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
The Citizens' Assembly of Scotland was Scotland's first national level assembly which brought together a cross-section of Scotland's adult population. The Report of the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland was published in January 2021 and the Government published its response in November 2021.
This report presents the 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, into both operation of the Assembly (internal dimension) and the relationship between the Assembly and wider Scottish society (external dimension).
A comprehensive mixed-methods research design and an unprecedented level of access to the Assembly's proceedings have resulted in an extensive dataset that provides evidence from the following:
- Non-participant observation of all aspects of the Assembly weekends, including facilitator briefings and de-briefings.
- Member surveys tracking changes in knowledge, attitudes and experiences of the Assembly weekends as well as wider views about democracy and Scotland.
- Recordings and transcripts of a sample of small group discussions analysed to assess deliberative quality.
- Population survey assessing awareness, understanding and attitudes towards the Assembly and providing a comparison to member survey data.
- Expert speaker survey gathering views of preparing for and participating in the Assembly.
- Interviews with organisers, facilitators and stewarding group gathering views and experiences of planning, delivery, outcomes and impact.
- Interviews with Scottish Government officials, politicians and journalists providing wider views on the Assembly.
- Analysis of media coverage of the Assembly.
Overall, it was clear that the majority of members found participating in the Assembly to be hugely rewarding; they felt included and empowered and, by the end of the Assembly, had an increased interest and enthusiasm for participating in other political and civic activities. The research found that the practical, technological and emotional support provided by the organisers and facilitators was important to this experience.
There was some evidence of gender differences in participation. For example, women tended to volunteer less to report back in plenary sessions during the early weekends but actions by facilitators and organisers helped to equalise participation in later weekends. The move online led to variation in experiences; some members reported finding participation easier whilst others less so. Most members missed the social side of the in-person weekends.
Learning and Evidence Provision
The majority of members expressed satisfaction with the expert speakers and advocates who provided input on a range of topics. There was also evidence that members learned from this input and by the end of the Assembly, their knowledge was greater compared with the general population.
However, there were some challenges:
- the volume and breadth of knowledge and evidence presented were sometimes experienced by members as difficult to absorb.
- the six month pause in the middle of the Assembly, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, made recall of evidence difficult when forming recommendations.
- there was limited diversity in both, the perspectives offered by expert speakers, and the approach to evidence provision.
Facilitation and Deliberation
In the Assembly, facilitators were supported by regular briefing and de-briefing and a culture of reflective practice. However, there was variation in how facilitators managed group dynamics and attended to inclusion to ensure the quality of deliberation. Limited time to review facilitation instructions prior to the Assembly weekends and differences in professional backgrounds impacted on the quality of facilitation.
Members' deliberations were consistently respectful. An important feature of good quality deliberation – scrutiny and challenge – was largely absent in the small group discussions. The strong emphasis placed throughout the Assembly on cohesion and consensus together with limited framing of scrutiny as a positive dynamic during discussions was an important factor. Certain aspects of the design of deliberative sessions may have also undermined opportunities for constructive challenge. However, in general the quality of deliberation and facilitation improved as the Assembly progressed.
Despite formal arrangements covering the remits of those involved in organising and delivering the Assembly, most reported experiencing a lack of clarity at different points during the Assembly over respective roles and decision making. More time during inception of the Assembly to collectively agree respective roles would have been helpful.
Breadth of Remit
A key challenge faced by the Assembly was the breadth of the remit. The research found that this challenge permeated through all aspects of the Assembly, including:
- Design and delivery: Advance planning of evidence input and identification of expert speakers was not possible. The design of deliberative sessions was impacted by the breadth of topics that needed to be addressed.
- Governance: The stewarding group could not provide the spread of expertise required for appropriate scrutiny of the wide range of topics covered during the Assembly weekends.
- Wider public engagement: The wide range of topics made it difficult for journalists to decide how to report on the Assembly, consequently limiting opportunities for increasing public awareness and public deliberation.
- Assembly's recommendations: the breadth of the remit also led to broad and wide-ranging recommendations, which may be difficult to transfer into policy.
COVID-19 and the move online
As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the second half of the Assembly meetings occurred online. The research found that the move online:
- created new challenges in relation to member participation and inclusion. The support provided by organisers helped to address technical issues and members' confidence in participating online.
- impacted on facilitation with some facilitators experiencing challenges in using new online tools alongside attending to group dynamics.
- impacted the length of time available to create, scrutinise and agree recommendations as a consequence of reducing the length of the weekend meetings.
- did not hinder the deliberative quality of the sessions.
Public awareness and Assembly influence
Public awareness, understanding and engagement of the Assembly were low throughout its duration.
Media coverage of the Assembly was largely neutral or positive, it tracked key milestones and there was more coverage during the establishment and first weekends compared to other stages of the Assembly. Overall, the limited media coverage of the Assembly, particularly in news outlets with the most significant reach across Scotland, was an important barrier towards increased public awareness and understanding of the Assembly.
Although initially sceptical, journalists and politicians interviewed as part of the research reflected positively on the success of the Assembly and recognised it as an important prototype for future assemblies. Amongst others, concerns were expressed about the feasibility of the Assembly's recommendations and how they would be addressed.
Seven recommendations are offered for future assemblies:
1. Assembly Remit
Decisions on remit must recognise the impact on design, delivery and governance. The broader the remit, the more time required.
2. Governance Framework
Roles and responsibilities must be collectively agreed and clearly defined with responsibilities for oversight, advice, design and delivery distinguished.
3. Assembly Phases
Sufficient time must be given to each stage of assemblies: 1) inception; 2) delivery; and 3) impact.
4. Assembly Impact
A clear mandate must be set out, including clear parameters for how the assembly will interact with the decision-making of other democratic institutions.
5. Public Engagement
Consideration must be given to how the assembly will interact with the wider public to build understanding, foster public deliberation and enhance legitimacy.
6. Capacity Building
Future action must include building capacity in skills, resources and infrastructure for delivering deliberative and participatory processes.
Concurrent research should be embedded and used to inform the Assembly's design and governance. The research should be fully funded and have a duration that enables an assessment of impact.
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