Ipsos MORI – written evidence (FGU0040)
House of Lords Constitution Committee
Inquiry into the Future Governance of the UK
- Ipsos MORI is grateful for the opportunity to submit evidence towards the inquiry. It is our belief that deliberative methods, in particular Citizens’ Assemblies, can strengthen democracy by involving citizens to create better policies, securing their buy-in to changes that need to be made and building trust between the people and democratic institutions.
- Deliberative and participatory decision making through citizens’ assemblies is a burgeoning field internationally, tackling some of the most pressing issues faced by society. For example, Le Grand Débat National explored democracy, citizenship, the state, and the environment in France while the Irish Citizens’ Assembly addressed topics such as abortion, climate change, and the constitution. Organisations in the UK, including national and local government, are now commissioning similar approaches which we have been privileged to design and deliver. Our extensive experience as practitioners has highlighted the power of these methods – along with the untapped potential they can offer.
- “Persons should be treated not merely as objects of legislation, as passive subjects to be ruled, but as autonomous agents who take part in the governance of their own society, directly or through their representatives.”
- Yet the public don’t feel that this is how things work in practice. Globally and here in the UK, there are real issues of trust and legitimacy – people feel politics is broken, rigged, and don’t trust politicians to act in their interests. In Britain, prior to the pandemic, more than seven in ten (76%) agreed with the statement “our government does not prioritise the concerns of people like me”, in line with the international average. Similarly, more than half (56%) felt the Government is untrustworthy. As we’ve seen in much of our qualitative work across a range of topics in the past year, this disconnect has a considerable impact on public behaviour, particularly in relation to people’s willingness to change their behaviour in line with policy changes.
- This matters because, like many other countries, the UK faces a series of complex challenges, including the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the worsening climate crisis. There is little confidence in our current governing structures to successfully address these concerns. On climate change, for example, just three in ten Britons believe that the Government has a clear plan. The nature of these challenges are such that they cannot be addressed by short term, partisan policies. The current model of representative government relies on individual preferences to arrive at public policy decisions, using voting and bargaining to determine those individual preferences. In this model, public policy decisions are seen as a zero-sum game where majority rules. In contrast, deliberative democracy moves away from competitive pluralism by encouraging the rationality of ‘the forum’ as opposed to ‘the market’, offering a new way of governance and hearing from citizens.
- Given all of this, it should be little surprise that few people – only around one in eight of us (12%) – believe that the political system in the UK doesn’t need to change, while three in four (74%) people agree that the Government should create citizen assemblies to debate issues and make recommendations.
- At Ipsos MORI, we believe that there is an appetite for involvement in ways that empower citizens to be more active and engaged. Deliberative democracy – of which citizens’ assemblies are the foremost example – can increase buy-in and build better solutions to issues which demand difficult behaviour change or significant compromise between entrenched and profoundly opposed opinions.
- Deliberation offers a way to address distrust by facilitating shared viewpoints and building consensus around agreed facts. James Fishkin, for instance, argues that deliberative democracy results in less partisanship and greater respect for evidence-based reasoning. This is a means for engaging people in politics, when existing structures have excluded them or, at the least, made them feel excluded.
What is a citizens’ assembly?
- There is an emerging consensus on the underlying design principles of citizens’ assemblies, both here in the UK - which, alongside other practitioners, Ipsos MORI has helped inform – and internationally. The key elements of these underlying principles are as follows.
- Deliberation: Over multiple sessions together, participants engage in careful and open discussion to weigh the evidence about an issue, within a framing question (or questions) around which the assembly forms its recommendations. This enables considered recommendations to be formed and compromise to be made across the diversity of views.
- Expert testimony: Leading experts are involved to guide the process and to help participants understand the issues. Evidence is presented in a balanced and engaging way. This information provision ensures debate is knowledge-based and grounded in an agreed set of facts. Information is provided in a range of formats to ensure it is accessible to all, enabling everyone to engage with the issues in depth.
