About the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland
As the first national exercise of this nature in Scotland, the Citizens' Assembly for Scotland pioneered and developed its own approach to the task it had been set. The Scottish Government and Parliament also had to establish their roles and their relations with the Assembly, as this new body established itself, and its potential to refresh the political process became clear.
Establishment of the Assembly
The establishment of the Assembly was initially proposed by the Scottish Government, which prepared a remit and terms of reference, and an agreement on the independence and support of the Assembly (including funding; the final costs of the Assembly are set out at Annex A).
The Scottish Parliament also supported the establishment of the Assembly. In September 2019 it passed a motion welcoming the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland, and noting the principles, remit and terms of reference for the Assembly.
The Assembly's processes
The Assembly worked primarily through set piece meetings, chaired by the Convener (who was appointed by the government, supported by the Parliament), supported by a secretariat made up of civil servants, and professional facilitators. A Stewarding Group provided access to expert advice on the processes of the Assembly, and subject experts provided evidence on the subjects under discussion. Assembly members also met a politicians' panel with representatives from across Scotland's political parties.
The Assembly met four times in face to face weekend events between October 2019 and February 2020. It was due to meet for two further weekends which were suspended in accordance with public health requirements relating to Covid. The Assembly reconvened online in September 2020 with shorter meetings over four weekends before publishing its report and recommendations in January 2021.
The events, both face to face and online, were designed around facilitated conversations and structured ways of working. At each event evidence was presented and there was an opportunity to hear views in a respectful way, along with facilitated discussions which supported participants to assess the evidence and collectively come to agreed set of recommendations. The work of the Assembly was guided by the principles of independence, transparency, inclusion, access, balance, cumulative learning and open-mindedness.
Assembly meetings considered the following topics:
- Weekend 1: How the Assembly will work and understanding the constitutional position in Scotland
- Weekend 2: How to engage critically with evidence and sources, what leads to a good life and a good society and how values influence the kind of nation we wish to be
- Weekend 3: Constitutional issues following the UK General Election and a conversation with a politicians' panel on priorities and challenges for Scotland after the General Election and, separately, sustainability
- Weekend 4: Tax and finance
- Weekend 5 (online): Reflections of the impact of Covid and responding to Covid
The Assembly met for a further three online meetings to draft and agree their vision and recommendations; no further evidence was heard at these meetings.
A significant proportion of the report is devoted to the reflections of the members themselves: who they are, why they agreed to get involved, what the experience has meant to them and what they hope will be achieved as a result. From these individual stories, it is clear that the commitment, and interaction, of Assembly members are as important to the success of the process as the terms of reference, the supporting groups of experts and professionals, and other formal arrangements to enable the work of the Assembly.
Publishing the Assembly's report
Following publication of the report on 13 January, Assembly members presented their conclusions to Scottish Ministers at an online event which took place on 21 January 2021. This gave them the opportunity to share first hand their experiences and ambitions for the report, and impress Ministers directly with their commitment and enthusiasm for the Assembly and its work.
An event also took place in the Scottish Parliament on 15 February 2021. This event was hosted by the then Presiding Officer as part of the Scottish Futures Forum, and comprised contributions from the then Presiding Officer, the Convener, a political panel and group of Assembly members. This again gave Assembly members the opportunity to communicate their views directly to MSPs
The report was debated in Parliament the month after it was published on 18 February 2021. Michael Russell, then Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, acknowledged the extent of the vision in the report and its implications for all political parties and the overall political process:
It is also clear that the report and its recommendations are only the start of a long-term project that envisages a transformative change to Scottish politics, in which engagement with Government and the practice of decision making is a given. That will result in better deliberation, consideration, accessibility, inclusivity and, ultimately, governance.
I hope that we can all welcome the opportunity to embrace such changes, even if we do not agree with every detail of the report, or if we come from a different political or philosophical perspective when considering the underlying messages. The fact is that the report challenges us all—no matter our political or philosophical perspective—and some of it is particularly challenging to those of us who have been active full-time politicians for many years.
The debate in the Scottish Parliament showed widespread recognition of many of the issues raised by the Assembly, including those critical of the political process itself. The Parliament agreed to a motion thanking members of the Assembly for their hard work, efforts, commitment and collaborative approach, and commending the report for further consideration by the next session of the Parliament, while recognising that different political parties would take different views on the recommendations of the report.
Since the publication of the Assembly's report
The publication of the report was too late in the Parliamentary session to allow a formal response from the Scottish Government before the Scottish General Election of May 2021. However, the timing did allow the report to be considered by political parties in drafting their manifestoes for that election.
On 7 September 2021 the Scottish Government published A Fairer, Greener Scotland, its first Programme for Government for the new Parliamentary session. The Programme for Government is the mechanism to set out plans to take forward manifesto commitments and other government initiatives. This response draws on the Programme for Government to show the actions the government intends to take on the priorities identified by the Citizens' Assembly. The government's plans are not identical to the Assembly's specific recommendations in each area, but the response is structured to show the extent to which both the general thrust and the details of the Assembly's themes and recommendations are reflected in the Programme for Government.
The Covid pandemic and the Assembly
As well as the practicalities of the Assembly's work, it was clear from early in the pandemic that it would also affect the substance of the issues that were being considered. Indeed the Assembly was uniquely placed to deliberate on the impact of the pandemic as an established and structured process of public participation that had started work before Covid.
When the Assembly reconvened in September 2020 members reflected on their experiences and identified issues arising from Covid to recall when they came to consider their final recommendations. These were:
- ensuring a more equal and socially responsible country
- supporting education and training for all young people
- prioritising health and wellbeing
- responding to mental health impacts
- building more resilience into planning
- measures to support recovery
- focussing on a sustainable economic recovery
- delivering fair work and pay and valuing key workers
- recognising the challenges for public finances
- establishing a fairer tax system
- tackling the climate crisis
- improving decision-making through citizens' involvement
- strengthening devolution and improving working between Governments
The Assembly eventually made specific references to Covid in the recommendations in relation to greater public involvement in decision making (recommendation 6); acknowledging those who supported society during the pandemic (recommendation 9); and the need to invest in business and secure jobs to support the recovery (recommendations 32 and 41)
The Scottish Government published its Covid Recovery Strategy for a Fairer Future on 5 October 2021. The Strategy sets out the government's vision for recovery and the actions to address systemic inequalities made worse by Covid, make progress towards a wellbeing economy, and accelerate inclusive person-centred public services. This response also draws on that strategy.
The Strategy also details the public engagement that informed its vision and the outcomes, including the work of the Assembly. That public engagement highlighted the following ambitions for the recovery, echoing the main issues identified by the Assembly:
- Achieves financial security for all
- Supports health and wellbeing
- Addresses the harms caused by the pandemic
- Empowers communities and places
- Is ambitious and transformational
- Advances equality and strengthens rights
- Recognises the value of time and of social connections
- Starts from the individual
- Supports economic development
- Involves people in decision making
- Is evidence driven
The importance of public engagement to the Covid Recovery Strategy is also an acknowledgment of the work of the Assembly in reflecting the concerns of members, as representatives of the wider public, in considering the issues arising from Covid even as they were unfolding.
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