Frequently asked questions in relation to Building Change Trust funding an NI Citizens Assembly
As announced on the 19th Jan 2018, the Building Change Trust has offered up to £100,000 to Involve for a pilot Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland.
Our funding of £100,000 is conditional on them raising additional funds to deliver the Citizens’ Assembly
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions we have received since this announcement.
What is a Citizens’ Assembly?
A citizens’ assembly is a body of citizens, randomly selected from the population to be broadly representative of the public, established to consider an issue or number of issues.
They function as a complement to elected institutions and are often used to bring fresh thinking and stimulate deliberation around difficult or contested issues. Citizens’ assemblies can be delivered either on a statutory footing as with the Irish Citizens Assembly (https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/) or independently (See http://citizensassembly.co.uk/brexit/about/) and have been used in various countries including Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK.
Members meet over a specified time period, usually at weekends, and deliberate over a chosen topic, drawing conclusions and making recommendations which are then submitted to the relevant decision-making body e.g. parliament, for consideration.
Once the final report is submitted the citizens’ assembly is stood down.
How does it work?
Generally a citizen’s assembly will have between 50 - 100 members drawn from the general public The citizen membership is selected by what social scientists call ‘sortition’: a large random sample is chosen with the number whittled down as required, controlling for demographics (in age, gender, community background, social class and so on) so that it is as representative of the adult population as possible.
Similar to a jury, the citizens are asked to deliberate on an issue or set of issues, on the premise that they will likely come to similar conclusions, weighing the evidence, as any other such group so assembled. In reaching its conclusions a citizens’ assembly hears and considers evidence from a range of informed perspectives on the given topic, reflecting the balance of evidence and the breadth of opinion.
The design of each Citizens’ Assembly is different, depending on the context and the topic or topics under consideration, however the project in Northern Ireland will have the following stages:
Political Engagement: Substantial work has been done here already, however engagement with MLAs and political parties will continue over the course of the development and delivery of the project to ensure broad awareness of and support for the project to the greatest extent possible.
Advisory group: An independent advisory group will be established comprising those with specialist knowledge relevant to the operation of the citizens’ assembly and the political context in Northern Ireland. The membership will also comprise a diversity reflective of the population of Northern Ireland in terms of gender, community background and regional spread.
Topic Selection: The Citizens’ Assembly will consider a single topic, to be identified by Involve and the Advisory Group, in consultation with relevant stakeholders. The following criteria will guide topic selection:
• Political support is likely or possible;
• Popular support is likely or possible;
• Traditional political processes have failed to find a solution;
• A Citizens’ Assembly has a reasonable likelihood of success (i.e. it arrives at a specific recommendation);
• The model would be transferrable to other issues;
• The issue is significant enough to attract political and media attention;
Selection. A process to identify and select a randomised group of 50 – 100 people who will be as representative as possible of the Northern Ireland population in terms of age, gender, community background, social class and other factors to be determined by the advisory group.
Logistical preparations: The Citizens’ Assembly will require a significant amount of logistical preparations to organise. A suitable venue and accommodation will be required for the two weekends of the Assembly.
Evidence development & expert recruitment: The first stage of a deliberative process is typically for participants to engage with the evidence on the topic. Once the topic is identified, expert speakers will be identified who can present their perspective on the topic representing the balance of evidence and a breadth of opinion. In addition, a series of short and accessible briefing papers will be developed for participants to which they can refer during the Assembly. This evidence must be, and be seen to be, an impartial and balanced presentation of the facts and main arguments.
Citizens’ Assembly meetings: The exact format of the Citizens’ Assembly meetings will depend on the topic and process design. However, it is likely that they will take place over two weekends, with a gap of two or three weeks between them. The first weekend is likely to focus on understanding and interrogating the issue, with participants hearing from and questioning experts and building their understanding of the key issues and arguments. The second weekend is likely to focus on deliberation and decision making. A balance will be struck between seeking consensus and giving space and recognition to disagreement and diversity. This could see a combination of consensus decision making and individual voting being used. The Assembly is planned for this autumn.
