The Constitution Unit


Citizens' Assembly shows we can deepen public engagement in decision-making

9 November 2015


A project co-run by the UCL Constitution Unit and other institutions has given the citizens of South Yorkshire a voice in ongoing debates about devolution in their region.

After two weekends of careful deliberation, the members of Assembly North - the UK's first ever 'citizens' assembly' - voted for creation of an elected Yorkshire & Humber regional assembly, which would take substantial powers from Westminster.  They also voted to reject the current 'devolution deal' on the table for the Sheffield City Region, though they urged local councillors to continue working for a better deal, rather than walk away from the process.

Assembly North is part of a project - called Democracy Matters - organized by academics at several institutions, including UCL's Constitution Unit, in collaboration with the Electoral Reform Society, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.  South Yorkshire is one of two areas taking part in the experiment.  In Southampton, citizens in a parallel Assembly South, covering Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, will meet to reach their conclusions next weekend.

A citizens' assembly is a gathering of citizens chosen at random to deliberate on an issue.  Members learn about the issues and options, hear from advocates of a wide range of positions, deliberate in depth on what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches, and then draw out conclusions.  Such assemblies have worked with great success in countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, and Ireland, but have never been tried before in the UK.

Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit and Co-Investigator for the project, said:

" Assembly North has shown that citizens' assemblies work.  We had fantastic engagement from the Assembly Members, who attended four days of intense discussion and showed themselves more than capable of dealing with complex constitutional questions.  The decisions they reached were coherent and based on clear reasoning.   
" Many members commented that taking part in the project has given them a new desire to get involved in public decision-making and work to overcome the weaknesses they see in our current democratic system.  So we hope the positive effects of this experiment will ripple out beyond the event itself."

Further details of the project and the decisions reached by Assembly North are the website.  A detailed report on the Assembly's conclusions will be published in the coming weeks.