Research Impact


Bringing Citizens’ Assemblies to the mainstream

Professor Alan Renwick’s research has underpinned a rapid growth in the use of citizens’ assemblies at all levels of government, demonstrating their ability to deliver effective public engagement.

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28 April 2022

Widespread concern about the state of democratic discourse has led to renewed interest in more deliberative forms of political engagement. One such example – the citizens’ assembly – has formed a key strand in the research of the UCL Constitution Unit’s Professor Alan Renwick.  

Citizens’ assemblies are groups of 50–200 members of the public who meet to learn about an issue, discuss it in depth, draw conclusions, and report recommendations to decision-makers. Through three research projects, Professor Renwick and colleagues have uncovered how this model can be most effectively applied in the UK context.  

The first of these, ‘Democracy Matters’, organised two pilot assemblies to explore attitudes to regional devolution in 2015. Then, in 2017 Professor Renwick led the first UK-wide citizens’ assembly: the ‘Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit’. And from 2017–19 he led an international comparative study drawing on data from countries such as Canada, the United States and Ireland to explore how to improve information and discourse in election and referendum campaigns – including through the use of citizens’ assemblies. 

Professor Renwick found that citizens’ assemblies are effective in the UK, with participants reaching reasoned conclusions even on divisive issues such as Brexit. When compared with other consultation methods commonly employed by UK public authorities, such assemblies encouraged wider and deeper citizen engagement.  

Citizens’ Assemblies in mainstream public life 

The success of the Democracy Matters and Brexit assemblies helped to catalyse a rapid expansion of citizens’ assemblies in the UK, demonstrating their potential and moving them to the mainstream. By the end of 2020, two assemblies had been commissioned by the UK Parliament (on social care and climate change), two by the Scottish government (on Scotland’s future and climate change), and one by the Welsh Parliament (on methods of public engagement). Local authorities also employ the method, with three supported by the UK government’s ‘Innovation in Democracy Programme’ and 10 others following suit on diverse topics such as climate change, hate crime, and urban regeneration by the end of 2020. There is a commitment to annual assemblies in Northern Ireland; and Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party all made specific pledges on citizens’ assemblies for the first time in their 2019 manifestos.  

Evidence-led research 

Professor Renwick’s research showed that citizens’ assemblies require careful design and that this can make the technique inappropriate in some contexts. His work also demonstrated the importance of selecting participants with varying attitudes, rather than relying solely on socio-demographics, which may not always be representative of the full gamut of public opinion. The inclusion of professional facilitators was also found to be important in making sure that the process runs smoothly for high-quality discussion.  

Professor Renwick’s expertise and influence in demonstrating these findings have led to a distinct and evidence-led model of UK citizens’ assemblies, creating more representative and effective discussions in UK politics. 

Research synopsis

Bringing Citizens’ Assemblies to the mainstream 

Professor Alan Renwick’s research at the UCL Constitution Unit has underpinned a rapid growth in the use of citizens’ assemblies at all levels of government throughout the UK, demonstrating their ability to deliver effective public engagement, even on contentious political issues. The research explores when citizens’ assemblies are (and are not) appropriate, and has shaped the development of a distinct UK version of the model. In doing so, Professor Renwick’s work has strengthened democratic processes and enriched key policy debates.