What is a citizens’ assembly?

A citizens’ assembly is a group of people who are brought together to discuss an issue or issues and reach a conclusion about what they think should happen. The people who take part are chosen so they reflect the wider population – in terms of demographics (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, social class) and sometimes relevant attitudes (e.g. preferences for a small or large state).

Citizens’ assemblies give members of the public the time and opportunity to learn about and discuss a topic, before reaching conclusions. Assembly members are asked to make trade-offs and arrive at workable recommendations.

Citizens’ assemblies have been used in the UK and other countries – including Australia, Canada and the United States – to tackle a range of complex issues. A citizens’ assembly has recently taken place in the Republic of Ireland – established by the Irish parliament – to address a number of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society. These have included equal marriage, abortion and the opportunities and challenges of an ageing population.

When will the Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland take place?

The Citizens’ Assembly will take place over two weekends, 26 – 28 October and 16 – 18 November 2018, at a hotel in central Belfast.

Who are the members of the Citizens’ Assembly?

The members of the Citizens’ Assembly are ordinary people living in Northern Ireland. They have been selected to be broadly representative of the Northern Ireland population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, regional spread, and socio-economic status – otherwise known as a ‘mini-public’.

While it is important to have members who hold views across the political spectrum, people who currently hold elected office are not permitted to be members. Given the subject under consideration, people who currently hold senior decision making roles within the Health and Social Care sector in Northern Ireland have also been excluded from participating as members of the Citizens’ Assembly.

How have members been selected?

Involve have procured the services of LucidTalk as an independent recruitment service to select members from the Northern Ireland population.

There is no option to directly apply to be a member of the Citizens’ Assembly, and members have not been sought on the basis of particular skills or experience.

Using tried, tested, and successful methodologies – LucidTalk (LT) have constructed the NI Citizens’ Assembly attendee quota of 80 participants using demographic criteria, and producing an overall robust, representative, and balanced sample.

LucidTalk’s main methodology is online research using the established ‘opted-in’ LT NI Opinion Panel of 11,000 members. In the context of recruitment for the Citizens’ Assembly, LT has targeted a selected subset of approximately 1,500 people, representative of the NI population across a range of demographic characteristics.

This sample was supplemented with telephone recruitment (approximately 10% of the sample) to enable connection to more ‘difficult to access’ demographic groups who are underrepresented in the LT NI Opinion Panel.

The final sample of 80 participants matches NI demographics, and NI society, to within an error of only +/-1.3%.

Click here for a full breakdown of demographic characteristics represented in their sample. 

What is a ‘mini-public’?

Mini-publics are made up of randomly selected citizens, chosen from the wider population to function as a proxy for the relevant population as a whole. The principle behind the selection of a mini-public is that everyone affected by the issue/decision in question has an equal chance of being selected, and this underpins the legitimacy of the process.

Participants are typically selected through stratified random, so that a range of demographic characteristics from the broader population are adequately represented – e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, disability, income, geography, education, religion, and so on. The purpose is to use social science methods to assemble a microcosm of ‘the public’, with each citizen having an equal chance of being selected.

How are decisions made at a Citizens’ Assembly?

A key feature that distinguishes a Citizens’ Assembly from other forms of public engagement is the emphasis given to ensuring that participants make trade-offs and arrive at realistic and internally consistent conclusions and recommendations. Involve will therefore work closely with the Advisory Group and the Expert Advisors, to ensure that the options presented to participants are realistic and viable.

It is also important therefore that the Citizens’ Assembly process does not manufacture a false sense of consensus; thus, alongside negotiated positions, individual voting will also be used to collect the views of all participants. This ensures that minority voices are heard as well as the majority.

Are participants paid?

The Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland will give Members an honorarium of £100 per weekend as a ‘thank-you’ for their participation. While not all representative assemblies offer this, at Involve we consider it good practice to do so. As well as demonstrating that the participation and engagement of Citizens’ Assembly Members is valued, the honorarium helps to ensure that a diverse range of participants (e.g. those on low-incomes, unemployed, with caring responsibilities, etc.) can participate, encourages people not intrinsically motivated by the issue to attend and helps to prevent last-minute ‘no-shows’ which can affect the stratified sample.

This is evidenced by the conclusions from the What Works Scotland Evidence Review (2018) where they conclude that financial incentives go a long way in supporting traditionally under-represented groups to participate:

There is evidence, particularly from deliberative processes, to suggest that providing compensation and/or incentives can help young people, single parents, carers and those suffering from financial problems to get involved (Fishkin 2009:114; Ryfe and Stalsburg 2012:51; Roberts and Escobar 2015: 34-35, 201-202). Offering financial or other incentives is important to compensate people for taking the time to participate and to cover expenses which may incur as a result of taking part such as child care, transportation, and wage replacement (Muir and McMahon 2015; Roberts and Escobar 2015:34-35). This will go some way to enabling people facing socio-economic challenges to take part and thus correct the over-representation of advantaged groups (Ryfe and Stalsburg 2012).

What topic will the Citizens’ Assembly consider?

The Citizens’ Assembly will consider the topic of adult social care, with a focus on care for older people. In light of changing demographics and shifts in our expectations of life in older age, what are the public’s aspirations for a social care system fit for the future?

