CITIZEN’S ASSEMBLIES: REFLECTING ON OUR THIRD DEMAND FROM FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE

Background

We know the world is spinning towards catastrophe. We know it’s time to act. And we know our “leaders” are not doing enough. Our political system is failing to deliver what is needed to address the climate and ecological crisis facing our generation.

That is why Extinction Rebellion Southwark participated in the Oversight Panel for Southwark Council’s Citizen’s Jury from 2021 to 2022 (read more about how we contributed here). We hoped that the process would mean our council would be led by the decisions of a representative group of citizens, who had had time to understand the trade-offs inherent in climate response and put fairness and justice at the heart of their decision-making.

Now, we hope that writing about what we learnt in the process can contribute to future best practice, as local authorities across the UK declare climate emergencies and commit to forms of citizen’s assemblies on climate. 

We hope to be clear that this is not intended as a criticism of the general principle of citizen’s assemblies or those involved in Southwark Council’s process, including Jury members, the Oversight Panel, facilitators and council staff, who all worked extremely hard and were committed to best practice throughout. The Jury was something we had campaigned for, and we are glad it took place at this crucial juncture while Southwark Council is still developing its climate response. The resulting recommendations span an impressive breadth of topics and speak to the Jury’s stated concern for the future, as well as the incredible learning journey they committed to. The passion and dedication that Jury members brought to their task was genuinely inspiring, especially for those of us privileged to witness it firsthand as observers.

Our aim instead is to use this as a space for some critical feedback, which allows us to reflect on the broader deliberative and democratic purpose and design of Citizen’s Assemblies, which Extinction Rebellion Southwark continues to advocate for, and to hopefully provide useful reflections for other activist groups participating in similar processes.

Summary

Based on our experience in Southwark, we believe that the concept of citizen’s assemblies has been watered down considerably from a radical new way of public decision-making to just a slightly more extensive local authority consultation, with all the pitfalls of council processes. 

We have learnt that groups should consider the political assumptions they are making before engaging with a Citizen’s Assembly or Jury process. Movements like XR have promoted Citizen’s Assemblies in an attempt to bypass the inertia of current political systems, and to assume what Berglund & Schmidt (2020) have called ‘solution agnosticism’. In prior movements like Occupy, participatory democracy was seen as a way to challenge the authority of existing governing bodies, to claim that they are illegitimate, and were premised on a shared critique of capitalism and authoritarianism.

However, we have seen from this local example that the authority of a Citizen’s Jury is weak, and the local council has any number of ways to avoid the more radical of the Jury’s recommendations, including failing to adequately promote the Jury process and obfuscating their response by cross-referencing to other complicated policy documents. (Though, interestingly, one Jury member fed back to us the idea that perhaps the council could use the Jury as a ‘human shield’ to provide extra support for taking more radical policies; something we’ve yet to see Southwark Council employ but which could be effective)

While Jury members identified national and global systemic factors (such as capitalism, colonialism and imperialism) as root causes of the climate crisis, these insights were not reflected in the scale of ambition of their recommendations. We must therefore recognise that a Citizen’s Assembly process cannot avoid questions of politics or overcome power relations in society, and these questions emerge at every stage. In many ways, what we observed was that the Citizen’s Jury reproduced the macro-politics of climate change on a smaller scale.

Inception

A citizen’s jury can be an effective model of participatory decision making that allows the voices of the most marginalised, and yet most affected by policies related to climate adaptation and mitigation, to be heard and included. However, to be truly valuable and to ensure that the citizen’s jury successfully influences policy, it must be set up with painstaking efforts to ensure its integrity, inclusiveness and credibility.

This Jury was instigated over two and a half years after Southwark Council declared a climate emergency, a year after local activists were told that a Citizen’s Jury was planned (originally, the plan was for five juries), and after Southwark Council had already released the first draft of their climate strategy and action plan, meaning that a lot of the council’s framework of response had already been established.

Once the Jury finally got into motion, the process was somewhat rushed to take place pre-local elections, in May 2022. Although parts of the process were well-designed, such as the sortition exercise, some key aspects to a successful Citizen’s Jury had not been considered and budgeted for in advance, and never quite materialised despite continued follow up from XRS members.

