Chapter 5: The Assembly in Scotland (II): Media and Elite Perspectives
a) How does media reporting of the Assembly evolve during the process, from announcement to completion?
b) How do journalists' and politicians' perceptions of the Assembly evolve throughout the process?
c) Is the work of the Assembly coherently linked to the relevant institutions? Do the Assembly results feed into the work of the Scottish Government or Scottish Parliament? How? With what impact?
- Media analysis
- Internal interviews (organisers, facilitators, stewarding group)
- External interviews (politicians, journalists, civil servants)
In Chapter 4 we provided an overview of key patterns in media coverage of the Assembly to contextualise public perceptions about the process. The relationship between a citizens' assembly and its broader public is often mediated by a range of elite actors, including journalists and politicians. This chapter thus delves deeper into media reporting of the Assembly and how the perceptions of journalists and politicians evolved throughout the process, with a particular emphasis on their views about the institutional impact of the Assembly.
Evolution of the media coverage of the Assembly
The dataset gathered to analyse media coverage includes 206 articles that mentioned the Assembly across 74 publications and through three periods of data collection, namely: August 2019 – March 2020 (Phase 1), September 2020 – December 2020 (Phase 2), and January 2021 – March 2021 (Phase 3). Data collection included online or print media outlets (traditional media), including newspapers, magazines and online news sites, but excluded blogs and social media posts. Table 5 below shows the total number of articles by month across the Assembly's timeline.
|Phase 1 Pre-Assembly and Recruitment
|In-person (weekends 1 - 4)
|Postponement – data collection paused
|Phase 2 Online (weekends 5 – 8)
|Phase 3 Post-Assembly and publication of the Assembly's report
Peaks in the level of coverage occurred around weekends 2-4 (December 2019 – March 2020), and the release of the Assembly's report (January 2021). There was increased attention given to the Assembly during the first two months of 2020, with 30 articles in January and 23 in February, compared to 18 articles in December 2019 (the highest point of 2019). This corresponds with increased communications activity led by the Assembly organisers, alongside an increase in awareness and interest as the face-to-face sessions got under way. There was a further high point around the conclusion of the process in December 2020 and the publication of the Assembly's report in January 2021, also corresponding with an increase in engagement with journalists and politicians during this time, including media launch events and sessions with parliamentarians in 2021.
Most articles (57%) are from Scottish publications, followed by 18% from UK-wide publications, with international publications making up 2.4% of coverage (Figure 25).
Overall, newspapers make up almost 80% of all coverage, and particularly daily newspapers at approximately 67% (daily tabloids 31%, daily broadsheets 21%, daily compacts 11%). Most articles were from daily Scottish newspapers, namely the Herald, the National and the Scotsman (combined, over 40% of the total coverage). Both the Herald and the National had 13 journalists each covering the Assembly across the period, indicating that the Assembly was of general interest to both publications, rather than to individual journalists.
Data on newspaper readership for 2020 shows that readership of Scottish news brands reached approximately 28% of Scotland's population (aged 15+) via print or online means. The Herald have approximately a 1% market share of the Scottish newspaper market as of 2020, with the Scotsman at approximately 2%. Figures are not available for The National. UK-wide newspapers are read far more extensively in Scotland, accounting for a high percentage of circulation (according to PAMCo figures), led by the Sun and the Daily Mail. Only approximately 18% of stories about the Assembly were reported in UK-wide publications, including those with Scottish versions of their newspapers. This indicates that coverage of the Assembly was prominent in some Scottish publications, and broadly ignored by UK-wide publications with high readership figures in Scotland.
As shown in the diagram below (Figure 26), coverage of the Assembly was broadly positive (51%), with a high number of neutral articles (35%), and 12% broadly negative. A more changeable picture emerges once we examine the skew by month over the timeline of the Assembly. Only two months were negative overall, August 2019 and November 2019, coinciding with early misgivings about the origin, purpose, and cost of the Assembly –we return to these issues later in this chapter. The most positive months were February 2020 (weekend 4 of the Assembly, covering tax and finance), followed by October 2020 (weekend 6, preparing the final Assembly vision) and December 2020 (weekend 8, final Assembly weekend, agreeing the recommendations). Our data suggests that there was a robust communications approach to responding to negative stories, with instances of stories by the Assembly convener appearing shortly after a negative piece, sometimes directly responding to the article in question. The amount of coverage by month is moderately positively correlated with skew (r(13) = .65, p = .00817). This indicates that increased media coverage meant an increase in positive stories about the Assembly.
