There was a surprise in the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s (GCP) recent announcement of the Choices for Better Journeys survey findings: a Citizens’ Assembly will be held in the autumn to consider evidence for reducing traffic congestion and emissions, and supporting public transport.
Might this work better than the Local Liaison Forums, workshops, Community Sounding Group, consultations and engagement exercises that GCP has run to date? Citizens’ Assemblies have a well-established formal process and structure to ensure they are representative, inclusive and genuinely deliberative – in a way, how democratic government is supposed to function, but mostly doesn’t.
Citizens’ Assemblies have a long history and are seeing a renaissance. Ireland convened assemblies to consider abortion (which resulted in the referendum last year), social care, climate change and fixed-term parliaments. Faced with ongoing violent demonstrations by the gilets jaunes, protesting at the introduction of a carbon tax, President Macron convened over twenty assemblies to engage citizens in deciding how France should be reformed.
The UK government held a Citizens’ Assembly last year to consider funding for social care. It was run by Involve which, like the RSA, Sortition Foundation and Democracy Matters, organises and runs Citizens’ Assemblies independently of government, political parties and lobby groups.
A Citizens’ Assembly brings together a representative group of people, chosen by ‘civic lottery.’ This removes the self-selection bias of active campaigners, and empowers people whose voices are rarely heard. Unlike when responding to a survey, assembly participants are given access to experts and information to help them understand the problems and possible solutions. By dedicating time to debate these with people outside their social bubbles, participants gain understanding and sympathy for the needs and concerns of the wider community, and hence are more willing to seek common ground and compromise. Citizens’ Assemblies to date have produced recommendations that are well-supported by the populations they represent.
Nearly five years and more than £40 million into the Greater Cambridge City Deal, we are no closer to a coherent plan for reducing traffic congestion, pollution and climate-changing emissions. Run properly, a Citizens’ Assembly could break the deadlock.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 5 June 2019.