This included:

  • The council failed to really commit to public communications on this exciting and novel political process taking place in our borough, belatedly putting out communications through council newsletters halfway through the process. This was a missed opportunity to expand awareness and bring the wider community along the learning journey on climate facts and possible response that the Jury were taking. This should have included the wider public, the media, partners and implementers for before, during and after the assembly; and creative ways to reach and engage them.
  • There was also a lack of plan for formal evaluation of the Jury from beginning to end from an independent research partner (perhaps a university), instead relying only on retrospective feedback from people involved but not looking at the full scope of the process and what learning we could take for future participatory democracy. This means the process failed to provide opportunities for communities to evaluate the process.
  • The original design of the Oversight Panel, who were overseeing the process, was heavily council- and business-centred: activists had to push for community groups and even academics to be included, which led to credibility doubts early on.
  • The process to get hold of speakers was very last minute and rushed, which meant the presenter was whoever was available at short notice (sometimes less than two weeks notice), rather than taking time to research and tailor presentations to the borough.
  • Again, this is not one person’s fault, but in hindsight the timing allowed to the whole process should probably have been longer. A Jury member fed back to us afterwards that they needed more time to chew on and digest what would have been some pretty major changes to their understanding of the world and impact of their daily activities, or that they could have done a Citizen’s Jury just on a single topic (like decarbonising transport) rather than the full range of climate policy solutions. (Southwark’s process allowed 30 hours of session time for the Jury.)
  • The accountability structure has not been and is still not clear. The moment in a citizen’s jury that is most important for its participants is the point at which they deliver their recommendations to those in power. It was positive that the Jury were able to present their conclusions to Southwark’s Cabinet themselves, although we wish more external stakeholders and council staff across departments had attended those sessions, but these recommendations are not legally binding, and it continues to be unclear what ongoing work the Jury are able to undertake towards ensuring that some of their conclusions are implemented. This is not to say that leaders and officials in the council have not taken these recommendations seriously in the short term; officers responded to each recommendation in a report that went to Cabinet, and have integrated them into the borough’s Climate Action Plan.
    • What structure can now be put in place for them to monitor and follow up on how recommendations are truly actioned over time? (The Jury themselves have called for this.) Will there be follow-up events to discuss the evolution of thinking, and elicit feedback to ensure the spirit of the recommendations emanating from the Jury has not been lost? How can the Oversight Panel play a role in this?
  • Similarly, it was disappointing that not more senior decision-makers (including councillors), partners and services were involved in the process throughout. Key stakeholders attending some sessions in the assembly could have helped build trust and help them understand the investment and thought put by residents and the expectations of the process.

Facilitation

This experience drove home to us that facilitation is at its heart a political act – more political than is typically acknowledged in critiques of citizen’s assembly practice. This is not intended as a criticism of Shared Future, whose staff were earnestly and genuinely committed to best practice, including addressing all our questions and concerns throughout the process, and ran smooth and engaging workshops in challenging circumstances. However, in terms of reflection on the sessions, our observations were as follows:

