Institutionalising Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Working Group: report

Recommends how the Scottish Government's ambition for change can be delivered to make Scotland’s democracy more participative and inclusive, and proposes next steps as it incorporates processes for participatory and deliberative democracy into the democratic system.

Recommendations: Citizens' Assemblies

Scottish Government has committed to delivering further Citizens' Assemblies, building on its trail-blazing efforts as one of only a small number of countries to have convened multiple Assemblies in succession. These have provided rich and valuable insights into the priorities of people from across Scotland and possible courses of action on complex issues. It is crucial to learn lessons across our different experiences, to draw on emerging international research, and to have in place the ongoing supporting infrastructure to do this.

The following arrangements will inform other organisations seeking to use Citizens' Assemblies and other deliberative engagement approaches, but are framed to ensure that commitments from Scottish Government to run routine Assemblies can be delivered.

Guiding Principles

We draw on the expertise of the working group and research reports from the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland[28] and Scotland's Climate Assembly in presenting our recommendations. For future processes and for movement towards routine and people-led processes we must adhere to these guiding principles:

  • Long-term investment and guidance for democratic innovation: clear, long-term commitment to infrastructure and skilled resources to future-proof Citizens' Assemblies and enhance opportunities for other democratic innovations
  • Good governance: with clear roles, responsibilities and lines of accountability that establish from the outset a degree of independence and who holds decision-making authority on different aspects and at different stages in setting topics and remits, as well as the delivery, design and research of Assemblies
  • A central source of knowledge and expertise: with a body to uphold standards and continuously develop frameworks and processes in light of new learning[29]
  • Clear expectations on required commitment of contributors: moving away from the reliance on voluntary contributions to fulfil key functions, notably evidence and advisory roles. This is risky, unsustainable and has an impact on the quality of contributions.

1. Put in place infrastructure to deliver on commitments to run routine Citizens' Assemblies, starting with Citizens' Assemblies already scheduled by Scottish Government

There are commitments to three Citizens' Assemblies to be fulfilled during the current Parliamentary term: on local government funding; in support of actions to reduce harms from drugs; and a Citizens' Assembly for under 16's. This recommendation recognises the need to provide guidance, skills and resources, governance, and to undertake the foundational work required to deliver these commitments.

2. Support further work to develop the Citizens' Assembly for under 16's, building on the outcomes of a children and young people's democracy symposium

Take a co-design approach with young people and people with specialist experience, as outlined in Participation and Democratic Innovations recommendation 1.3. The work of Scotland's Climate Assembly with the Children's Parliament provides an example of a process that could ensure greater integration of children and young people.

3. Adopt the values, principles and standards set out in this report to underpin all future Citizens' Assemblies, and work to build a trusted system that supports and understands these

Work with COSLA, Scottish Parliament, Civil Society and others across the system to ensure our approach to Citizens' Assemblies and wider democratic innovation is coherent, understood, and supported.

The values, principles and standards set out in this report[30] represent a baseline for future participatory processes, particularly Citizens' Assemblies. Implementing these will require buy-in and support from key bodies. Flexibility is one of the principles in this report, which means that other parts of the system can build upon these foundations, and specific processes like Citizens' Assemblies can establish additional principles, values and standards to work from.

4. Ensure development of annual Citizens' Assemblies are sponsored and organised by a practice-led Unit that has clear responsibility and can ensure continuity of approach across policy areas

A specific Unit based in the Scottish Government is recommended, with its responsibilities including to deliver the Citizens' Assemblies of this parliament. The Unit would act as Sponsor to the Assemblies, working with policy teams to provide clear guidance on recruitment, governance, access to skilled practitioners and to ensure investment in practice expertise is not lost at the end of each Assembly.

Acting as Sponsor will include ensuring continuity of approach across directorates and policy areas, making the most of investment in research, skills and knowledge across the civil service, and enabling a focus on future innovations.

5. Collaborate with local government, public services and Parliament to establish and agree clear agenda setting guidelines for all Citizens' Assemblies

The broad agendas and topics for the Citizens' Assemblies during this Parliament have already been decided.

During this Parliament, it will be important to work in partnership with local government, public services and Parliament to co-develop clear guidelines on the routine use of, and agenda setting for, Citizens' Assemblies beyond this Parliament. These guidelines would form a baseline for adoption by all partners. Longer term, public involvement in agenda setting is needed.

