Citizens' Assembly on Brexit

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Political Science

Abstract

The process of leaving the EU presents the biggest set of decisions faced by the UK polity for decades. Given its prominence and importance, decision-making must satisfy two conditions. First, it should respect and respond to public opinion: both democratic principle and the need for public legitimacy demand this. Second, the process should be carefully considered: the options and their implications for all parts of society should be clearly understood and priorities carefully weighed.

The proposed project is designed to advance these goals - and thereby to make a major and distinctive contribution to the Brexit process - by creating a Citizens' Assembly on Brexit. We will link the Assembly to ongoing work around Brexit in government and parliament and publicize its work and recommendations to the public at large. In so doing, the project will advance understanding of how democratic practice might best be furthered in general.

There are dangers that the conditions for effective decision-making on Brexit might not be met. Voters have been asked whether they want Brexit, but not what form they want it to take. Parliament - the usual location for public scrutiny - feels hamstrung because it is known to contain a pro-Remain majority and so risks public anger. Many 'Remainers', still hoping Brexit can be stopped, are reluctant to engage constructively with the question of the form it should take. Some 'Leavers', worried that extended negotiations might create a risk of reversal, insist that matters are simpler than they are. Public debates are often polarized and distorted.

The ideal response to these problems would be to create a deliberative process encompassing the whole electorate. But this is impossible, both financially and practicably. The closest approximation is a citizens' assembly: a body of citizens who are selected randomly (but with stratification) from the general population to represent the diversity of society and who meet over a period of time to learn about the issues, hear a wide range of perspectives on them, deliberate in depth, and reach conclusions. The project team combines expertise from academia and civil society, including members of the ESRC-funded Democracy Matters project, which ran two pilot citizens' assemblies in 2015 and went on to win the Political Studies Association's 2016 Democratic Innovation Award. We seek to build upon the expertise developed and lessons learnt by that project and the follow-on Better Referendum initiative, also ESRC-funded, to deliver a Citizens' Assembly on Brexit.

We expect the Assembly to have 45 members who will be broadly representative of the UK population. Stratification will be used to provide the greatest possible representativeness in terms of criteria such as gender, age, place of residence, social class, and attitudes to Brexit. The Assembly will meet over two weekends. Members will learn about the options for Brexit, discuss their own perspectives, hear from a wide range of experts and campaigners, deliberate on what they have heard, and draw up recommendations. They will also be able to engage online between the weekends. The Assembly will deliver a report that will be widely circulated among policy-makers and commentators, launched at a high-profile event, and promoted through traditional and social media.

The project will pursue two objectives. The first is to use the well-tested citizens' assembly model to deliver what is needed by Brexit negotiators, parliamentarians, and all engaged in the Brexit debate: a deep insight into informed public opinion on the form that Brexit should take. The second is to use this opportunity to examine two unanswered questions regarding citizens' assemblies: whether and how they can be used successfully in the context of existing intense and polarized debate; and whether and how a diverse and representative membership can be secured. The project is carefully designed to advance these objectives to the full.

Planned Impact

This project is designed to make a major, distinctive, and positive contribution to the Brexit process by providing a mechanism through which decision-making can be well informed and grounded in public expectations and, thereby, by promoting the public legitimacy of the outcome. Impact is thus woven into the heart of the project design.

The project will make twofold contributions: on the Brexit process, and on democratic practice.

The intended beneficiaries of the insights regarding public judgements on Brexit are:
- government: the ministers and officials who will negotiate on the terms of Brexit;
- parliament: the House of Commons Committee on Exiting the European Union, the House of Lords European Union Committee, as well as MPs and peers in general;
- devolved administrations and assemblies, which are seeking to shape the Brexit process and outcomes;
- journalists, commentators, businesses, and civil society organizations, for whom an understanding of the many layers of public opinion is invaluable;
- the general public, who continue to show great interest in Brexit and whose lives will be deeply affected by the form it takes.

These groups will benefit from the research because it will illuminate the perceptions, preferences, and overall judgements of a broadly representative sample of the general public who have been able to examine in depth the question of what form Brexit should take. If the Brexit process is to be grounded both in public opinion and in careful and informed consideration, such knowledge is essential. The Citizens' Assembly on Brexit will become an important reference point in public debates: participants in these debates will recognize it has much to say that is valuable and important. We expect that the Assembly will frequently be invoked as a source of insight in parliament and in the media.

The intended beneficiaries of the project's insights regarding democratic practice are:
- policy-makers in the UK government and parliament, devolved administrations and assemblies, and local government, who can learn about possibilities for using deliberative mechanisms in policy-making;
- campaigners for democratic reform;
- ultimately, the general public, whose lives are affected by the quality of the democratic process.

The Minister for the Constitution, Chris Skidmore, has said that it is a government priority to promote engagement in politics among those who are currently 'furthest from politics'. There is also a widespread concern about the current quality of democratic discourse and a desire to find ways of strengthening it. This project will provide fresh insight regarding the feasibility and effectiveness of one prominent new means of doing this: the use of deliberative bodies such as citizens' assemblies. Ultimately, the public at large will benefit if this research can further understandings of how democratic processes can be deepened and their own considered voices can be heard.