  • Break-out discussions and final decision-making during the recommendation finalising stage often seemed dominated by a few people – usually white men. Many Jury members did not seem to engage verbally at all. Some sensitive sections, such as agreeing which topics to hear from experts on, were discussed in plenary, meaning the same voices dominated the conversation.
  • When macro-political issues such as capitalism were frequently raised by many different Jury members in the discussions, the capacity of the Jury to speak to this scale was often foreclosed by the facilitation. It was an interesting exercise to observe what is permissible or encouraged in public discourse: even when the imperative for massive system change is increasingly clear for participants, laughing off any truly radical suggestion and bringing focus back to what is ‘practical’ within current systemic constraints only serves to stifles meaningful discussion about the true causes of the climate crisis. This led to watered down recommendations, especially given the limited extent to which jurors could express their opinions without them being channelled through the commissioning body (the council). This overlooks the power relations and structures that drive climate change in contemporary capitalism.
  • Facilitators often gestured towards ‘lobbying’ as the answer to what the local council could do in answer to issues that seemed to go beyond the scope of local control / authority, without considering what specifically needed lobbying for, who should be lobbied and by whom, or whether local political processes themselves could or should be challenged by the Jury.
  • The facilitation process specifically around the Citizen Jury’s statement (see Appendix 1) did a significant amount of political work. The facilitator encouraged the small group to focus on feelings, which the facilitator said were missed out in the ‘very technical’ recommendations. (The statement writing took three stages: ‘This is how we feel. This is what it means. This is what needs to happen.) While the facilitator encouraged the group to share their individual emotional responses to the jury process, some jury members pushed back around how expressions of emotion might be received by the general public. Some jury members expressed extremely bleak and negative emotions (e.g. around future flooding where they live) and even spoke of the need for ‘revolution’ – both of these responses were contained by humour. Some jury members also expressed concern about their ability to represent the whole of Southwark, about the emphasis on subjectivity rather than objectivity; they were encouraged to ‘put yourself in the place of a random citizen.’ All of these elements contributed to the lack of politically contentious material in the statement.
  • It is also important to note that on the final day, numbers had reduced from 25 to 19, with four Jury members participating via WhatsApp. Facilitators should be applauded for the lengths they went to in maximising engagement with those who could not be there in person, and of course we acknowledge the very difficult conditions for holding an in-person event during the pandemic. However, the resulting make-up of the Jury in-person lacked the diversity that would have more fairly represented the borough.
  • To some extent, the final recommendations suffered from the open ended nature of the facilitation (although this is nothing against the facilitators, who were listening, being constructive, and doing their best to reach consensus – whether one sees consensus as an ideal goal for deliberative democracy or not!): the final recommendations came about from participants creating piles of post-it thoughts and being asked to group them into neat recommendations, leaving long-winded statements which were often not clear, specific, or directly implementable. It’s worth monitoring whether the lack of specific policy inputs could mean favourable aspects of recommendations will be singled out by the council and the rest fudged between complicated and lengthy documents, undermining the spirit of the recommendations and the Jury’s urgency (as in Johnson 2015).
  • We did like the inclusion of individual justifications in the final report besides each recommendation, which helped give context to the recommendations and why they were specifically supported. This helps break away from the emphasis on consensus seen elsewhere in the process.
Jury members writing the statement. Photo credit: Shared Future

Content and expert commentators

  • Some of the presentations given by the ‘expert’ commentators were arguably not accessible to a general audience; they were often quite dense and technical despite only being about 10 minutes long. It might be worth questioning whether ‘experts’ are always the best people to present often highly complicated and interconnected ideas, or whether more active approaches to learning such as expert speed-dating, or even trips, may be more valuable.
  • As mentioned above, contacting and securing speakers was last minute, which meant the process hinged on whomever was available at short notice (sometimes less than two weeks), rather than identifying appropriate speakers early and encouraging them to research and tailor presentations to the borough in question.
    • Many experts were not familiar with what is already committed to locally and therefore could not offer locally relevant information, or presented ideas aligned with the decarbonisation needed in Southwark.
    • This lack of understanding of Southwark’s starting point carried over to the Jury. While Jury members were supportive, this topic was new to them, and as a result some of their recommendations seemed to assume everything was new (such as on parking recommendations) even though these have actually been moving forward for many years. This allows the convening body (in this case Southwark Council) to point to work already taking place on these broad themes, without having to address specific and new suggestions. Perhaps this also explains the lack of radicalism in some measures proposed: Jury members were not aware that existing efforts in lots of these areas have failed to reduce emissions much. 
    • This was exacerbated by low engagement of Oversight Panel members, council staff across multiple departments and expert commentators alike during the short time period provided in which to feed back on the Jury’s initial recommendations, which was disappointing.
  • The process also reminded us not to unfairly assume those working on climate-adjacent topics actually are able to articulate the scale of change now required across the whole of their sector as ‘experts’, or that those necessarily focused on incremental progress in their careers are able to vocalise the scale and pace of change required.
  • When looking at the recommendations, it is worth considering that the Jury only had input from experts on Buildings/Housing, Transport, and the rather nebulous category of Business, which they chose after a plenary session dominated by one or two skeptical voices and is somewhat outside of the council’s purview.

Scale of change

In the spirit of “tell the truth”, we need to accept getting to near zero emissions won’t be easy and be honest that the Jury, however well meaning, did not come up with an effective set of recommendations nearly four years after the council declared an emergency. This is not the responsibility of Jury members themselves, who were committed, supportive, and willing to engage with difficult issues. This also does not mean that the recommendations, if implemented in full, would not substantially reduce emissions and improve equity in Southwark; far from it. However, the recommendations are not prioritised or even selected on the basis of emissions data or outcomes modelling, making it hard to determine whether they’d be truly an effective response to the scale of the climate crisis.