There should be a degree of flexibility within guidelines to ensure the agenda and composition of future Assemblies are appropriate for their context. All approaches should have clear routes for the outputs from the Assembly process and robust assessment of opportunities for their impact. To ensure ongoing trust and credibility, we emphasise that agendas are best co-produced with public input.

There multiple ways to set agendas and there is international precedence for people-led approaches, for example in Paris and Ostbelgien[31]. The parameters of Scotland's Climate Assembly agenda were set in legislation and expanded in the governance report - questions were agreed through a deliberative process involving members of oversight bodies, but agendas could also be established in legislation.

The Secretariat of Scotland's Citizens' Assemblies each developed their guiding principles and there are international efforts to establish standards which can be drawn from. In the longer term, guidelines should aim to move towards public involvement in agenda setting. This recommendation would enable a flexible set of options for setting Assembly topics, questions and agenda parameters - ensuring choices are understood, trusted, coherent and within the government's competence.

Citizens' Assemblies work best when they tackle complex issues, but the extent to which different groups are impacted by the outcomes will differ. Careful consideration should be given to whether a Citizens' Assembly is the right approach in any given context, especially when equalities and inclusion are central. Guidance will aid decision making and highlight limitations.6. Establish a common research framework to apply to all future Citizens' Assemblies, and ensure research is at the core of learning, monitoring and supporting the impact of democratic innovations

Research is essential for continuous learning and monitoring the impact of all democratic innovations, and will support the systemic change that this report advocates for - including but beyond evaluating Citizens' Assemblies. A common research framework should be established to enable comparative approaches, with outputs held by the Participation Unit for continuity. This would also enable the broader approach to 'institutionalisation' to be assessed, rather than just each individual Assembly.

A core Research Group should be established at the start of an Assembly process, including academics, experts on Assemblies and deliberation, and social researchers, both from Scottish Government and externally.

With clear agreement on the research approach between the sponsors and Secretariat, the research group will have the autonomy to make decisions about research design and evaluation questions. Research Group representation should be embedded in the delivery team, to ensure there is appropriate access granted to key areas for data collection, and continuous improvement to ensure Assembly design and delivery can be supported. The Research Group should be independent from the delivery team, with distinct governance processes.

Research work should also openly track recommendations. This is a core part of a long-term commitment to research before, during and after Assemblies, and is key to ensuring that Citizens' Assemblies have demonstrable impact that is transparent to the general public. The responsibility for this should sit with the Participation Unit.

Open access datasets should be committed to where feasible, to enhance the contribution to the field, strengthen transparency and enable greater research support and insight.

7. Connect to the Scottish Parliament Committee system for scrutiny of Citizens' Assembly processes and recommendations

This working group welcomes the Scottish Parliament's interest in and scrutiny of the development and delivery of deliberative engagement, and monitoring of the Government's response to Citizens' Assembly recommendations via the Committee system. Steps should be taken to involve the general public and Citizens' Assembly participants in this scrutiny.

Scottish Government should undertake regular reviews and publication of progress on all recommendations that are developed through democratic processes including Citizens' Assemblies. Scottish Government should transparently communicate how these recommendations are being considered, the official response, key monitoring data and what has been achieved.

Publication of progress and responses to Citizens' Assemblies enables monitoring and scrutiny, ensuring that the general public and other stakeholders can openly and easily view progress and impact. This helps to build trust and adhere to principles of open governance.

The Scottish Parliament has a clear role to play in scrutiny and we welcome any efforts for the new Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee to explore this through their inquiry planned for 2022, which will take account of this report alongside other evidence.

8. Adopt the initial governance proposals set out in this report to provide reassurance on independence and an ethical and credible process, with commitment that governance for new democratic innovations will be set out in a National Participation Strategy

If Scottish Government is to deliver routine Citizens' Assemblies, clarification is needed of roles and responsibilities in relation to key functions. This includes governance, agenda setting, fair recruitment, organisation and delivery, oversight and advice, scrutiny, evaluation and learning. Scotland does not yet have a clear point of coordination for Assemblies or an established oversight mechanism to provide sufficient reassurance on independence.

There is a spectrum of options for governance, each with relative advantages and challenges. In considering appropriate arrangements, we highlight the stated principles of flexibility, innovation and learning. Ultimately, an approach is needed that centres inclusion, can adapt to context, and appropriately balance involvement of people most likely to experience the impact of decisions.