Most articles were written with an independent narrative, rather than copying from the Assembly's press releases. As previously noted, the dataset indicates some level of scepticism at the beginning of the Assembly process (key themes include cost, links to independence campaign, concerns over the Assembly's ability to be effective, etc.), but after the end of 2019, coverage in all months was either neutral or positive overall. As illustrated in Figure 27, the two most frequent themes over the entire period were the potential impact of the Assembly (19%) and political or ideological coverage of the Assembly (19%), followed by the process and content of the Assembly (17%) and its outputs (15%). There were some stories that can be interpreted as sensationalist, either positive or negative. But these are far outweighed by the number of stories that include clear evidence to support their content.
Looking beyond the overview above, the balance and frequency of key themes changed significantly across the timeline. The diagram below offers a synopsis of this evolution.
In Phase 1 (August 2019 – March 2020), there was more focus on process and content (27%), with a third of the stories related to the postponement of the Assembly due to COVID-19. The process of the Assembly (how it works) was a strong theme during the face-to-face stages, including the use of expert speakers, as well as the ways in which topics were approached during the weekends. This early stage also included more coverage about deliberative democracy and citizens' assemblies in other countries, as well as articles with negative coverage pertaining to the legitimacy of the Assembly (7%) and its politicisation along partisan lines. This included several pro-Union publications linking the Assembly to the Scottish Independence movement. We analysed the full dataset (August 2019 – March 2021) to assess whether coverage could be mapped onto newspapers' positions on the constitutional question. Most of the articles were from publications with no public stance on Scottish independence (49%), followed by pro-Union publications (34%) and 16% from pro-independence publications. The stance on independence did not generally indicate a positive or negative coverage, although some pro-Union publications initially reported critical stories about the Assembly cost and perceived links to the independence campaign. There was a period of increased attention on the Assembly members and their experiences in early 2020, with more local and regional publications showcasing individual participants as representatives of their communities. This likely related to a communications drive by the organisers, encouraging members to produce 'member profiles'.
In Phase 2 (September 2020 – December 2020), the most frequent theme was the potential impact of the Assembly (40%), often linked to the Vision statements produced by Assembly members, which elicit most interest by the media during this period. Political and ideological coverage has an increased portion of coverage (to 22% from 13%) and as outputs are beginning to emerge from the Assembly, this is also mirrored in reporting (15%, up from 4%). By this stage, the cost of the Assembly receives less interest (3%, falling from 7%), and is referred to in less negative terms than previously. Approximately 31% of all coverage relates to the Assembly as a model for future deliberative democracy in Scotland, often featuring quotes from the Assembly convener and Assembly members. Other stakeholders become more included in the media narrative, with Sortition Foundation, the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, and Common Weal referred to as supporting elements of the Assembly process. Stories about the experiences of Assembly members made up 5% of articles.
Unsurprisingly, Phase 3 (January 2021 – March 2021) was particularly focussed on outputs, which represent 45% of coverage during the post-Assembly period, up 30% from the online period and 41% from the face-to-face sessions. Coverage on outputs is largely focused on the Assembly's report as a whole, with certain recommendations singled out in some publications, namely on rent caps, tax, the four-day working week, more citizens' assemblies and constitutional issues. Political and ideological themes increased once again, by 5% from the previous stage (to 27%). There is a marked change in tone towards more consensus from politicians, with stories about the parliamentary debate commenting on the level of cross-party support for the Assembly and its recommendations. The Assembly is seen as less partisan over time, with parties and politicians keener to endorse it. The tone of the articles thus shifted to a more reflective and celebratory one, with the recommendations used as evidence in calls for various policy changes. The Green Party were particularly featured during this period of coverage, having linked a policy proposal for rent caps to the work of the Assembly. Various stakeholders featured more prominently, at approximately 11% of the coverage, some supporting specific recommendations (e.g. Living Rent, on rent caps), and others supportive of the Assembly and its recommendations as a whole, and backing further citizens' assemblies (e.g. the Electoral Reform Society). This final period included different types of publications which had not typically engaged to date. For example, the Sun newspaper included a story in support of the four-day working week recommendation, despite only having run two previous stories on the Assembly, largely negative.
