Citizens' Assembly of Scotland: research report

Findings of a collaborative research project led by a team of Scottish Government Social Researchers and independent academics from the Universities of Edinburgh and Newcastle, on Scotland’s first national Citizens’ Assembly

Chapter 6: The governance of the Assembly

Data sources:

  • Fieldnotes
  • Internal interviews (organisers, facilitators, stewarding group)
  • External interviews (politicians, journalists, civil servants)

The Assembly had different actors and groups involved in its governance. It was initiated by the Directorate for Constitution and Cabinet, which fits into the Scottish Government portfolio of what was then called the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture. A team of seconded civil servants and a civil society practitioner with direct experience of running citizens' assemblies formed a secretariat, responsible for organising the Assembly and accountable to the convener. An external organisation was contracted to recruit the Assembly members, and two organisations experienced in participation practice to design, deliver and facilitate the Assembly. Two conveners were also appointed as public figureheads for the Assembly. Finally, a stewarding group – consisting of a range of topic and process experts from academia, industry, Government and civil society – provided advice and oversight of the process.

Governance is an important aspect of a Citizens' Assembly but what constitutes the best governance arrangements is contested. There has been limited previous research on the governance of citizens' assemblies for us to build on, in comparison to other aspects of our report. Governance was an implicit dimension in our sixth research question (What are the lessons for informing other democratic processes and institutions in Scotland and internationally) and also emerged as an important issue frequently highlighted in the interviews. However, we have less data on these topics and our conclusions are consequently more tentative.

In this chapter we assess perceptions of how effectively the different groups involved in organising the Assembly worked together. We further consider the implications of the Assembly remit for its organisation. Finally, we begin a discussion about the adequacy of the plans made to deal with the Assembly recommendations. To do so we primarily draw on our internal and external interviews, supplemented with non-participant observation fieldnotes.

Effectiveness of the Governance of the Assembly

As described above, there were a lot of different actors involved in the organisation and design of the Assembly. There were a number of arrangements in place to co-ordinate the activities of these actors as set out in the box below.

Citizens' Assembly of Scotland Governance Documentation

  • Published remit and terms of reference for the Assembly and its operations
  • Role of conveners set out in letters of appointment
  • Remit and terms of appointment of stewarding group members
  • Memorandum between the Government and Conveners on the independence of the Assembly, including the responsibilities and reporting arrangements for the secretariat
  • Contractual agreement with the design and facilitation team which specified roles and responsibilities
  • Assembly administration records, including papers for and record of outputs from stewarding group meetings, project management of the Assembly, audit trail recording how and when key decisions were taken and by whom

Despite the governance documentation, the arrangements were described by one interviewee as having a lot of 'moving parts'. Interviewees from the Assembly's organisers, facilitators and stewarding group frequently suggested that there was a lack of shared understanding and clarity about how the division of labour would work in practice. Interviewees were careful to modulate their language but several expressed frustration, and in a couple of cases anger, at this lack of clarity. Moreover, according to some Assembly organisers, the lack of clarity over the division of roles and responsibilities led to tensions between the different groups, impacting design decisions:

'I think it was unusually complex and I think sometimes the dividing line between the different functions weren't entirely clear ... in particular, the dividing line between what was [the design team's] domain ... and what was the secretariat's domain. I think that was often a bit unclear.' (Stewarding group member, internal interviews)

'I think it created a very unusual dynamic for the design team, so the secretariat took a lot more ownership of the detail of the design. And didn't quite trust ... the process would be managed and get to somewhere, so they kept second-guessing how the decision-making process would happen. They didn't trust for a long time.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

'It must have been so frustrating for the design team … Well, actually I know that at times it was, I could see it, because they were having to kind of act not only as designers but persuaders, that such and such a thing was a good idea to do or not to do.' (Stewarding group member, internal interviews)

However, others did think that good working relationships were achieved after some initial teething problems, even though a lack of shared understanding over who had responsibility and authority for which aspects of the process persisted:

'I think we did get a good working relationship eventually ... it took a while and it was just a case of building a bit of trust. But there was a lot of confusion around decision making and who got to make decisions about things.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

'We got to a place where our relationship was such that we could challenge each other and it was all okay then.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

The internal interviewees frequently suggested that having more time at the offset to discuss roles and responsibilities and establish working relationships would have improved the process.