  • The process was not linked to a starting point of where emissions in Southwark are – and how much we need to reduce the quantum of those emissions *annually*, if we are to make a meaningful impact by 2030. Although XRS fought to include the phrasing ‘fairly and effectively’ in the overall question to the Jury were answering (‘What needs to change in Southwark to tackle the emergency of climate change fairly and effectively for people and nature?’), ideas raised by Jury members were not linked to equity or de-carbonisation outcomes, leading to just a list of ‘nice to haves’. Could time have been built into the process to model outcomes of the ideas suggested? Could each recommendation have come with an assessment of the level of priority it is in terms of cutting emissions? Arguably, citizens are in a much better position to make collective judgments on the basis of a clear framework of choice, which was lacking in this case.
  • We recognise that if this process has revealed the scale of change is difficult for experts, it’s going to be harder still for Jury members, who may have only just appreciated the scale of the climate issue. We can and should all learn from this in terms of better public consultation going forward. The Jury’s statement conveys their anger and sense of being let down that the full scale of the crisis and solutions is not being communicated to them.
  • People are experts in their own local areas – but not in terms of the scale of change needed to slash emissions this decade. This means we need a new process that creates a creative tension or enables an iterative co-production between locals and experts. Expert presentations followed by questions falls far short of that, even if that is probably needed to start this deeper process off.
  • In hindsight, perhaps it would be wise to have built up with clear principles before getting into the details of measures. For example, use the framework of ‘Avoid, shift, improve’ as a starting point, then get in to the details that people (other than the very small minority of environmentally minded ones) will only switch to sustainable options if they are more convenient and cheaper (e.g. from driving to public transport). 
  • Another thought is that rather than “And nineteenthly we need to…”, it may have been better to focus on a few particularly impactful measures. e.g. no new parking permits will be issued at all from now on. That would make a real dent in emissions and attitudes; but might have required a 90 minute session just to focus on each one.

Learning

  • Crucially, a representative group of residents have had a crash course in the climate crisis and now a passion and interest that was not there before. We all need to harness this going forward.
  • For Extinction Rebellion Southwark, it is worth asking: did we legitimise a process which did not reflect the Citizen’s Assembly we originally had in mind, or did we improve and widen a limited process which offered valuable learning for all parties? This process essentially was a slightly more extensive local authority consultation, with all the pitfalls of council processes. 
    • Has the widespread uptake and diversity of methods that use the label “citizens jury” mean the approach has become devalued, and how does that impact our demand for Citizen’s Assemblies?
    • A risk for groups advocating for Citizen’s Assemblies and Juries is to see these processes as a magic bullet, rather than a contribution to a wider process of community self-analysis and democratic renewal.
  • For the council, this process surely revealed that one-time engagement at this depth is not sufficient. Key recommendations for future community consultation include:
    • Plan out and budget for multiple consultation opportunities on climate adaptation and response (both broad and deep consultation types) from 2022-2030.
    • Set up sub-groups on specific topics with key stakeholders from business, community, anchor institutions, and third sector actors.
    • Don’t rely on volunteers – reimburse people for their time to get the perspective of people you need to hear from/work with/win over.
    • Start from what matters to people, not from technical policy – introduce wider issues as they relate to everyday issues – i.e. link dripping taps to water sustainability. Then map out an engagement approach with real time listening – engage at multiple stages of plans and implementation, use their input, report back and follow up!
Post-its with questions on some discussion topics. Photo credit: Eloise Waldon-Day

Appendix 1: Southwark Citizen’s Jury Statement

Having had, through this jury process, the opportunity to learn more about the impacts of climate change on Southwark and beyond, as well as the many potential solutions, some of us feel let down and overwhelmed because the gravity of the situation was not made clear to us in the past.

We feel worried, angry and disappointed and are concerned that we are not acting like this is an emergency. We must have change and we must have a future.

We are passionate about being part of Southwark and care about the future of our borough. There must be rapid and decisive implementation of the action that is needed.

This action must be taken by the council and others; it must be bold and must be more than gestures. With the council blazing the path and leading by example and propelling the movement to change. The council must look beyond its own immediate power at the same time as bringing all of its own departments together with a real sense of holistic purpose.

At the same time we believe legislation must exist to enable the council to take the action needed. Although we recognise that individuals must bear some responsibility we urge council to recognise that we are not prepared to bear the brunt of change if we are not given the tools, encouragement and infrastructure for us to be equipped and empowered to act.

Having come together to deliberate and produce recommendations we expect measures to be put in place to allow the Council and others to rapidly come back to the citizens of Southwark to report on progress in implementation of these recommendations with strong specific commitments.

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