Our analysis of media coverage resonates strongly with findings from the interviews dataset. Participants in the external interviews (including four journalists, seven politicians, and two civil servants) indicated that they noticed very limited media coverage. As illustrated in the quotes below, journalists noted that the announcement of the Assembly gave them material to cover but felt that there was limited newsworthy content to report while the process was underway. The politicians interviewed echoed this perception as they recalled there being meagre media coverage until the Assembly completion.
'[I]t would just be like eight hours of vox pops until it crystallises into a report and a recommendation. It's very hard to report any of that. It's just a lot of people giving their views. And until they coalesce, they're just … eight hours of vox pops, that's not going to get covered.' (Journalist, external interviews)
'[T]he thing that will make us report on it is outcomes and what comes out of it … I guess maybe there needs to be a bit of a drive somewhere to make us want to report on, I guess, how they work a bit more.' (Journalist, external interviews)
A journalist highlighted a more practical issue, namely, that the press did not have the staff to cover eight weekends and commit to attend all-day sessions. One journalist spoke of the benefits of the Assembly moving online, mentioning they spoke to members at the virtual launch, which they found beneficial. Furthermore, some interviewees argued that the broad remit and lack of focus on unpacking contentious issues did not give journalists a great deal of material to report on. According to these interviewees, it was difficult for journalists to obtain in-depth coverage of the issues as there were so many on the agenda. Some also noted that reporting on this type of civic deliberation took them beyond the well-known tropes of political reporting. The following quote is illustrative of some of these points:
'One of the problems is that … the people aren't politicians. Politicians … have got a line they want to take and they will start off on that. With the Assembly people were talking but it wasn't a party line. So you were trying to identify aspects of what they were saying that would make a story … It was actually harder work because they tended to come on, start talking, you would get a line there … Then they would veer off to something else because it is such a wide-ranging address. That was a problem.' (Journalist, external interviews)
From the perspective of the journalists interviewed, there was clear consensus that the outcome was more important than the process, thus there was a fair amount of reporting on the Assembly's report and its recommendations but also with a question mark as to what will happen next. They also noted that the more impact citizens' assemblies have, the more the media will report on them.
'So I did quite a bit on the final report and the recommendations to Parliament … and what happens next. 'Cause that's always what people want to know. That's not the end of the story, what happens next? What are you actually going to do? … Was it just a talking shop or is anything going to come out of it?' (Journalist, external interviews)
The internal interviews echoed some of the findings above but also reflected on the shortcomings of the Assembly's media strategy. There was a widespread view across the stewarding group and organiser interviews that the level of public awareness was very low throughout the course of the Assembly. All who addressed this issue agreed that it was a challenge to get the media interested because of competition from other newsworthy events. The organisers often acknowledged that the Assembly failed to capture the public imagination:
'I think it is a regret that the public weren't as engaged or enthused as the people in the room. We didn't quite get out of the room enough, and I wish we had. I wish the process had sparked the public's imagination the way that we did in the room.' (Organiser, internal interviews)
Some interviewees felt that opportunities were missed or that the media strategy was not properly considered at the inception stage. This is attributed by some organisers to insufficient resources or communications expertise at the outset. Interviewees generally noted an improvement to the media strategy when a communications specialist joined their team. This brought a switch in the strategy to focus on Assembly members and showcase them – something that the organisers appeared to have been initially very reticent about.