The Assembly had a Memorandum of Understanding in place to allow it to operate independently from Government. A couple of interviewees explicitly questioned the extent to which the organisers could truly be independent from Government if composed of civil servants. Still, they acknowledged that the organisers were careful to set themselves up as independent from the outset. The interview data also highlighted how the organisers came to be very protective of the Assembly members.

'I mean they were really pretty careful not to ever comment publicly as Government, really careful to knock back any questions that were more appropriate for Government but when push came to shove, they responded in a way that civil servants would, to protect the minister. That also changed over time, I have to say, they became just as defensive over the Assembly members in the end, which was a really interesting shift. So yes, they all learned but no, I think the perception of the secretariat calling itself independent of Government where every single member were just lifted out of Government and given a new name, clearly isn't.' (Stewarding group member, internal interviews)

This also speaks to debates within existing literature on governance models of Assemblies. On the one hand, independence in organising the assembly is important for upholding credibility and legitimacy. On the other hand, assemblies with no formal link to Government can struggle to achieve impact (OECD, 2020). Civil servants are frequently seconded to carry out duties in other organisations. Moreover, this view from some members of the stewarding group was not necessarily shared by others. Organisers were aware of the risk that they may be perceived not to be independent from Government and were careful to act in accordance with the governance documentation.

'[B]ecause of the possibility of that type of perception amongst people … we always knew we had to be really, really careful and be as objective as possible and make sure that it was conveners who were making decisions and members who were making decisions where it was them that needed to.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

'[It] was always very, very clear about how important the impartiality of the Assembly was, and we did a huge piece of work before the secretariat was formed setting out all the different ways in which the independence of the secretariat should be achieved in actuality and be sure to be seen to be independent … we had a different office space set apart … both practical and kind of symbolic things as well.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

To avoid actual or perceived conflicts of interest, citizens' assemblies are often overseen by a stewarding group or equivalent to provide independent advice, oversight and scrutiny of the process. In this Assembly, the stewarding group was set up to operate in an advisory capacity only. Some interviewees raised questions about the role of the stewarding group, its contribution to scrutiny of the Assembly process, and whether members' expertise was sufficiently utilised:

'When I was in the stewarding group … I just assumed it had a governance role, but then as we sat on it we realised it didn't have a governance role, and it was mainly an advisory group.' (Stewarding group member, internal interviews)

On the other hand, other stewarding group members felt that they had been afforded a much more active role in advising on the design of the Assembly than they had experienced in other assemblies:

'So, you know, I've seen this role in various different assemblies and I guess it's been quite different in each one. So in this one, it's been a much more kind of active role in many ways … And I think that probably reflects, at least in part, the nature of the remit for this Assembly that it was so wide.' (Stewarding group member, internal interviews)

As a function of the broad remit, a wide range of topics were covered at the Assembly weekends, particularly in the in-person phase. This, in combination with the timescale between Assembly weekends, created a range of challenges for identifying and meeting the evidence requirements for those topics, and a particular challenge for any scrutiny of the evidence provided. Although this scrutiny role is often played by a governance or oversight group in citizens' assemblies, the membership of the stewarding group did not (and arguably, could not) provide the spread of expertise needed for scrutiny of the evidence on all the topics. Scrutiny was also reduced due to severe time constraints. Overall, our dataset suggests that there was less oversight of design issues by the stewarding group than was optimal.

Evidence from a number of datasets across our research (including the internal interviews and fieldnotes) indicate disagreements and tension with regard to the deployment of subject or process expertise in the planning and delivery of the Assembly. Here too, a lack of collective understanding on the roles and responsibilities of the different governance groups created challenges to collaborative working. Some of the secretariat and stewarding group members interviewed expressed dissatisfaction with the nature or extent of the input they were able to provide or were receiving from each other along the process.

Facilitators did not speak about the governance structure much and when they did, it was to say that the roles were unclear. This does not seem to necessarily have been an issue as facilitators were clear on their own role and responsibilities and their involvement was largely limited to the Assembly weekends.