Communications: Communications before and after the assembly will be key to helping ensure it has impacts. A range of media will be used to report on the assembly and its findings, including written reports and blog posts, photographs, videos and infographics. It is likely that a combination of social media and press will be used to communicate the findings of the assembly to a broad audience.
Written Report: A detailed written report will be prepared setting out the assembly’s recommendations, as well as the process by which these were arrived at and the evidence considered. This will be presented to the relevant decision-making body – likely to be the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive,the Northern Ireland Office and Direct Rule Ministers depending on political developments in the coming months. The report will also be shared with the political parties here and the Irish government and other key stakeholders such as funders.
Evaluation: The Citizens’ Assembly project will be independently evaluated to assess impact against its objectives, identify learning from the project and consider the potential future application of such a model.
Has a Citizens’ Assembly been tried in Northern Ireland before?
Whilst a full Citizens’ Assembly initiative, as per the upcoming Building Change Trust funded project, has not been tried in Northern Ireland before there have been some previous similar initiatives. For example, in 2007 a ‘deliberative poll’ was conducted in Omagh on the subject of education policy, where randomly selected parents were given access to expert evidence and an opportunity to deliberate, as a means of assessing the change in knowledge and preferences that resulted (see here http://cdd.stanford.edu/2007/deliberative-polling-on-education-policy-in-omagh-northern-ireland/).
More recently, Queens’ Unversity Belfast conducted a deliberative exercise with randomly selected citizens in Northern Ireland on the issue of flags (see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPncxJiJWck) and are planning further work around Brexit (see here: https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/brexitni/).
Who are Building Change Trust and why are we supporting this experiment?
In 2008, the Building Change Trust was established by the Big Lottery Fund with a National Lottery grant of £10million as an investment for community capacity building and promotion of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland.
This will be both invested, and spent, in full by the 31 December 2018.
One of the Trust’s key themes over the 2014-2018 period has been ‘Creative Space for Civic Thinking’ through which the Trust has sought to support and promote the role of the voluntary and community sector in facilitating public participation in decision-making. We have made grants to a series of creative public participation experiments through our Civic Activism Programme, we established and resourced the NI Open Government Network and have commissioned two key pieces of research, respectively examining the independence of the VCSE sector in Northern Ireland, and the health of democracy in Northern Ireland (see Beyond Voting report here: http://civicactivism.buildingchangetrust.org/beyond-voting).
It was on the back of the Beyond Voting research that was carried out in late 2016 that the Trust at the start of 2017 convened a group of VCSE representatives, academics and individual activists to consider what collaborative efforts could be undertaken to promote and strengthen a more deliberative model of democracy in Northern Ireland. The two key initiatives that have emerged from this dialogue to date have been the Citizens’ Assembly project and a region-wide Participatory Budgeting support project (more information on the latter here: http://civicactivism.buildingchangetrust.org/tools-directory/Participatory-Budgeting)
Who are Involve?
Following a process of dialogue and collaboration amongst a group of VCSE sector representatives and academics, Building Change Trust has made a grant available to Involve to deliver a Citizens’ Assembly pilot project in 2018. The grant will be for up to £100,000 but will be conditional on Involve raising a similar amount in match-funding. A further grant of £30,000 has already been secured from the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.
Involve is a charity think tank established in 2003 to Improve the quality of democracy between elections. Involve has been working in Northern Ireland since 2014, supporting the Trust’s Creative Space for Civic Thinking work. They have substantial experience in promoting and supporting public participation and deliberation exercises across the UK, including playing the role of lead facilitators at the recent Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit in Manchester.
Find out more about Involve here https://www.involve.org.uk.
Who else is behind this project?
