Why Scotland’s Citizens’ Assembly should use participatory futures thinking and tech

Emily Gray blogs on how a Citizens’ Assembly can best shape Scotland’s future.

The author(s)

  • Dr. Emily Gray Managing Director, Scotland
Get in touch

This weekend, SNP conference delegates overwhelmingly backed the plan for a Citizens’ Assembly for Scotland, announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last Wednesday. But what’s the value of a Citizens’ Assembly, and how can it best be designed to deliberate on Scotland’s future – especially given how complex the issues are, and at a time of such uncertainty around both Brexit and the future of the Union?

We’ve recently seen an upsurge in interest in Citizens’ Assemblies and other forms of democratic participation, such as citizens’ juries, public dialogues and deliberative workshops. That’s because done well, they can be very powerful, providing policymakers with fresh, citizen-led solutions to often difficult and intractable issues. The Irish Convention on the Constitution and Citizens’ Assembly helped to break years of political deadlock on equal marriage and abortion respectively. In Northern Ireland, democratic innovation charity Involve has led the use of Citizens’ Assemblies to debate people’s aspirations for the future of social care. And countries across the world have sought to engage the public using new forms of participatory democracy since the mid-2000s – from Canada’s Citizens’ Assemblies on electoral reform in British Columbia and Ontario, to the extensive use of deliberative summits and workshops by the UK Labour Government under Blair and then Brown, through to Emmanuel Macron’s ‘big national debate’ in France and the newDemocracy Foundation’s work in Australia.

Scotland has used many different forms of deliberative democracy recently, given added impetus by the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act which was passed in 2015. These include the Scottish Parliament’s use of ‘mini-publics’, where a cross-section of citizens deliberate on policy issues to help inform the work of Parliamentary committees. Ipsos and Involve trialled a range of deliberative methods – including Citizens’ Assembly and dialogues - on behalf of the Consumer Futures Unit at Citizens Advice Scotland to identify which were the most suitable ways of engaging consumers in policy discussions in the regulated industries (energy, water and post). We have used these methods to engage the public in decision-making on some difficult and ethically fraught issues – such as whether research access to infant heel prick blood spot test samples would be in the public interest, and the future of energy policy in Scotland.

Future participation?

It’s too early to know how narrowly Scotland’s Citizens Assembly will focus, or what precisely its members will be asked to deliberate on. But the three focal questions set out by the First Minister – which include ‘What kind of country are we seeking to build?’ and ‘How can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit?’ - indicate that discussing a range of possible, plausible futures for Scotland will be vital.

The choices that have been posed to the Scottish public about Brexit and about Scottish independence obviously have been binary (leave or remain, independent country or not). One of the few things that is clear from the Brexit turmoil of the last two years is that these simple choices lead to volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous (VUCA) futures which cannot be comprehensively mapped. The many drivers of change which our choices set in motion interact in complex ways, and create a wide range of future possibilities.

The Citizens’ Assembly will be deliberating about a future Scotland. This is important, because our views about the future shape the way power relationships, resource allocation and decision-making are conceived of in the present. Within the Assembly, ideas about the future might be conscious or unconscious, widely shared or very different for different groups; openly discussed, or under the radar and taken as read. This means that it is important to construct futures as part of the Assembly’s decision making, to examine the assumptions on which views of the future are based, and thus to uncover the values and priorities of different groups of citizens. Only by doing this will the Assembly really be able to answer what kind of Scotland it is seeking to build.

Luckily, there are a range of future-scoping methods which can now be brought together with the related practices of deliberative democracy, public engagement, public and stakeholder dialogue, and other methods commonly used to engage citizens in decision-making processes. We believe the new Assembly should use them. 

Transformative scenario planning to help shape Scotland’s future?

We suggest transformative scenario planning could be a key methodology within Citizens’ Assemblies.  The field of transformative scenario planning1 acknowledges the need for those with and without power in a system to be given equal voice in future building, to create new framings which can solve intractable problems. High quality design and facilitation are essential to successful Citizens’ Assemblies – and futures techniques can help to enhance these further.

The Assembly will need to create plausible stories about the worlds which might come to pass given different economic, social, regulatory and other changes, which could come to Scotland as a result of Brexit and of becoming independent or staying within the Union.

The benefit of this method is that the groups which exist with very polarised views can be brought to the table, without having to compromise their commitment to the solution they want to see. All they are asked to agree upon is what the range of futures could look like and who the winners and losers might be. The process is not about picking a favourite, but the process itself brings new understanding and empathy between different people and groups.

Scenario planning would bring together the citizens who make up the Assembly with other representatives of Scotland’s ecosystem, such as businesses, civil society groups and others, in a way which reduces the likelihood of the future narratives of the most powerful in society being the ones that are most privileged. Like other deliberative methods such as public dialogue or citizens’ juries, it draws in experts to inform the materials presented – indeed, Assembly members could be involved in selecting the experts they want to hear from, as has already happened in some citizens’ juries. At the heart of the practice, however, is shared discussion of what could happen, rather than what we want to happen. This means everyone has equal voice and makes it more likely that innovative solutions will be proposed. 

Technology’s time has come

Technology also holds out huge opportunities for the Assembly, making it easier for people to understand and participate in, and potentially more fun. While running the Assembly online wouldn’t be a recommended approach, technology could be used to enhance and widen the Assembly’s deliberations in a number of ways, such as by making mass predictions about Scotland’s future by collecting citizens’ opinions on the potential likelihood and impact of future events, or through online testing allowing the Assembly to see how large numbers of Scotland’s citizens respond to different ideas they generate. Done properly, this could give the participants of the Citizen’s Assembly unprecedented live insights into different futures and how citizens respond to different ideas generated by the Assembly.

Harnessing existing knowledge around participation and futures

An initial step for those planning the Citizens’ Assembly will be to draw together a range of experts who not only know about public engagement and public policy but who can help shape ‘participatory futures’ methods.  For example, Nesta has recently launched a project to define and collate examples of this new discipline. At Ipsos we are increasingly bringing scenario planning approaches into dialogues between citizens and stakeholders, and are often asked to engage the public on futures topics, ranging from smart cities to the future of genomics.

It may be an uncertain time for Scotland’s and the wider UK’s future, but it’s an optimistic time for citizen participation. One challenge for the Citizens’ Assembly should be to use future focused techniques, aided by technology, to convene greater numbers and a greater diversity of citizens, and to engage them in ways which make sure that the voice of each is heard. The challenge for Scotland’s policymakers, in turn, will be to consider and act on the Assembly’s recommendations.

Note 1:   Kahane, A. Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future, Berrett-Koehler, 2012.

The author(s)

  • Dr. Emily Gray Managing Director, Scotland

More insights about Public Sector