The Deliberative Gap: Why Citizens’ Assemblies Need Initiatives Like Talk Shop

We thank Stuart White of Jesus College, Oxford for this blogpost.

Citizens Assemblies (CAs) are all the rage right now. And with good reason. But CAs have limitations. One is the gap that can potentially open up between those participating in a CA and the wider public. Initiatives like Talk Shop can perhaps address this problem by organizing meetings that establish and maintain connections between CAs and the wider public.

A Citizens Assembly is an assembly that consists of some 30-200 representatives chosen on a near-random basis from the general public but to be statistically representative in terms of chosen characteristics (e.g., race, gender, region). CAs meet to consider an issue or proposal and make a recommendation. In doing their work they move through a process of carefully structured, professionally facilitated deliberation. They begin with an education phase in which CA members learn about a topic. They then take evidence and testimony from interested parties and then move to deliberation and voting on a recommendation. The recommendation may go to elected politicians for consideration, or to a referendum, or, in principle, might itself directly form the basis for a policy decision.

Key strengths of CAs are that they are sites of high quality deliberation, generating good, well-considered proposals. Their statistical representativeness gives CAs a cognitive diversity that generates important insights to policy-making lacking in elected assemblies that are less diverse. This representativeness and diversity also affirms the political equality of all and gives CAs a claim to legitimacy as a microcosm of ‘We the people’.

Although the basic idea of ‘sortition’ – choosing representatives or officials at random – has a very long history, stretching back at least as far as the ancient Athenian democracy, CAs in this sense are relatively new. Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario pioneered their use to deliberate proposed reforms to the electoral system. The Republic of Ireland has made effective use of them over the past decade to discuss and effect changes to the country’s constitution on reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. In the UK, on a range of issues – climate change, electoral and constitutional reform, learning from the government’s appalling mishandling of the pandemic – CAs have been recently used or proposed.

There is, however, at least one potential weakness with CAs. While those participating in the CA engage in high quality discussion of an issue and produce well-considered proposals, there is no guarantee that the wider public is engaged in or by the Assembly’s discussions. But if it is not there is a danger of a ‘deliberative gap’ opening up between the CA and the wider public. No matter how well-considered, the CA’s proposal might then sink like the proverbial lead balloon.

For example, imagine a CA considers climate change and recommends new policies which are quite controversial, e.g., because they involve new green taxes. If the wider public has not been engaged with the CA’s discussions, then they might not support these proposals. If they go to a referendum, they are voted down; if the proposals go to Parliament, they are politely shelved by MPs for fear of losing voters.

Does Talk Shop offer a way of addressing this problem? Talk Shop seeks to do some of what a CA does, such as to support deliberation with information and facilitation. But it is designed to enable ordinary people to take part in facilitated 2-3 hour sessions on public policy issues supported by carefully curated briefing materials. Events are quick to set up and relatively cheap so can be programmed at scale. Over the past five years, hundreds of such events have been organised throughout England, normally in partnership with bodies such as U3A, the WEA and local community groups like East Marsh Community Association, Grimsby.

So perhaps running public meetings on the Talk Shop model alongside a CA, as a complement to it, is a way of building a connection between the CA and the wider public, so that, to some degree, both can travel the same journey?

I can see at least four ways in which Talk Shop might help with this:

  1. Talk Shop meetings might help set the agenda for a CA: what are the issues/questions to focus on?
  2. Talk Shop might organise public meetings that can feed initial ideas and evidence into the CA in its evidence-gathering phase.
  3. Talk Shop might organise public meetings that give feedback on a CA’s draft of proposals before it finalises them.
  4. Talk Shop might organise public meetings that discuss a CA’s proposals and the thinking behind them. For example in the context of a national referendum this would give people an opportunity to discuss how they intend to vote on a CA’s proposal.

There are other interesting ideas to address the deliberative gap, such as holding special public holidays to discuss proposals, akin to Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin’s proposal for a ‘Deliberation Day’ prior to US Presidential elections. But we likely need more than one approach to tackle this problem, and Talk Shop can perhaps make one, crucial contribution.