How to run a citizens’ assembly

This handbook aimed at local authorities, and produced by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, alongside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, provides guidance around how to run a ‘citizens’ assembly’. A model of engaging residents in decision making to empower local communities and solve complex problems. It covers the key things to consider before, during, and after running a citizens’ assembly.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

The report is based on learnings from the Innovation in Democracy Programme in 2019 – a programme trying out citizens’ assemblies as an innovative model of deliberative democracy, to engage residents in local decision-making and to generate trust between citizens and local authorities. As the report explains, a citizens’ assembly is:

...a type of democratic method that has been used around the world to empower citizens and solve intractable problems. A citizens’ assembly brings together a diverse group of the public - selected at random but chosen to broadly reflect the demographics of the local community - to deliberate on an issue and recommend what should be done”.

The report explains how this mode of community engagement is typically diverse; deliberative; lengthy; informed; collaborative; and professionally facilitated. It suggests citizens’ assemblies can generate more transparency in decision-making, empower citizens, and lead to well thought through recommendations. Although the document focuses primarily on in-person assemblies, as the authors explain, they hope the principles will also help with designing online deliberative processes, perhaps more feasible before recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. They argue deliberative public engagement is vital to future Covid-19 recovery.

Handbook’s tips on running citizens’ assemblies

Before a citizens’ assembly

  • Viability depends on time and other resources; engaged stakeholders and political context; and the complexity of the problem you want to solve.
  • Collaboratively devise a key question you want to explore - needs to be clear and concise. Citizens’ assemblies are good for tackling complex issues. Examples of effective and ineffective questions are provided.
  • A diverse range of people to be included in the process, with some information about the problem to be solved beforehand.

During a citizens’ assembly

  • In the learning stage, a dynamic and critical learning environment is important to share ideas and to ensure people feel comfortable to ask questions.
  • In the deliberation stage, good facilitation is needed, with agreed ground rules, a clear structure for discussion, and balancing potential power differences.
  • In the decision-making stage, consensus is important to be reached through collaboration and deliberation.

After a citizens’ assembly

  • Final recommendations can help to achieve policy, council culture, and community impacts.
  • Reports can be collaboratively produced between the council and community participants.
  • It is important to keep the communication between the council and community ongoing beyond the citizens’ assembly.

To read more about the Innovation in Democracy Programme, please see here.