PLAN B - CITIZENS' ASSEMBLIES AOTEAROA

What is this for?

The aims for this website are to promote, and as soon as possible organise, citizens' assemblies in Aotearoa New Zealand. If you are interested inthe idea of citizens' assemblies I would love you to contact me. You could suggest how to:

This kind of effort has got to be long-term. It will take time, and trial and error, to find a plan of action that works, and to get folk on board.

When I find out how, or someone kindly shows me, and we sort out what kind of information it is both legal and reasonable to ask, there will be forms to allow registration of interest and feedback. For the time being I would ask folk to contact me by old fashioned E-mail at:

I would like to know where you are based and what is your electorate, as one of my thoughts is to try to get a number ot trials going on the basis of electorates, since the electoral rolls are the obvious first choice for sending out invitations to a random selection of voters.

There is a page on Facebook called Citizens' Assemblies Aotearoa, which is also a point of contact.

A Citizens' Assembly - What is it?

At its most basic is is a group of 10 or so people who have probably never met each other before. They are, so far as such a small number can be, intended to be representative of the community at large; as many women as men, at least one Maori and one from the PI community, a house owner or two and a bunch of renters and so on. The participants have been selected by lot from a list or data base of those who have previously responded positively to an invitation to take part, if selected. Experience around the world suggests that the response rate to invitations is commonly around 10%.

It is usual for citizens' assemblies to have a number of sessions, so that their deliberations can be effective. The first session is a get-to-know-you and inttroduction to the methodology and rules which it is suggested be adopted. This is usually done with the assistance of a facilitator, who is attached to the group. One important rule is usually that when it is someone's turn to talk, other participants do not interrupt, ask questions or otherwise react until invited to do so. No rolling eyeballs or raised eyebrows! Another rule is usually that all particpants speak when it is their turn, the order being decided by lot. This is so that the discussion is not dominated by one or a small set of the participants. The group is encouraged to regard itself as thinking on behalf of the community at large.

At a second session, depending on the subject or subjects being considered, experts in relevant fields and known stakeholders would be asked to present to the group their ideas and knowledge, and would be available for questions. This aspect is important, as it is often necessary for the subject to be put into context and background information to be presented as part of the group gathering information before entering into discussion.

Then follows the discussion itself, probably with only a facilitator in addition to the participants themselves. The aim would normally be to reach an agreed outcome, in the form of a suggested policy or action that all participants think they could live with.

At a third session, the actual discussions take place, with only the facilitator present. The aim is to reach a form of consensus, or at least a final document setting out what the assembly has to say.

A citizens' assembly may meet on a number of occasions over several weeks or months, or may all be comploeted within a weekend. It depends on what is found to work best under particular circumstances, and the nature and complexity of the matter being considered.

One of the matters to be decided is how to make it possible for people to participate. Commonly expenses are reimbursed, and other payments may also be made. All this needs to be worked out in the New Zealand context.

A key element in setting up citizens' assemblies is the selection of participants by lot, also called sortition. Various websites or blogs specialise in promoting sortition, among them Equality by Lot and the Sortition Foundation in Australia These want to go further, suggesting that sortition could supplant elections. Something for the future here perhaps.

What is the point?

The point is to participate in discussion with the aim of reaching an agreed position that can be communicated to others, commonly as policy recommendations. This is totally different from the usual pattern of debate, where two sides battle it out from established positions. Of course many participants will start off with their own view, but by respectfully listening to each other, there is a better chance that minds can be changed and movement towards consensus, or at least a position that all can live with, can develop. Because each person gats a turn at speaking, without interruption, by and large participants spend more time listening than speaking. That's got to be good, right?

What is discussed? Anything. Preferable the topic or topics will have been decided ahead of the meeting. They may have been chosen by the participnts themselves by making suggestions and then voting, or they may have been chosen by an organisation, government, council, university, whatever, which is arranging the assembly. Topics can be local (council services, roads, water, beaches etc.), national (electoral law, the constitution, tax), and even international (climat change, trade agreements, United Nations, defence arrangements).

One element, and an important one, of citizens' assemblies, is that they invite "experts ", who may be professionals of one kind or another, academics, civil servants, lawers and so on who have background expertise or knowldege in the issue to be discussed, to make short presentations on the topic before group discussion starts. This brings the group up to speed, so to speak. The experts are also available to answer questions which arise during the group's discussion.

An additional but very important purpose of this kind of meeting is to empower people by the mere act of participating in group discussion. With time participants feel more able to express their thoughts and to cooperate respectfully with others. At the outset, participants are not necessarily like minded, indeed are unlikely to be so given their diverse backgrounds. But in considering the public good generally, remembering that they are urged at the outset to consider themselves as mini-publics and not just representing the interests of a particular group, experience shows that minds can be changed and, if not conesensus, at least agreement on a final statement reached.