The Assembly also had two conveners: Kate Wimpress, who remained throughout the process; and David Martin who withdrew after the first two weekends. Some of our external interviewees liked that the Assembly was chaired by individuals perceived as neutral, as this was seen to maintain the Assembly's independence and autonomy from Government. The change to a single convener was noted as an additional challenge to work through in implementing the Assembly. Moreover, there was a lack of clarity in design as to what the role of the conveners would be:

'I think this demand that they were going to have conveners and without really setting out a role for them first and without thinking through what that role was and created a lot of issues, created a problem ... because they'd never really thought through what it was going to mean' (Organiser, internal interviews)

The fieldnotes also recorded some observations around a lack of clarity over the role of the conveners. For example, in early Assembly sessions the conveners carried out some mediation and translation of members' questions to the expert speakers.

Impact and implications of the Assembly remit

One of the key governance decisions made was the remit for the Assembly, and we have noted its breadth throughout the report. In this section, we further explore the impact and implications it had for organising the Assembly.

Some organisers from our internal interviewees considered the breadth of the remit to be positive as they thought it enabled the Assembly members to set their own agenda and determine their own priorities for Scotland:

'I think on reflection, and having gone through the process, I think it really worked. And the reason I think it worked is because it gave the Assembly itself the opportunity to set the parameters of their work.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

'The advantage of that was it was absolutely member-led, members did direct the journey that they went on with this Assembly.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

'I think the remit enabled people to have an open conversation about Scotland … [I]t meant challenges in terms of evidence, how do you take that conversation forward. And with such an open remit … it meant that we were always going to face some difficulties in doing deep evidential discussions in the way that I think … is one of the strengths of an Assembly. But on the other side of it, it meant that members could go where they wanted. And what we were always trying to do was … follow members' noses.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

However, interviewees across all internal groups agreed that the broad remit further contributed to design and implementation challenges and that insufficient time was allocated for the Assembly process to fully address it:

'I think the scale of the question was such that by the time the Assembly members had kind of decided the areas that they wanted to look at it was just too… There just wasn't enough time to assemble everything in a way that you would want to do to make the very best of the time you had together.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

The range of relevant topics meant that it took a while for members to make sense of the remit, thereby preventing the organisers and designers from planning each successive weekend well in advance:

'The real challenge that it presented by being member design led and also designing almost as you go, was that we had four weeks between each weekend. And between each weekend we didn't know what the next weekend would be.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

'I think it is the time between weekends and because of the need for members to have a say on what it was they wanted to do, and what it was they wanted to achieve, meant that we had to be really careful … not to be seen to be steering the Assembly too much and not to be leading it too much.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

'I don't think there necessarily was anything wrong with the remit but the combination of a very broad remit and a very tight timescale was what made it quite difficult, and meant that the design and delivery of the Assembly had to be done in that kind of progressive fashion as it went on, rather than ideally obviously we would have set that all out at the beginning, here's what we're going to do, here's where your end product is, here's how we're going to work through six weekends to achieve that.' (Organiser, internal interviews)

As well as causing time issues for planning the Assembly, some of the internal interviewees thought that the breadth of the remit compromised the level of depth that was achieved, precisely because they did not know what issues would be covered in advance:

'It was never in-depth enough and they quite often said that, so I suppose there's a degree to which the time that was allotted for the Assembly was done in advance of understanding what was needed really.' (Stewarding group member, internal interviews)

Ultimately, the stewarding group members we interviewed thought that the broad remit made it difficult for the organisers to coordinate and plan a process that would result in a coordinated and focused set of recommendations:

'I think one of the learning points for me was to give more time towards the end to refine recommendations because the timing was really very tight all the way through, and I think that was partly due to the huge remit.' (Stewarding group member, internal interviews)

'With such large abstract topics, it was an impossible ask really, and there wasn't enough focus from the beginning on the end point. There wasn't enough focus at the beginning on how we could get to the end point with the resources that we had and the time we had for the Assembly.' (Stewarding group member, internal interviews)

The broad and generic remit of the Assembly, which did not address specific questions, was also the main issue highlighted in our external interviews. Many interviewees stated that the Assembly's recommendations would have been more deliverable if the remit was more focussed:

'Maybe if we'd had a tighter remit in the first place, then what would have come back … would be more deliverable.' (Civil servant, external interviews)

'The agenda was too broad. They have this host of recommendations.' (Politician, external interviews)

