Citizen’s Assemblies are a political innovation that I’ve had my eye on. They aim to draw together a representative group of citizens from across the country, give them the best information available on a tricky question, and let them come up with solutions.
There are different ways to set up a citizen’s assembly. They can be advisory, or governments can delegate decision making to them. Either way, the idea is that an assembly will reflect the informed opinion of the citizenry. It can get past party divides and political gamesmanship, and deliver constructive solutions that ought to have broad support from the general public.
This theory has been put to the test in Britain over the last year or so. In 2019 a group of six Parliamentary committees commissioned a citizen’s assembly on climate change, and today it delivered its report. It contains 50 specific policy recommendations across a series of topics, including land travel, aviation, and domestic energy and heating.
The assembly also outlines a series of principles that it would like climate action to adhere to. In some ways these are as important as the specific policies, because they set some expectations. They expect the government to be transparent in its actions, and fair. Freedom and choice should be respected, rather than policies that are coercive. These recommendations are all advisory, as the assembly wasn’t convened by government, so we’ll have to wait and see what influence it has.
I’ll be digging into the contents of the Climate Assembly in more detail in further posts, but for now, all the information is available on their website. That includes the final report, but also videos of the expert speakers that presented to the assembly. There are a lot of good resources there for those wanting to understand the challenge of net zero.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. The British government has been slow to articulate the specifics on its 2050 net zero target. The assembly should give them a clear steer on what the public wants and expects. Will the government take their suggestions on board? They should definitely be paying close attention. An assembly like this is an opportunity to gauge responses to a policy in advance. The ideas in the report are likely to be supported by the rest of the country, and following citizen recommendations would avoid the kind of policy backfiring that France experienced with the Gilets Jaunes.
It won’t be radical. Because the assembly was specifically asked to look at how to reduce emissions by 2050, there are no calls for more ambitious action. Groups that insist on closer net zero targets may be disappointed, and I wonder how the report will be received. A citizens assembly on the climate emergency is one of Extinction Rebellion’s demands, but their vision is for something much more comprehensive and legally binding.
I’m also curious to see whether the assembly leads to any similar intiatives in future. They’re a good example of the kind of participatory decision making that Katherine Trebeck and I describe in the Economics of Arrival. Having a voice and a sense of political agency can make a real difference to wellbeing, so active citizenship can be a form of qualitative progress that doesn’t require economic growth. And at a time when trust in politicians is rightfully at a deep low, there’s an urgent need for processes that breathe new life into democracy.