Experience also shows that participating in a citzens' assembly substantially increases the likelihood of individuals remaining politically engaged and actually voting in subsequent elections.

Examples of citizens' assemblies - The G1000s

Big assemblies have been held relatively rarely. The so-called G1000 movement started with an assembly in Belgium which was held on 11 Nov 2011, and there is a website in English with links to the final report which was prepared. A similar assembly was held on 9 April 2016 in the Dutch city of Amersfoort, but there only seems to be a Dutch language website.

A G1000 was being planned in England, to be held in Cambridge this year (2018), but is currently held up, I understand, for lack of finance. They also have a website".

It seems that, so far, such big assemblies have been one-off, and have not led to their regular use. This may change.

In the context of the Extinction Rebellion, the international sign up page has as one of its demands, participatory democracy. This is the reason why I have brought this up on the Tamaki Makaurau XR page.

New Zealand examples of citizens' assemblies - Citizens' juries

There are some examples of citizens' juries rather closer to home. They were all organised by the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago. Without going into the specifics of the topics being considered, the main organisational features of the three juries were:

  1. In connection with policy decisions about screening for breast cancer 1 the jury comprised a group of 12 women aged 40-49 years selected from the general and Mäori rolls. 80 written invitations were sent out. 34 of the invitees could not be contacted, and of the 46 who remained 17 agreed to take part. The first 12 to respond were invited to attend. The meetings took place on a Wednesday evening (introduction and familiarisation), all day Friday (presentations by experts and their interrogation by the jury) and Saturday morning (deliberation by the jury alone except for an observer).
  2. In connection with the use of personal medical information for medical research 2 the jury comprised a group of initially 13 citizens, from 96 taken at random from local electoral rolls to whom letters of invitation were sent out. In addition there was an independent chair and a facilitator. The juiry met over three days. On the first day the chair explained the process and indicated that the jurors should consider themselves as representing the community at large, and that unanimity was not necessary. Legal and ethical issues were also explained. During the second day, the jury heard from other experts who had been selected by the steering group, and could assk questions. The third day was for the jury to deliberate, with just the facilitator present, and for reporting back.
  3. The most recent citizens' jury was held earlier this year, and the report is still in preparation. It considered the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted dying, and was a subject in the Radio New Zealand programme Our Changing World on 24 May 2018. This jury comprised 15 people from South Dunedin.

So far as I know, no other trials have been carried out in this country. Come on, New Zealand, the time is surely ripe. We need more than a vote, we need a voice.

Other overseas examples

Take a look at some experience from the UK a couple of years ago. This was organised, I think, by the Electoral Reform Society.

Two UK parliamentary committees comissioned a citizens' assembly on social care, which took place over two weekende in April and May 2018. The Involve Foundation has put up a short (3 mins) video which includes what some of the 47 participants thought of the process. Involve have also put up a report dated 25 May 2018 on how it worked.

Citizens' juries and similar have been quite extensively used in Australia, and some of these are listed on the NewDemocracy website. They have generally been initiated by local or state authorities on a single topic.

Most folk will have heard of the citizens' assemblies that have been held in Ireland in the run up to their referendum on changing their constitutional position on reproductive issues. You can read more about it here.

The participatory budgeting movement

Another large element of the movement to increase public participation is participatory budgeting. The process, essentially involving citizens' assemblies deciding directly how a portion of a public budget should be spent, is described on the website of the Participatory Budgeting Project, PBP, in the United States. Josh Lerner, the executive director of PBP, has written two interesting, and inspiring, books3.

There is also a formal participatory budgeting process in Scotland, with the aim that a minimum of 1% of local authority budgets should be allocated by participatory budgeting.

Where to next?

I would love to hear from people who would like to get a wider use of citizens' assemblies rolling and who would be able, in some form or other, to lend a hand.

What I am going to do now?

Aside from hoping for some helpful reaction to this page, I have:

Footnotes

1 Charlotte Paul, Rachel Nicholls, Patricia Priest and Rob McGee (2008) Making policy decisions about population screening for breast cancer: The role of citizens' deliberation. Health Policy 85, 314-320.
2 Lianne Parkin and Charlotte Paul (2010) Public good, personal privacy: a citizens' deliberation about using medical information for pharmacoepidemiological research; Journal Epidemial Community Health.
3 Josh Lerner (2014) Everyone Counts: Could "Participatory Budgeting" Change Democracy?; Cornell Selects, an imprint of Cornell University Library.
Josh Lerner (2014) Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics, The MIT Press.
4 Palmer G. and Butler A., (2018), Towards Democratic Renewal - Ideas for Constitutional Change in New Zealand. Victoria University Press.