'There was an anxiety about protecting the Assembly members from the outset from the potentially invasive media attention. And on reflection … I think we were slightly overanxious about that.' (Organiser, internal interviews)
'[W]hat we were trying to do was to interest people in the human interest story … And we had quite a lot of local media … with members' stories. And getting members' voices out there, I think was reasonably successful.' (Organiser, internal interviews)
Journalists noted the value of engaging more directly with Assembly members, but one highlighted concerns in line with the cautious approach taken by the organisers:
'[P]ersonalities always help drive things like that, but I wouldn't want to drop any of the participants into, you know… have them just pecked to death on Twitter. You know, it's very difficult. So I … you worry sometimes for the participants … if it got personalised … people would be creepy to them on social media.' (Journalist, external interviews)
This highlights an important tension in citizens' assemblies and other democratic innovations, namely, the need to balance the duty of care towards participants with the need to reach the broader public and make the Assembly process open and transparent.
Journalists' and politicians' perceptions of the Assembly
Journalists and politicians are key actors in the field of democratic innovation because their involvement is crucial for the legitimacy, communication and impact of processes like the Assembly (Pomatto, 2019; Thompson, 2019). This section reports on findings from interviews with four journalists and seven politicians. The sample was limited and therefore these findings are not intended to be representative but rather to be reflective of the views of key informants who, due to their position, paid close attention to the Assembly.
As reflected in the analysis of media coverage, the Assembly had a very mixed reception when it was announced. At the outset, the journalists and some of the politicians interviewed were sceptical because some saw the Assembly as a potential 'talking shop' or 'PR stunt'.
'My first impression … was this is going to be a … talking shop that is designed to feed off something they've already decided rather than actually a genuine attempt to try and listen to the people of Scotland.' (Politician, external interviews)
However, the views of those who were initially cynical evolved positively over time, although some still expressed concerns about the Assembly's remit, range of recommendations, and impact. Part of the initial scepticism related to the purpose of the Assembly due to the timing and nature of its announcement, with many feeling that Scottish independence was the ulterior motive behind it. There was consensus amongst interviewees on the need for the Assembly to be an independent body and to be seen as independent. Members not having vested interests in party politics was seen as a strength of the Assembly's credibility. Once the process got underway many were of the viewpoint that the Assembly asserted its autonomy and became more meaningful and valuable than initially expected.
'[It] had a cursed beginning … It was announced in April 2019 … by Nicola Sturgeon on the eve of the SNP Conference … And she had this announcement in Parliament saying, we're going to have a referendum bill … And alongside that, she announced the Citizens' Assembly. So it came as a package … it should have been separated out … And that gave the opposition a perfect opening to attack it. So it did seem … umbilically linked to the broader efforts for independence.' (Journalist, external interviews)
'I don't have … that opinion anymore. That's because the Assembly itself, kind of, asserted its autonomy and decided not to discuss independence … [it] recognised that, you know, consensus on independence is pretty much impossible with the way the national mood is on that at the moment. So it skirted round it and … I think it has a lot of cross-party buy-in. If you look back at the start … there was a great deal of hostility to it.' (Journalist, external interviews)
'I thoroughly expected it to just be a sort of PR exercise as a drive towards boosting independence and much more of a political thing than it has been. But I think what was done really well is actually get … a real cross-section of Scotland in the room in one go. So it hasn't ended up being skewed in any particular way I don't think.' (Journalist, external interviews)
While journalists were largely sceptical regarding the motivation behind the Assembly, the view amongst politicians was more mixed. Some viewed the Assembly as an opportunity to cut through the day-to-day politics and create a common vision for the future of Scotland from the 'ordinary citizen'. Over time, perceptions of the Assembly seemed to evolve in a positive way as more became supportive when it reached its conclusion and published its report.
Media coverage analysis also suggests that partisan lines were more prominent in the early stages of the process, with the Scottish Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats initially declining to support the Assembly, while SNP and Greens were fully supportive and Labour cautiously supportive. The inclusion of the Conservatives in the political panel in weekend 3, and media articles with more supportive quotations from Conservative and Liberal Democrat sources from early 2020 onwards, suggest that their perceptions had evolved around the midpoint of the process. The Liberal Democrat manifesto prior to the May 2021 elections also notes a commitment to 'take forward' the work of the Assembly, indicating a change in approach.