It will give particular consideration to:

What role does the health service need to play?
What role do 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.

There are many issues in Northern Ireland which could be deemed difficult or contested and which might be considered suitable to be addressed by a Citizens’ Assembly. This topic was chosen from a shortlist of 12 potential topics, generated by a working group established in 2017 by Building Change Trust following research and consultation with the VCSE sector and political parties. This shortlist included topics ranging from social issues like education reform, justice issues like the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and constitutional issues such as the Petition of Concern and other outworkings of the Good Friday Agreement.

Involve researched each topic, and the Advisory Group then measured each one against a set of pre-approved criteria to establish which one was best suited to be put to a Citizens’ Assembly in the current climate.

How will the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly be taken on board?

Involve will produce a detailed written report after the Citizens’ Assembly has reached its conclusions. This report will set out the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations and will detail 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 the Secretary of State, depending on political developments in the coming months. The report will also be shared with the political parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish government, and other key stakeholders such as funders.

What will happen at the Citizens’ Assembly meetings?

Over the two weekends, Citizens’ Assembly members will be taken through a sequenced process of learning, dialogue and deliberation. The process will be designed to ensure there is a logical deployment of activities that will provide participants with the evidence they require to make informed decisions.

Citizens’ Assembly members will spend most of the time at the Citizens’ Assembly in discussions within small,  facilitated groups. These groups will be rotated throughout each weekend to ensure that participants have the opportunity to engage with most of the other Members present over the course of the Citizens’ Assembly sittings.

The discussions will be led by professional facilitators, and there will also be trained facilitators at each table. Each weekend will be organised to give sufficient time and space to enable participants to gain new information and to discuss in depth its implications for their existing attitudes, values and experience. This includes the opportunity to engage with a range of people and information sources – including expert presenters and the views and perspectives of their fellow Members. At each stage of the deliberative process the outputs will be recorded to enable decision makers to fully understand the rationales of the Citizens’ Assembly process.

One of the key differences between a Citizens’ Assembly process and other forms of public engagement is that participants are expected to come to a collective decision or set of recommendations at the end of the process. Therefore, each stage of the Citizens’ Assembly’s deliberations will be followed by a decision point.

While finding common ground is an important function of an assembly, it is equally as important that the process does not manufacture a false consensus; therefore, individual voting will also be used to collect the views of all participants, ensuring that minority voices are heard as well as the majority.

How will you ensure that the information presented to the Citizens’ Assembly is balanced and impartial?

The Citizens’ Assembly is overseen by an independent Advisory Group. They support the preparations for the Citizens’ Assembly, including topic selection, process design, and the materials that will be used during the Citizens’ Assembly meetings. A key responsibility of this group is to ensure that Assembly members are presented with factually accurate, comprehensive, balanced and unbiased information.

Find out more about the Advisory Group here

In order to further ensure that a comprehensive and balanced range of opinions are presented to Assembly members, an Expert Lead has been appointed to advise on the selection of expert contributors and development of materials. The Expert Lead for the Citizens’ Assembly is Professor Ann Marie Gray, from Ulster University. She is being supported in this role by Professor Derek Birrell and Dr Alexandra Chapman, also of UU. This team was chosen, with the input of the Advisory Group, for their knowledge and impartiality on the subject of social care for older people.

In addition, the Citizens’ Assembly will hear from a range of policy-makers, advocates, service providers, and people with lived experience of social care, including representatives from the Department of Health, the Commissioner for Older People, Age NI, Carers NI, Independent Health and Care Providers, and the Northern Ireland Social Care Council.

Why is an independent body needed to lead the Citizens’ Assembly?

When allocating funding to develop a pilot Citizens’ Assembly in Northern Ireland, the working group, and the initial funding body (the Building Change Trust) recognised the need for a highly skilled organisation to deliver the leadership and capacity to design and facilitate a Citizens Assembly.

The skillset has widened beyond steering participation and chairing meetings to encompass different approaches to collaboration and interaction. Facilitators need to: be flexible, responsive and sensitive to the needs of participants, manage time and contribution, and support participants towards constructive dialogue. Facilitators can make the difference between good design and bad; between citizens finding the participatory process a positive experience and not; and can help to empower citizens to make changes for their communities.

Involve was therefore appointed to lead the Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland based on their history of work to increase the capacity of Northern Ireland civil society organisations, their international reputation as a leading organisation on deliberative participatory engagement theory and practice, and their experience of leading the facilitation team on similar Citizen Assembly processes elsewhere in the UK.

As part of this commission, a commitment to building the capacity of local organisations and facilitators was expected. This led to the Deliberative Engagement and Facilitation training delivered in September and October 2018.

Is it possible to observe the process?

There are a limited number of spaces for observers. Observing would allow you to see how the Citizens’ Assembly process functions. However, observers are unable to join tables to listen into discussion and deliberation as this can change how participants engage with the process.

Download a copy of the Guidelines for Observers by clicking below (PDF download). Contact us if you cannot access the PDF.

To register your interest in being an observer, click here to proceed to an online form.

Download a copy of our Press Guidelines by clicking below (PDF download). Contact us if you cannot access the PDF.