Consequently, the view amongst the external interviewees was that more specific questions are better to put to an Assembly:

'Finding more technically defined questions … you're asking them to wrestle with an answer, seems to be where they're more effective.' (Politician, external interviews)

'This kind of process is going to be much more useful in the long term if we do … set specific tasks or focus, rather than, what kind of country do we want to be. Sort of, very broad, general remit.' (Politician, external interviews)

Some cases from Ireland were given as successful examples of a citizens' assembly with a tighter remit focused on contested issues, as a result of which it was seen to have been able to consider the issue in-depth and provide clear recommendations:

'The example in Ireland … the debate they had around the Abortion Laws, is the one that's held up as the … best example of it. 'Cause it managed to resolve a difficult issue for the country and did shift or influence public opinion and support. So, I think that one was effective.' (Politician, external interviews).

'Again, I suppose the contrast … when they were dealing with something like abortion in Ireland that was very specific and they could really drill down into the detail of it. Whereas this was much more your big picture stuff.' (Politician, external interviews)

In sum, the internal interviews indicate that the Assembly's remit made it hard to govern and design. The external interviews also suggest the breadth of the remit affected policy-makers' perceptions of the Assembly.

Adequacy of the plans for dealing with the Assembly's recommendations

The Government officially responded to the Assembly's recommendations in the Scottish Parliament in November 2021, shortly before publication of our report. Therefore, we cannot yet assess the influence the Assembly has had on Government policy. However, we can draw on our interview data to offer some reflections on the governance arrangements for dealing with the Assembly's recommendations.

The civil servants involved in taking forward the Assembly's recommendations into policy and some of the expert speakers reflected that the governance plans to deal with the Assembly's recommendations (the impact phase of the Assembly process) were not sufficiently concrete. This was described as adding risk to the delivery or the effect that the recommendations will have on public policy in Scotland. There were also consequences identified for Assembly members' understanding of what was happening to their recommendations. Some indicative quotes on this topic include:

'I think understanding what the recommendations will mean at the beginning rather than having to start doing that work at the end I think is one of the things I would want to learn from this Assembly. Because it is hard to respond to the recommendations while also trying to answer that question, it would be easier to respond to them if we knew the answer already.' (Civil servant, external interviews)

'So then what are they obliged to do, what does careful consideration mean in a practical sense, and I think those are questions that need to be answered at a very high level, and if you could answer some of them in advance, that would be helpful.' (Civil servant, external interviews)

'[C]ould have done with more explanation of what will happen to the outcomes of the process in due course – where do they go, who will listen to them?' (Expert speaker, expert speaker survey)

'I think some process of feedback to members about what happened to the recommendations, which we don't have at all in this Assembly. There was no … plan published, everything is disbanded, and it's a hard full-stop actually, and I think that wasn't very satisfactory at all.' (Civil servant, external interviews)

In addition to the challenges it presented to the design and delivery of the Assembly, the breadth of the remit may be creating challenges to the process once the Assembly has concluded.


In this chapter we have reviewed views and experiences about the governance arrangements of the Assembly. These were important themes that emerged during data collection and analysis, although there is less evidence to support our analysis than in other sections of this report. There is also less previous research on what constitutes good governance for citizens' assemblies for us to draw on.

We found that there was a disconnect between the formal governance arrangements and the experiences of interviewees as they designed, delivered and advised on the Assembly. Overall, those involved in organising the Assembly experienced a lack of clarity in relation to roles and responsibilities. This was in part due to the lack of time available to clarify responsibilities in advance of the Assembly. There were also differing perceptions about the extent the organisers could be independent from Government. The membership, broad remit and time between the weekends were all factors that contributed to challenges in the stewarding group being able to fulfil its advisory role.

The Assembly remit was acknowledged by all interviewees to be very broad. For some this gave the Assembly members the opportunity to establish their own priorities. However, the consequences of the broad remit meant that it was hard to plan the Assembly weekends in advance, meaning that their organisation was compressed and rushed. Interviewees also expressed concern that the array of topics covered meant that none of them were addressed in any depth. This in turn meant that there were a lot of recommendations, some very general, which may prove hard to transfer into policy. Moreover, there was little advance planning on what would be done with the recommendations before they were produced.



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