Interviewees felt the Assembly was a positive experience for members and were in strong agreement that members were enthusiastic and serious about the Assembly and their involvement in the process. The inclusion of members from a cross-section of Scottish society was highlighted as a key strength. Amongst the weaknesses, they highlighted five that clearly resonate from findings from other strands of our research: the remit, the quality of deliberation, the nature of the recommendations, the limited broader public engagement, and the Assembly's impact. Firstly, there was consensus amongst all interviewees (politicians, civil servants, and journalists) that the remit was very broad and generic and did not address specific questions. Secondly, as illustrated in the next section, there was consensus that issues were not discussed in-depth and that there was a lack of focus on more 'difficult' issues, while the more contentious aspects did not receive sufficient engagement – e.g. how to fund certain recommendations, how to balance trade-offs. Many interviewees, particularly politicians, felt this had an adverse effect on the quality of deliberation. They perceived that there was a lack of rigorous debate and that there seemed to be an expectation amongst members that consensus was the aim and therefore they were not fully challenged on their arguments.
Thirdly, the recommendations were welcomed across the board (with some describing them as 'radical'), but their wide-ranging nature and somewhat vague language was noted as not giving the Government much to work with. Some felt many recommendations are hard to disagree with and would not really stimulate public debate. Fourthly, some indicated that the Assembly did not capture the public imagination the way assemblies elsewhere had done and that this was a result of the broad remit.
'I don't think most people even knew it was there. Again, it wasn't like the ones in Ireland that people were paying attention to what they said. However, every one of those hundred people that was on that Citizens' Assembly is a member of a community and will know people. So I think there is a sort of trickle out effect.' (Politician, external interviews)
Finally, when asked about the prospect for future citizens' assemblies in Scotland, some were generally supportive in principle whilst others were supportive only if the first Assembly had any real impact and any future assemblies had to give more careful thought to their remit.
'Probably the main purpose of the Assembly was to see if it could work … And the proof of concept, I think it's done alright, you know, as a … prototype … I think it's embedded itself in the political consciousness. It hasn't had any obvious screw ups … It's worked pretty smoothly I think once it got underway … But it's just… you know, what happens next? What becomes concrete policy? And … we will then have an idea about how to view the next citizens' assembly, 'cause if these things go nowhere, then they will become a bit of a joke.' (Journalist, external interviews)
Similar concerns about these five weaknesses were found also across the internal interviews with organisers, facilitators, and stewarding group members.
The Assembly's impact and links to relevant institutions
In terms of the link to relevant institutions, interviewees noted that the relationship between the Assembly, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament is unclear, particularly regarding how the report and its recommendations are to be taken forward. Some politicians expressed concerns regarding the Assembly's lack of legislative power, while others were happy to consider it a consultative exercise.
'I have reservations about some kinds of citizens' assemblies having any kind of legislative oversight or veto or anything like that, which I think some of them would quite maybe like.' (Politician, external interviews)
One MSP expressed doubt over the validity of the Assembly process in terms of dealing with contested issues and their trade-offs, and felt it best to leave such issues to politicians and elections and for assemblies to be more of an advisory body. Moreover, most interviewees, across both the internal and external interviews, had doubts about whether and how the report should feed into policy processes. For example, interviewees typically agreed that the Assembly's report and recommendations constituted an important outcome, but many raised questions about whether they were the result of sufficient deliberation or engagement with the evidence:
'I would be deeply uncomfortable were any of those recommendations to then feed straight into policy development, because I don't think any of them came from a sufficiently deep deliberative process. Because it was trying to do too much.' (Stewarding group, internal interviews)
There were concerns expressed about the timing of the report and how it may inform the Programme for Government following the May 2021 elections. One civil servant stressed that the Scottish Government was taking the Assembly 'very seriously' and that it would give careful consideration to the recommendations. However, the same interviewee also expressed uncertainty about the authority ('mandate') of the recommendations and how they are to be managed and related to other institutional and political processes:
'I think one of the issues we've been grappling with is about what kind of mandate the recommendations potentially create, if any. So the very initial conversations that we've been having are, how do these recommendations sit with statutory requirements … and we have strategies that have been developed through stakeholder engagement and have been agreed, and we now have people developing things because of manifesto commitments. How do these recommendations interact with all of those processes, what kind of thing are these recommendations?' (Civil servant, external interviews)
'[The Assembly's report] says "we the people of Scotland present this report to the Scottish Government and Parliament." I have got a problem with that statement because what were there (...) a hundred of them and it is the saying we the people of Scotland is a bit of a jump. They are not elected, yes they are a cross-section of society but there are probably areas that they are not a cross-section in. It is a relatively small number and I think the relationship of such Assemblies to the elected Parliament is a question we need to resolve.' (Politician, external interviews)
On balance, participants in the internal interviews were satisfied with the output, considering the challenges of the broad remit and the circumstances faced by the Assembly (e.g. limited time; pandemic).
