendations included:
    • Call for government leadership – working across political parties
    • Independent, neutral monitoring and reporting on net zero progress
    • Much more transparency in the relationship between big energy companies and the government, due to concerns over lobbying and influence. (94% support)

The assembly’s recommendations are valuable and the process was a good starting point, a stepping stone to something better.

Climate Assembly UK proved that a robustly administered citizens’ assembly can enable ordinary people to consider complex information and take informed decisions together in a fair and transparent way. Citizens’ assemblies can put people at the heart of decision-making.

Learn more

Website for Climate Assembly UK

Suggested reading and watching: 

  • Watch Climate Assembly UK members on their report
  • About – largely about the organisation of the assembly.
  • Resources – includes all the talks from experts and stakeholders presented to the assembly members.
  • Report – the final report which included the recommendations as well as the reasons behind the support or reaction by assembly members. Recommendations with high approval rates included: “Get to net zero without pushing our emissions to elsewhere in the world” 92%; “The transition to net-zero should be a cross political party issue, and not a partisan one” 96%; “More transparency in the relationship between big energy companies and government” 94%; “A robust media strategy on the outcomes of the Assembly” 90%; “An independent neutral body that monitors and ensures progress to net zero, including citizens assemblies and independent experts” 89%.

Watch The People Vs Climate Change

A BBC documentary about experiences of the participants of Climate Assembly UK.

Scotland’s Climate Assembly 2020-2021

Scotland’s Climate Assembly took place between November 2020 and March 2021. Its purpose was to consider and make recommendations on the question: “How should Scotland change to tackle the climate emergency in an effective and fair way?”. Its report was published in June 2021.

Limitations and failings

  • Failed to be independent of government The assembly became increasingly controlled by the Secretariat, which, whilst proclaiming independence from government, is actually staffed by civil servants, and uses government processes, ways of working and attitudes towards the scale of the crisis.
  • Little public awareness There was no wide-spread publicity about the assembly, the general public did not know it was going on. This limits public pressure on the Government to take up the recommendations.
  • Limited to online participation Due to the COVID 19 pandemic the entire assembly took place online. As much as this could not be avoided, it altered the experience of the assembly members who did not meet and deliberate face to face.
  • Smaller thematic groups: By splitting the assembly up into smaller groups you lose the diversity and collective intelligence of the group as a whole. 

XR Scotland initially endorsed Scotland’s Climate Assembly and was represented on the assembly’s Stewarding Group.

Read about their withdrawal of endorsement on the XR Scotland website.

Positive outcomes
However, there were important positive outcomes from this assembly:

  • No specified date The scope of the assembly was not constrained by a set date like that of Climate Assembly UK (which was limited to achievement of the Government’s 2050 net zero target).
  • Fairness was central “Fair” was placed in the question set for the assembly. The question was actually amended by the Stewarding Group which consisted of a range of representatives from different points of view. 
  • Children had a voice In a world-first, the assembly worked closely with Children’s Parliament to integrate their activity into the assembly and ensure children’s voices are heard in decision-making.
  • Government response The Scottish Government responded to every recommendation on 16th December 2021. Implementation, however, still remains to be seen.
  • Cross party buy-in All political parties of the Scottish government were supportive of holding a CA on the climate and ecological emergency.
  • Acknowledgement of global justice The assembly acknowledged Scotland needs to take responsibility for its global share in the climate crisis.

Read the assembly’s Statement of Ambition to see how ordinary people can come up with radical recommendations and are committed to a better future.

The citizens’ response to the Scottish Government
Scotland’s Climate Assembly gathered for its final weekend on 4th to 6th February 2022 to consider the Scottish Government’s response to the assembly’s 81 recommendations.

It published a largely critical commentary on the response in the Scotsman newspaper. It is great to see that through this assembly, people from various walks of life are seeing the greenwash and are calling out the Scottish Government for its inadequacy.

Here is a short summary of the criticisms:

  • General disappointment due to lack of sense of urgency from government.
  • The assembly members want finance to be ring fenced by government for the recommendations. 
  • Too much government commitment for what is already underway, no support for new initiatives.
  • Not enough government commitment to retrofitting, highlighting a major issue of social injustice.
  • No attention to fairness and justice from the government. 
  • Lack of commitment to plastics and reducing use by the government. 
  • Disappointing response to recommendations regarding aviation.
  • Public transport commitments do not go far enough.
  • Concerned about different levels of government not effectively communicating with each other.
  • The citizens’ assembly members want more ambitious targets and timescales. 
  • They want the government to be held to account through a framework of measuring progress.
  • Global target emergency – The assembly recognises that this is a global crisis and that Scotland has its part to play.

The Scottish Parliament still has to scrutinise these recommendations.

Learn more

Website for Scotland’s Climate Assembly

Provides information for you to explore. Find out how the assembly worked, read assembly members’ testimonies, recommendations and more:

  • How it works – largely about the organisation of the assembly.
  • Who is involved – gives a clear idea of the structure of the assembly organisation.
  • Full Report – this shows some high approval rates for strong recommendations e.g. Tax High Carbon Resources 87%; Retrofit All Existing Homes by 2030 97%; Decarbonise Heating by 2030 96%; Public Transport Cheaper or Free 98% – too many to list here.
  • Government Response – responses, recommendation by recommendation. No action yet, although work groups have been set up to look into the recommendations.

What about local citizens’ assemblies in the UK?

With the growing interest in citizens’ assemblies, we often get asked for advice about local citizens’ assemblies. 

See our CA FAQs page for more information

Citizens’ assemblies around the world

Here are inspiring stories about some of them – please follow links to their websites and explore them to open your mind to the possibilities for the urgent change we need.