The following organisations and individuals were involved in the development of this project:
• Colm Burns, NI Open Government Network
• David McBurney, NI Open Government Network
• Eamonn Donaghy, Age Sector Platform
• James Magowan, Association of Charitable Foundations
• James Pow, Queen’s University Belfast
• Jan Melia, Women’s Aid Federation NI
• Jess Blair, Electoral Reform Society
• Karin Eyben, Corrymeela
• Lyn Moffett, Building Communities Resource Centre
• Markus Ketola, Ulster University
• Meabh Poacher, Community Development & Health Network
• Paul Braithwaite, Building Change Trust
• Paul Nolan, independent researcher
• Peter O’Neill, Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics
• Robin Wilson, independent researcher
• Roslyn Fuller, Solonian Democracy Institute (Ireland)
• Sam Fitzsimmons, Integrated Education Fund
• Sara Houston, Community Foundation for Northern Ireland
• Tim Hughes, Involve
What role could a citizens’ assembly play in Northern Ireland?
There are many issues in Northern Ireland which could be deemed difficult or contested both now and in the future, around which government and elected representatives have not yet been able to agree widely acceptable solutions. This predates the current suspension of the institutions and has resulted in a growing level of dissatisfaction amongst the public.
Is this intended to bring devolution back?
No – it would be neither appropriate nor practical for this project to set itself the task of finding a resolution to the ongoing political impasse. This task must continue to rest primarily with elected representative and political parties, albeit a greater element of public engagement would be welcome in the Trust’s view.
The Trust would be resourcing this Citizens’ Assembly project even if Stormont was in session – indeed its recommendations may have a greater likelihood of being acted upon in such a context.
The project will take on one single topic – to be identified by the Advisory Group against set criteria (see earlier) – this could be either a social policy issue or a political issue related to the operation of the institutions. If it is the latter this could potentially assist with the resolution of one element of the current political impasse, however it is no substitute for cross-party talks leading to political agreement nor has it been promoted as such by the Trust.
Will a citizens’ assembly replace our elected representatives?
No. A citizens’ assembly could help rebuild public trust and complement the role of elected representatives by engaging the public in the process of finding acceptable solutions to one or more issues. This could be helpful both in the current context of the suspension of the institutions and/or in the case of the institutions’ restoration. Indeed whilst the Trust and others are providing funding towards an independent citizens’ assembly pilot in 2018, this assembly will stand down once its work is complete. Future citizens’ assemblies would be best placed on a statutory footing to consider issues referred by a sitting NI Executive and/or NI Assembly.
What power does the Citizens’ Assembly have?
The project funded by Building Change Trust is entirely independent of government and has no official status or decision-making power. It is intended to act in an advisory capacity, in a way that complements existing political and institutional processes. Whilst this entails an element of risk whereby the assembly’s recommendations may not be acted upon, through engaging throughout with political representatives, the project aims to minimise the likelihood of this happening. One key benefit of an independent Citizens’ Assembly – in addition to being free from partisan political influence – is the possibility of testing the effectiveness and relevance of the method at no cost to the taxpayer. As such, politicians and the broader public will be able to assess afterwards whether such a mechanism is worth putting on a statutory footing in future. It is worth noting that independent Citizens’ Assembly initiatives have been the forerunners of statutory initiatives in other jurisidictions – for example the We The Citizens initiative in the Republic of Ireland in 2011 (see: http://www.wethecitizens.ie/).
When will the pilot for Northern Ireland happen?
Preparatory work has commenced already, however the project needs to raise additional funds in the coming months to ensure full delivery. Assuming adequate funds have been raised by June 2018, the Citizens’ Assembly meetings are provisionally scheduled for autumn 2018. The entire project is expected to last around 12 months.
How much is it estimated to cost and what will the funds be spent on?
The cost of running a Citizens’ Assembly with 100 members, over 2 weekends is likely to be in the region of £230,000. The key items of expenditure in operating a Citizens’ Assembly would be:
• Participant recruitment via a polling company or equivalent
• Cost of residentials – accommodation, transport, food for 2 full weekends
• Participant expenses – each member of the Citizens’ Assembly will receive a small stipend in recognition of their time commitment, as well as reimbursement for other relevant expenses – travel, childcare, etc.
• Project personnel – the project will recruit a full-time coordinator, as well as drawing on support from existing Involve staff. A team of professional facilitators will also be recruited for the 2 residentials.
• Communications – expert support will be needed to ensure the project communicates its purpose and results clearly and effectively to both a public and politicial audience
For further questions
Contact Tim Hughes at Involve through www.involve.org.uk.