'Not just that they produced something given the size of the challenge, but they produced something that I think has a cohesiveness to it in terms of its direction of travel, which is quite impressive.' (Facilitator, internal interviews)
Politicians, journalists and civil servants highlighted that the institutional response will be setting a precedent for how governments and other institutions respond to future assemblies. The two civil servants interviewed stressed the commitment from the Scottish Government to draw upon findings from Assembly, as well as Scotland's Climate Assembly, in developing its ten-year economic plan.
'We've seen some quite strong manifesto commitments around Citizens' Assemblies, so we have a commitment specifically about the recommendations of Citizens' Assembly of Scotland and actually giving careful consideration to those recommendations … and there's a very strong commitment to have other assemblies.' (Civil servant, external interviews)
However, all interviewees noted that the broad range of recommendations will prove difficult for the Government to act upon, and that the relationship between the Assembly and other institutions should have been clarified from the outset.
'[The] focus is now on how does the Government respond to these recommendations, and I think the recommendations make that very hard.' (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)
One interviewee noted how the Assembly itself felt like an 'add-on to the day job', highlighting how if the recommendations are also treated in a similar manner in Government they may not receive sufficient attention. Another interviewee suggested that the fact that the team of Assembly organisers was disbanded soon after the Assembly's completion was a factor hindering its potential impact:
'It felt like there was a massive head of steam with the secretariat team in the report. And since the report's come out I've not had a huge amount of engagement with anyone.' (Civil servant, external interviews)
Across both internal and external interviews, there were concerns that the Government will cherry-pick the recommendations that suit its agenda or those that are quick and easy to implement to rather superficially show they are responding to the recommendations. Most indicated that the Assembly produced interesting ideas, however, concerns were expressed that many recommendations were underdeveloped, referred to things that already exist, or fell outwith Holyrood's jurisdiction.
'I would have liked to have seen fewer recommendations, and them be the really radical ones. Because I think, you know, a lot of what's in there is already in planning for Government, and all the rest of it, you know, there's a lot of stuff that politicians will be able to go, oh, tick, already doing that, oh, tick.' (Facilitator, internal interviews)
'I think they could have done with another drilling down. Another sifting, another… you know what I mean? … But we didn't have time to do that.' (Facilitator, internal interviews)
Many of the interviewees' doubts (both internal and external) revolved around uncertainty about the impact of the recommendations and where or with whom accountability for this impact rests. Journalists and politicians expressed differing views on how the work of the Assembly may feed into the Scottish Parliament. For instance, journalists were sceptical that the Assembly's work would have any impact there, with some stating Parliament may even resist it.
'But again a lot of those [recommendations] … dilute the influence of politicians in the political process and the policy making process and give more citizens a direct say. I think there is obviously institutional resistance to that at Holyrood and just in the political system generally … I can't see them rushing to do that.' (Journalist, external interviews)
Many interviewees stated that Parliament and Government have a responsibility to report and respond to the Assembly, for example by giving an annual report on how they have responded to the recommendations. Most politicians interviewed felt that the work of the Assembly would not influence Parliament to any great extent.
'There's no need for anybody to pay any attention to what they're saying. There's no legislative pressure to do so, there's no pressure from voters to do so. There's no requirement for anyone in Parliament to pay the slightest attention to what it says in those reports.' (Politician, external interviews)
'I think the parliamentary response is going to be what we've come to expect far too often, which is warm words on the day and then we carry on with business as usual. And that's the unfortunate part. I think there's some of the things in it that we will take up because they're on the Government agenda anyway.' (Politician, external interviews)
However, at an individual level, some MSPs noted that they are likely to use the recommendations as evidence in debates and motions, and to lobby the Government. These activities have the potential to establish an informal but significant link between the Assembly and Parliament.