- Wide representation: Participants are sampled to reflect the demographic and geographic composition of the relevant population – e.g. the population of the UK. All citizens in the target population have an equal chance to participate. This is typically achieved through sortition – a random, stratified approach to recruiting participants. An assembly typically contains 50-100 assembly members. Special consideration is sometimes given to over-sampling underserved or minority groups within the target population. This approach to sampling ensures diversity of view and can provide legitimacy for those not involved in the deliberation as they can see themselves reflected in those who were.
- Accountability: A firm commitment is provided by the commissioner that recommendations will be considered and responded to. Whether or not recommendations are accepted and acted on in full, the commissioning body explains what it has done, as these engagements are as much about building trust and a new relationship with the public as they are about the policymaking itself. Independent oversight is in place to help shape the design and content of the assembly, which aids the balance and legitimacy of the process.
- Openness and transparency: All information is made available to the wider public, publicising the process and its outcomes – to establish credibility and open the process up to a wider audience.
- Within this broad framework, it is important to recognise that there is always going to be a tension between the theoretical ideal and what is practicable. Any mass roll out of these approaches will necessarily require compromises and inspire innovative ways of delivering.
- Citizens’ assemblies tackling the climate crisis have been conducted at a national level in the UK, Scotland, and France, each conforming to these broad principles within with their own bespoke designs. Our own experience demonstrates the ways in which these principles can be applied to address challenging issues in specific contexts and deliver real impact. To illustrate, in the autumn of 2019, we conducted the first local authority climate assembly with Oxford City Council. Over 40 Oxford residents were brought together over four days to decide if – and how – Oxford should attempt to reach “carbon neutral” before 2050. Assembly members spent two days learning about a host of issues relating to emissions and climate change in Oxford, then spent two further days deliberating and deciding what should happen next.
- The city council responded directly to the assembly’s recommendations, announcing a swathe of measures to address emissions and tackle climate change. A programme of 53 separate actions was created, including committing to become net zero as a council by 2030 at the latest, holding a Zero Carbon Oxford summit so groups can work together on a shared vision to achieve net zero carbon for the city as a whole before 2050, establishing a Zero Carbon Oxford Partnership and influence partners to do more, and setting a Climate Emergency Budget that commits over £1m additional operational funding and £18m of capital investment to address the climate emergency over four years.
- The assembly established Oxford City Council as a climate change leader, with many more councils now running assemblies. It proved a powerful demonstration of how a citizens’ assembly can engage people in decision making and link with existing democratic structures.
Call to action
- Embracing deliberative democracy and citizens’ assemblies offers a chance for the United Kingdom to better address seemingly intractable problems. It is our firm belief that the Constitutional Committee on the Future Governance of the United Kingdom is well-placed to commission a citizens’ assembly – or, even better, a series of assemblies – to support its work, engaging citizens of the UK in developing better solutions to how we govern ourselves. We also hope that the Lords Constitution Committee will recommend in its report that as part of strengthening our democratic culture, citizens’ assemblies should become widely used by parliament and government prior to the development of policy and legislation.
- We are happy to share our experience as practitioners in more detail, to help shape these processes, provide practical examples of what works rooted in our day to day experience, and answer any questions on how these approaches can be delivered at scale.
 Gutmann, Amy and Thompson, Dennis (2004). Why Deliberative Democracy? Princeton University Press.
 Mansbridge, Jane (1980). Beyond Adversary Democracy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Young, Iris Marion (2000). Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Radcliff, Benjamin and Ed Wingenbach (2000). Preference Aggregation, Functional Pathologies, and Democracy: A Social Choice Defense of Participatory Democracy. The Journal of Politics, 62(4): 977-998.
 Bohman, James (1998). Survey Article: The Coming of Age of Deliberative Democracy. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 6(4): 400-425.
 S. Fishkin, James (2009). When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. New York: Oxford University Press