Governance arrangements for Scotland's recent Citizen's Assemblies learned from recent Assembly work in Ireland. Ideally, governance in Scotland will evolve towards a model of hybrid ownership between government and institutions, civil society, contributors and participants. This report draws on the learning from OECD[32] and others and the spectrum of options include:

  • more empowered, independent delivery organisations (see examples: Climate Assembly UK, Denmark)
  • more empowered governance committee (see examples: French Convention)
  • people-led agenda setting (see examples: Paris, Ostbelgien)
  • citizen chamber attached to Parliament (see examples: Poland)

A number of commitments to Citizens' Assemblies have been made, to be delivered during the current Parliamentary term. It is proposed that these are delivered using the governance model set out below, and existing experience of delivering these. This will include research from Scotland's first two Citizens' Assemblies and international evidence, which will be used to build a more people-led model. Delivery of this will require leadership and may require legislation.

9. Establish an Oversight Board, bringing in external expertise to review and guide democratic innovations

The creation of an Oversight Board is a key scrutiny mechanism to ensure independence throughout the process and to uphold values, principles and standards in the running of Citizens' Assemblies. Its remit would include reviewing and guiding Citizens' Assembly proposals from an early stage, and adjudicating on disputes as Assembly processes are running. The Oversight Board would be appointed by Scottish Government for a two-year term.

The Oversight Board would be entirely independent of Government, being external experts drawn from the fields of deliberation, equalities and inclusion, research, auditing and data protection. The Board would have access to all other bodies involved in a Citizens' Assembly, would be involved from the start, and would take decisions on complaints.

10. For each Citizens' Assembly process, establish an independent and practice-led Secretariat with delegated authority to organise and deliver the process

The Secretariat will take decisions on a variety of matters which build on common frameworks, including establishing:

A. Design and Evidence Group, with expertise and decision making authority in areas of competency and training all relevant staff

B. A recruitment framework that allows for a range of approaches to representation and inclusion

C. Governance, co-ordination and research mechanisms

D. Evidence standards in addition to the common evidence standards developed by the Participation Unit

E. transparent, accessible and engaging ways of communicating with and involving the wider public

F. Setting out clear strategy for meaningful impact of and response to Assembly recommendations

G. Ensuring member welfare, support and inclusion

H. Commissioning support necessary for successful delivery of the process.

Assembly delivery teams should form a Secretariat. This should be transparently set up by the sponsor - a Participation Unit - and should be able to act independently from Government.

It should ensure that decisions on how Assemblies are delivered are practice-led. A Secretariat should include expertise in democratic and inclusive practice, power redistribution and empowering marginalised voices. This should include work to realise the ambition for Citizens' Assemblies to innovate and be more egalitarian in agenda setting. A Secretariat would hold ultimate authority to make decisions about delivery, and would work in collaboration with policy experts, policy teams and the Participation Unit as Sponsors of the process to ensure impact. A Secretariat is responsible for coordinating governance functions. There are a flexible range of options for the delivery team set-up and composition depending on needs of the process.

The Secretariat for previous Citizens' Assemblies has comprised a team led by seconded civil servants and externally commissioned support. While learning was passed from one Secretariat to the next, the expertise was then dissipated. This recommendation enables continued flexibility and learning, but establishes key principles of:

  • operational independence from government
  • embedded practitioner expertise that is not lost
  • a clear coordinating body for governance functions
  • transparency in using government systems and having arms-length support of Scottish Government in policy expertise and Sponsorship
  • building towards an independent delivery function to connect across all levels of governance.

The capacity and infrastructure to move this function outside government will be a part of future democratic innovations supported by a community of practice of participatory and deliberative democracy. Such a body could be hosted in the National Centre for Participation.

Overall, increased independence and development of the Secretariat body will enhance innovative practice, and maximise ambitions for connected, multi-level participatory and deliberative democracy as a distinctive feature of governance in Scotland.

The operational detail for each of these recommendations should be published in advance of the next Citizens' Assembly.

Citizens' Assemblies: Key bodies

The proposed key bodies involved in the governance and delivery of Citizens' Assemblies are presented in the table below. Each body has a brief description, list of members, who appoints the body, and what decision making power it has.

Citizens' Assemblies Governance model

A flow chart showing how Citizens’ Assemblies could best be governed, including roles for the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament, and an independent delivery team



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