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

Introduction: Overview of the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland

In April 2019, the First Minister announced the decision to convene the first national citizens' assembly[1] in Scotland, in the wake of Brexit and the debate around a second independence referendum. The Citizens' Assembly of Scotland (hereafter referred to as "the Assembly") brought together 104 members to address the following questions:

  • What kind of country are we seeking to build?
  • How best can we overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit?
  • What further work should be carried out to give us the information we need to make informed choices about the future of the country?

The Assembly's membership was intended to be a 'mini-public' (Escobar & Elstub, 2017) and as such constitute a broadly representative cross-section of Scotland's adult population. The recruitment process was carried out by Mark Diffley Consultancy and Research Ltd following a competitive tendering process. Households in each of the eight Scottish Parliamentary Regions were randomly selected and face-to-face interviews conducted with a randomly selected household member. To ensure a broadly representative membership, target quotas were compiled for each of the following criteria: geography, age, gender, ethnic group, education qualifications, limiting long term conditions or disabilities, and attitudes. A total of 120 individuals were selected following this process.[2]

Two conveners, Kate Wimpress and David Martin, were appointed by the Scottish Government to lead the Assembly. David Martin resigned from his role in December 2019 and Kate Wimpress continued as sole convener of the Assembly. In doing so she was supported by the organisers team primarily composed of civil servants seconded from the Scottish Government; a stewarding group bringing together practitioners and academics with political expertise to provide strategic advice on the planning and delivery of the Assembly; and a range of specialist contractors commissioned to support the Assembly's design, delivery, communications and participant recruitment. A Members Reference Group was put in place once the Assembly was underway, membership of which was voluntary and varied over the course of the Assembly. The group was established to contribute to the delivery of the Assembly by providing insights into the members' views and experiences of the process.

Figure 1 - Timeline of the Assembly weekends
A timeline summarising the focus and content of each Assembly weekend. The full description of each weekend is provided in the main text. A timeline summarising the focus and content of each Assembly weekend. The full description of each weekend is provided in the main text.

The Assembly met for eight weekends between October 2019 and December 2020 (Figure 1). The first Assembly meeting took place over two days (26-27 October 2019) at the Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh following a welcome reception at Edinburgh Castle. The weekend provided an opportunity for participants to get to know each other and develop their understanding of the Assembly process and the issues that it would explore. The Assembly's work opened with an introduction on "The Scotland we know and the Scotland we don't know" by the conveners and a presentation on Scotland's constitutional powers by Professor Nicola McEwen from the University of Edinburgh and the Assembly stewarding group, prior to members starting to discuss their perceptions of Scotland and the challenges and opportunities for the country.

The Assembly met at the Golden Jubilee Hotel and Conference Centre in Clydebank for the following three weekends. During the second weekend (29 November – 1 December 2019) members began deliberating on their vision for Scotland, addressing the first question of the remit. The presentations covered how to critically engage with evidence (Phill Allan, 3x1 and Kaella Scott, Involve); what makes a good life (George Bangham, Resolution Foundation); and the role of values in shaping society (Dr Elke Heins, University of Edinburgh).

During the third weekend (17-19 January 2019) deliberations focussed on one of most popular statements made by members during the first weekend: "the kind of Scotland we are seeking to build will be a sustainable country balancing environmental, economic and social impacts for the good of the country and its citizens". Members were provided with a range of evidence on sustainability and Scotland's constitutional powers through presentations by Dr Chris McCorkingdale (University of Strathclyde), Kate Wimpress, Sandy Begbie (Tesco Bank), Dr Katherine Trebeck (Wellbeing Economy Alliance) and Dr Andy Kerr (EIT Climate-KIC); and a discussion with a panel of politicians comprised of Jamie Halcro Johnston (Conservative), Lorna Slater (Green), Angela Constance (Scottish National Party) and Richard Leonard (Labour).

The fourth weekend (21-23 February 2019) built on members' deliberations to date and considered matters relating to Scotland's finances and taxation in building a sustainable country. Presentations covered a range of evidence relating to Scotland's finances (Fraser McKinlay, Audit Scotland and Professor David Bell, University of Stirling), taxation (David Phillips, Institute for Fiscal Studies and Charlotte Barbour, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland) and tax choices (Russell Gunson, Institute of Public Policy Research Scotland; Laurie MacFarlane, Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London; and Ewan MacDonald-Russell, Scottish Retail Consortium).

The public health measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 led to the Assembly being temporarily paused, during which time the majority of the organisers volunteered to return to the Scottish Government and assist with the pandemic response. In September 2020 the Assembly reconvened online for four shorter sessions over four weekends. While the Assembly was paused, the organisers remained in contact with the members and organised induction sessions for members to familiarise themselves with the online format. Members were reminded of the work completed to date during the first online session (5 September 2020) and were asked to reflect on their vision for Scotland's future in light of the pandemic's impact.

The remaining three weekends were devoted to drafting, voting upon and agreeing a collective vision for Scotland's future (3-4 October 2020) and the final recommendations of the Assembly (31 October – 1 November and 5 December 2020). 'Doing Politics Differently: The Report of the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland' was published in January 2021 and set out the members' vision and 60 majority-supported recommendations (58 of which received above 75% support) relating to future assemblies, incomes and poverty, tax and economy, support for young people, health and wellbeing, sustainability, and further powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Following the report's publication, a selection of volunteer members held virtual meetings with Ministers from the Scottish Government, a group of Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) from the different political parties, and a selection of journalists, to discuss their vision and recommendations. These were further discussed at an event held by the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Futures Forum on the 15th of February 2021. It was convened by the Presiding Officer and was attended by members of the Assembly, a political panel and a number of MSPs. Finally, the report's content was debated in the Scottish Parliament on the 18th of February 2021. The Scottish Government responded to the Assembly's findings in a report published on the 23rd of November 2021.

The Scottish Government has provided a short period of funding to an external organisation to provide support to members of the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland to establish a members network. This project was initiated at the request of members who wanted to continue working together after the completion of the formal business of the Assembly. Members will be supported from September 2021 – January 2022 to create a self-sustaining network with the aim of enabling them to become ambassadors for the power and impact of deliberative democratic processes. The project will provide training and mentoring for members for a short period of time, to allow members to continue to work together. The network will be supported to engage with the Scottish Government's response to the Assembly's recommendations. At the end of the project the network will be handed over to members to self-administer, and lessons learned from this project process will be captured.

Given this was Scotland's first citizens' assembly and was set up with the aim of informing public policy in Scotland, its significance warranted a comprehensive programme of research to be established to respond to the ministerial commitment to review and learn from the experience. The research was undertaken collaboratively by Scottish Government Social Research and academic researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Newcastle University. The researchers operated independently from the Assembly and were supported by a wider Research Advisory Group, comprised of individuals with international experience of conducting research in the field of democratic innovation. The methodology underpinning the research is presented in the following chapter.



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