A group of people from across Northern Ireland will be brought together over two weekends this autumn to consider the topic of adult social care in the first Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland.

The Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland is a civil society initiative designed to demonstrate the potential of deliberative democracy to help break the stalemate on contested policy issues and put citizens from Northern Ireland at the heart of decision-making.

Run by Involve – a public participation charity, the Citizens’ Assembly will consist of approximately 50 to 100 citizens selected at random to be broadly representative of the population here in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, regional spread, community background, and socio-economic status – this composition of citizens is also known as a ‘mini-public’.

The Citizens’ Assembly will meet over two residential weekends in a hotel in central Belfast – 26 – 28 October, and 16 – 18 November.  Over the two weekends Citizen Assembly members will be taken through a facilitated process of learning, dialogue and deliberation. The process will be designed to ensure participants receive the evidence they require to make informed recommendations.

The members will look at the public’s aspirations for a social care system fit for the future, including the role the health service, communities and individuals need to play.  The output from this process will be realistic recommendations to bring the social care system into the 21st century, and future-proof it to cope with the needs of the next generations within the context of limited resources.

As well as helping to break the impasse on this important issue, the Citizens’ Assembly will demonstrate a model of deliberative democracy that may be used in Northern Ireland to help resolve other contested issues in the future. However this is something that only a future Northern Ireland Executive can decide. The Citizens’ Assembly currently has no legislative or statutory decision-making powers, and will operate in a purely advisory capacity.  

Over the weekends, Assembly Members will hear from expert contributors who together reflect the range of views on the future of social care in Northern Ireland. Assembly members will hear presentations from contributors and also have the opportunity to spend time questioning them. They will discuss what they have heard in small groups, identifying the issues and arguments that they feel to be most important. The discussions will be led by independent facilitators to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard and feels comfortable participating in the discussions.

Towards the end of the Assembly the Members will discuss what they have heard and reach a set of recommendations. To do this they will work through a series of exercises, involving small group discussions, as well as some voting and ranking of options. At each stage of this deliberative process the arguments and conclusions will be recorded to enable decision makers to fully understand the rationales behind the recommendations.

The Citizens’ Assembly will provide informed recommendations from a representative group of the public, and can help give decision-makers the information and social-license to make difficult decisions on the future of adult social care.

Tim Hughes, Director of Involve, said:

“Too often, decisions that affect people’s lives are taken without them. The Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland will demonstrate the role members of the public can play in helping to tackle the challenges that face us. Examples of deliberative democracy from around the world have shown that when given the time and support, people can delve into complex issues and develop detailed, coherent and innovative recommendations.

The first Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland will support decision-makers to make the difficult decisions necessary to bring the social care system into the 21st century. We hope that its success will lead politicians to adopt the model to address further issues in the future.”

Lynn Carvill, Citizens’ Assembly Advisory Group member said:

“This is an incredibly exciting innovation for Northern Ireland. It will give ordinary people a real voice on the future of social care – an issue that impacts us all, but especially those already most vulnerable. It’s such a complex and emotive topic that the space for careful deliberation on the values we want our social care system to embody is badly needed.”