The fieldnotes from the post-Assembly session between members and parliamentarians suggest that most of the politicians present had engaged to some extent with the Assembly's report and were keen to hear from members about their experience of the process, the development of the recommendations (e.g. what issues were difficult, controversial topics, levels of consensus), and their preferred proposals. There was some, but limited, discussion of the substance of the recommendations, albeit some politicians did welcome those that specifically aligned with their own policies (e.g. environmental issues, taxation, wellbeing economy). Assembly members did ask the politicians to explain how they will take forward the recommendations, with mixed responses across parties – namely, noting that they will be taken seriously by the next Parliament, particularly for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic recovery; but also noting that there are limits in currently devolved powers to act on some proposals. Some politicians also indicated that the recommendations may have some influence on the forthcoming electoral manifestos.
We analysed the content of the May 2021 Scottish election manifestos. Three parties (Scottish National Party, Green Party and Scottish Liberal Democrat Party) mentioned citizens' assemblies in their manifestos, with varying degrees of commitment. References to this particular Assembly, however, were notably absent or limited in all manifestos, with the exception of the SNP's. But even that one did not commit to anything beyond considering the recommendations. Nonetheless, there was a reference in both the SNP and Green Party manifestos to this Assembly as a good precedent for future processes.
The politicians and journalists interviewed often expressed the view that whether any of the recommendations translate into policy will ultimately determine how seriously any future Assemblies are taken:
'The more effect they have, the more impact they have, the more they will be reported because they will become a significant part of the process … If what they say matters, they will get reported in proportion to that. But if they're just an idle exercise then no.' (Journalist, external interviews)
Ultimately, the Scottish Government has no legal obligation to act upon the recommendations, hence why many interviewees were sceptical about the impact of the Assembly. However, most were encouraged by the work of the Assembly and felt it could be used as a prototype for better participatory and deliberative processes. In this vein, one noted that the Assembly may have a longer term impact as a contribution to democratic innovation in Scotland:
'Sometimes these things are a slower burn. I think it'll be seen to be well in advance actually of its time. But I think in terms of the impact of this as a way of doing things and its importance I think that's still to come along.' (Politician, external interviews)
Our analysis of media coverage shows how flurries of activity map onto key stages and milestones at the Assembly. Improvements in the communications capacity of the organisers team made a difference, albeit coverage remained limited in newspapers with the highest readership in Scotland. As a result, only certain types of readers will have received consistent news coverage of the Assembly. Data shows that the vast majority of Scottish traditional media market share is made up of UK-wide national newspapers (about 85%), and Assembly coverage in these publications was notably limited. Overall, the content of the coverage was mostly neutral or positive, with the exception of the initial stages of the Assembly. Journalists and politicians expressed the view that the Assembly worked much better than they initially expected. Although there was some cynicism towards the Assembly initially, most had a more positive view of it by the end.
The general view, across both internal and external interviews, was that the Assembly ran smoothly, was a positive experience for members, and was a good prototype for future processes. Nevertheless, concerns were expressed about five key weaknesses: the wide remit, the quality and depth of deliberation, the feasibility of the recommendations, the limited broader public engagement, and the lack of clarity about institutional routes for Assembly's impact. Most interviewees were sceptical the Assembly will have a significant impact on the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, due to its lack of formal power, but there was some confidence that it will be used as evidence by individual MSPs to lobby the Government. Most external interviewees felt that as the Assembly does not have any legislative power, nor clear plans about what to do with the recommendations, it will not influence Scottish institutions to any great extent and many feared its impact will be negligible. It was unclear to interviewees what kind of mandate, if any, does the Assembly and its recommendations have. They expressed concern over how the recommendations sit with statutory requirements and how they may interact with various policy processes, and some suggested that it would be better to have these questions answered in advance of the process. Nonetheless, most saw this Assembly as having a clear impact in establishing a positive precedent for future participatory processes in Scotland, generating important learning and a 'proof of concept' to inform democratic innovation.
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