East Belgium 2019 – present

The Permanent Citizens’ Dialogue in East Belgium (Ostbelgien) is a first: a permanent citizens’ assembly was established in the German speaking community of East Belgium by Parliamentary Decree in February 2019. Part of the Federation of Belgium, with a population of 77,000, it has its own parliament. Citizen participation in East Belgium therefore has legal standing.

It was set up to actually change something –  namely, the lack of trust in public decision making and its institutions.The East Belgian model, as it is known, was designed to: 

  • Include people in shaping politics.
  • Promote understanding of the political decision making process.
  • Strengthen trust in democratic decision making and democratic institutions.

The East Belgian model is an equal balance between politicians and people and although initiated top-down, all political parties agreed to it. There is political commitment, the citizens’ assemblies are taken seriously and there is a clear path of action and dialogue as to what’s being done.The joint discussions between citizens and politicians ensure mutual understanding and respect.

Learn more
Website for East Belgium’s Citizens’ Dialogue: Bürgerdialog in Ostbelgien 

For English translation, choose EN in the language dropdown – you may need to use Google Translate for some pages.

France 2019

La Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat – The French Citizens’ Climate Convention – was promised to be THE citizens’ assembly because France’s President Macron undertook to submit all recommendations to either a referendum, a vote in parliament or direct regulation.

The citizen representatives heard wide ranging evidence on the question “How to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, in a spirit of social justice?”  

Limitations and failings

  • No buy-in from parliament The president of France commissioned the convention but failed to get support and buy-in from parliament. This resulted in scepticism of the convention’s recommendations from parliamentarians, and ultimately most recommendations were rejected.
  • Inequality Some speakers like a representative of the Ministry of Ecology had 50 minutes to make their case while others like a representative from a think tank calling for de-growth was only given five minutes, so some speakers were given more influence.
  • Lack of publicity From the outset there was hardly any publicity to let the public know the convention was happening. This limited public support and pressure on politicians to take up the recommendations.
  • Smaller thematic groups By splitting the assembly up into smaller groups you lose the diversity and collective intelligence of the group as a whole.

Positive outcomes
There were some really great intiatives from the citizens themselves.

  • They called for an ecocide law.
  • Expanded the original mandate – insisting on going beyond only reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by tackling other subjects such as biodiversity.
  • Inviting speakers themselves rather than being limited to those selected by the organisers.
  • Calling for an extra three day session as they realised the complexity of the issue.
  • Doing extra intense work between sessions.
  • Holding ‘Climate Aperitifs’ to hear and exchange ideas with other citizens – unusual as most citizens’ assembly members are anonymous until the end of the process.
  • After the convention some members formed an association called the “150”  to follow up and monitor action.

Learn more

Website for La Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat

Find out more about the convention, including the citizens’ opinion on the responses provided by the government to its proposals.

Ireland 2016

Since 2012, two Irish citizens’ assemblies, deliberating several issues each, have been held to break political deadlock on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change. This video shows the process of citizens deliberating over the sensitive issue of abortion.

Poland 2016

In 2016, the Polish city of Gdansk was struck by major flooding, killing two people and causing millions of euros in damage. Experts warned that climate change would only increase the frequency of such extreme rainfall events. In response to the disaster, the mayor agreed to organise a citizens’ assembly, bringing together about 60 residents to hear expert testimony and design their own solutions. To promote transparency, the final stage of the random selection process was carried out by a die-roll that was live streamed.

The mayor attended the start of the assembly and informed participants that decisions with at least 80% support among its members would be enacted in law. In 2017, the city flooded again, however, the municipality was able to respond effectively, thanks in part to the resolutions passed by the assembly. Further citizens’ assemblies followed which addressed pollution, civic engagement and LGBT rights.

The 350,000 adults living in Gdansk are able to request a citizens’ assembly by collecting 1,000 signatures. If the number of signatures reaches 5,000, the mayor is obliged to run a citizens’ assembly on the proposed topic.

Part of the reason that local citizens’ assemblies are well received in Poland is down to the fact that they are well publicized, everyone knows they are taking place, they are visible and seen as legitimate. It’s not just people in various bubbles, the whole community is on board. You can find out all about it at the bus-stop!

USA 2019

“America in One Room” was an independently run four-day deliberative poll, not a citizens’ assembly, that brought together 523 registered voters from across the country to explore and discuss critical issues facing the US: immigration, health care, the economy, the environment and foreign policy. 

The purpose of the poll was to demonstrate how a representative group of people with different views can engage with each other respectfully and find common ground. Through a learning phase with a mix of experts and political figures, and facilitated small group discussions participants were able to think deeply on issues and hear each other’s views.

Watch the video to see how deliberation can move peoples’ positions on polarising issues.

Learn more

Watch this CNN video about America in One Room

See full details on the America in One Room website

Video

Watch the Around the World in 8 CAs Talk (40 min video)

Citizens’ Assembly Resources

Citizens’ Assembly Talk

Use our resources to enable you to give the talk and help spread the word about citizens’ assembly.

Download presentation as PDF Download speaker’s notes as GDOC

Messaging

Use our resources in your messaging.

Basic info Citizens’ Assembly Flyer (E-flyer Version) PDF Basic info Citizens’ Assembly Flyer (Printable Version) PDF Social media graphics zip file Demographic placards PDF Bunting artwork zip file

Contact Us

Extinction Rebellion UK’s Citizens’ Assembly Working Group (CAWG) promotes and lobbies for Extinction Rebellion’s Third Demand.

Get in touch: XR-CitizensAssembly@protonmail.com

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