The means through which we will connect with these intended beneficiaries are set out fully in the Pathways to Impact document. We will draw on the resources of the UCL Constitution Unit, UCL Press Office, and the Electoral Reform Society, collectively bringing very extensive contacts in government, parliament, devolved/local government, and the media. We are already engaging with the UK parliamentary authorities (including the Commons Speaker and chairs of relevant select committees) and exploring various ways in which the Assembly might engage with parliament. If this bid is successful, we will likewise activate our contacts across government and in the devolved administrations. We will also seek to engage a media partner, preferably the BBC, to provide a high-profile platform for the Assembly's work.

We fully expect these contacts to yield valuable collaborations. In addition, we will engage with the full range of beneficiaries through the mechanisms set out in the Pathways to Impact document.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Data are still being analysed, but initial findings suggest the following: (1) Deliberation can work well even in a polarized setting when it is well structured and supported. (2) Willingness to participate in deliberative activities varies with attitudes even after demographic factors are controlled for, and this should be taken into account in the design of future deliberative exercises. (3) When members of the public are given an opportunity to deliberate in depth on Brexit, they can develop sophisticated views, as set out in the Assembly's report. These initial findings will be developed further in future reporting.
Exploitation Route We have engaged actively with politicians, officials, journalists, and democracy campaigners in London, Edinburgh, and Cardiff. We are continuing to do so. Notably, in the weeks immediately preceding this report, the topic of citizens' assemblies has risen significantly up the UK political agenda, and we have been able to draw on Citizens' Assembly on Brexit project to inform these debates - through blogposts aimed at specialist audiences, through mainstream media appearances, and through meetings with key individuals.

There have now been several further similar deliberative exercises in the UK: the Citizens' Assembly on Social Care and the Citizens' Assembly for Northern Ireland. These have drawn directly on the lessons learnt through this project.

We will continue to respond positively to requests for discussions of what can be learnt from the Assembly by others who are interested in running or supporting deliberative exercises. We will continue to engage with such exercises and with those who wish to promote them.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/europe/citizens-assembly-on-brexit
 
Description The research has begun to have two forms of impact. First, it has some impact on debates about the form that Brexit should take. The findings have been presented to two UK parliamentary select committees (the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee and, in private session, the House of Lords EU Committee). It was cited in the former committee's report on future UK immigration policy. It has been mentioned in both chambers at Westminster and our many contacts with MPs, peers, and others suggest that many are aware of the findings and have found them useful. Second, it has influenced debates about how we can do democratic politics better. It influenced the decision of two House of Commons committees to run a Citizens' Assembly on Social Care in the spring of 2018, and it directly influence both the methods for recruiting that assembly's members and the approach taken to the assembly's design. It had a similar effect on the design of the Citizens' Assembly for Northern Ireland later in 2018. It also influenced thinking in the Welsh Assembly on whether to establish a citizens' assembly on electoral reform proposals. Most recently, it has been important in debates about whether a citizens' assembly would be feasible as a mechanism for overcoming what at the time of writing appears to be an impasse on the form that Brexit should take.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description Citizens' Assembly on Social Care
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact The Citizens' Assembly on Social Care was convened by two House of Commons select committees. Its design was influenced by the findings of the Citizens' Assembly on Brexit. It has contributed strongly to ongoing debates about social care policy in the UK.
URL https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/health-committee/inquiri...
 
Description Influence on Brexit policy debate
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact This work has helped to shape ongoing debates in relation to post-Brexit immigration policy.
URL https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhaff/500/500.pdf
 
Title Surveys of Citizens' Assembly Members 
Description Data from five surveys of Assembly Members, conducted during the recruitment process and during the Assembly's meetings. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The data underpin some of the results set out in the Assembly's report. 
 
Title Transcripts of Citizens' Assembly sessions 
Description All small-group sessions from the second weekend of the Citizens' Assembly have been transcribed and anonymized. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This database constitutes one of the underpinnings of our research findings on the quality of deliberation within the Citizens' Assembly. 
 
Description Blogposts 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact We initially wrote several blogposts reporting the process of planning the Citizens' Assembly, its processes, and its findings. We have subsequently contributed to ongoing debates about the (potential) role of citizens' assemblies in the UK by writing further blogposts that draw on the lessons learnt through the Citizens' Assembly. The most popular of these posts has received over 3500 hits.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
URL https://constitution-unit.com/
 
Description Edinburgh events 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Three events in one day in Edinburgh, at the University of Edinburgh, St Andrew's House, and a venue near Holyrood, engaging politicians, officials, academics, democracy activists, and members of the public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Media appearances 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Members of the research team have been interviewed in the media about the Citizens' Assembly a number of times, including:

Alan Renwick, Jazz FM, 4/10/17
Sarah Allan (Involve), Reasons to Be Cheerful podcast, 4/02/18
Alan Renwick, BBC Radio 5 Live, 20/01/19
Alan Renwick, BBC Radio 4, 7/02/19

These activities are intended to spread awareness of the Citizens' Assembly on Brexit in particular and citizens' assemblies more generally, both among policy-makers and among the wider public. Several of the outlets above have large and/or influential audiences.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
 
Description Parliamentary launch of the report of the Citizens' Assembly 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Launch event for the report of the Citizens' Assembly on Brexit, attended by parliamentarians, officials, journalists, and others.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Select committee appearance: EU Committee 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Private briefing session for the House of Lords EU Committee on the results of the Citizens' Assembly. Members reported great interest and further discussions followed on how we could work together to bring attention to the Assembly's conclusions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Select committee appearance: Home Affairs Select Committee 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation of research findings to the committee as part of its inquiry into Immigration Policy. The research was cited in the inquiry report.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhaff/500/500.pdf