Chapter One: About the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland
This chapter sets out the background to the Assembly and an overview of how it worked. It describes why the Assembly was established and outlines the roles and responsibilities undertaken to deliver it. The chapter also describes the impact of Covid-19 and moving the Assembly online to complete our work.
What is a Citizens’ Assembly?
Citizens’ Assemblies bring together citizens selected at random from a cross section of the population to take evidence and discuss an issue and make recommendations. Assemblies have been established around the world on a range of topics, often on complex or controversial issues that cut across traditional political party lines. Assemblies normally operate independently of existing institutions, and are supported by skilled facilitators and support teams.
The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland is Scotland’s first ever such Assembly. A second, Scotland’s Climate Assembly, has also now been established and met for the first time in November 2020. These Assemblies build on a wide range of earlier participation and engagement initiatives in Scotland, for example, Social Security Experience Panels and Citizens’ Forums on attitudes to agriculture.
Political context for the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland
The intention to establish the Assembly was announced in April 2019 against the backdrop of uncertainty and controversy about the future of the country in light of Brexit and the debate about a second independence referendum. In announcing the Assembly the First Minister cited the success of similar initiatives in helping people to find common ground and move forward by agreement where opinions are divided. In a subsequent parliamentary debate the Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, Michael Russell, noted that in the 20th anniversary year of devolution the Assembly represented an important innovation in democracy and citizen participation.
Not all political parties supported the establishment of the Assembly. The Liberal Democrat and Scottish Conservative parties, whilst supporting the use of assemblies, expressed concerns that this Assembly would be skewed towards making a case for independence. Throughout the process the Assembly Convener has engaged with representatives of the political parties and there has been some shift in opinion as the breadth and diversity of our work has been demonstrated in practice. As described below, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, all of the parties in the parliament attended an Assembly session and engaged in discussion with members.
Assembly remit and terms of reference
The Assembly was established by the Scottish Government but has operated entirely independently under the stewardship of a Convener. The Assembly remit and terms of reference set out the main requirements of the Assembly and how it should operate. These were determined by the Scottish Government and published on the 27 August 2019. They are published on the Assembly website and included in this report at Annex 1. The remit and terms of reference were complemented by a memorandum of understanding agreed between the Convener and the government covering practical arrangements and resourcing. This memorandum is also published on the Assembly website and included in this report at Annex 2.
The remit sets out the following topics to be addressed by the Assembly:
- What kind of country are we seeking to build?
- How best can we overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit?
- What further work should be carried out to give us the information we need to make informed choices about the future of the country?
The remit set out that it was for the Assembly to decide which specific challenges to consider and asked that in doing so that the constitutional arrangements for dealing with those challenges and options for constitutional reform be examined. It required the Assembly to produce a report with recommendations and submit this to the Government and Parliament. It explains how the Government will respond to the report, including through a parliamentary debate and a published plan on how the recommendations will be taken forward. The Assembly terms of reference include practical requirements for operations, including the number of meetings, overall timetable, roles and responsibilities for delivery and member recruitment.
Attached to the remit and terms of reference are a set of key principles. These were developed by the Government in partnership with experts on the delivery of citizens’ assemblies and draw on extensive knowledge and experience of similar initiatives. The principles have been a constant reference point throughout the Assembly journey and along with the other requirements of the remit and terms of reference, are crucial to understanding Assembly design and delivery.
The principles are:
- Independence from government: including through the appointment of impartial and respected Conveners, an arms-length Secretariat, and expert advisory groups
- Transparency: at all levels of the operation of the Assembly, from the framing of the questions, to the selection of members and expert witnesses, through to proactive publication and live-streaming of deliberative sessions and clarity about what the outputs will be used for
- Inclusion: extending not just to those invited to take part as members, but also to the operations of the Assembly itself
- Access: the wider public must be able to see and comment upon the work of the Assembly, and stakeholders must feel that they and their interests have a route into the Assembly
- Balance: the information used to build members’ (and the wider public’s) learning must be balanced, credible and easily understood
- Cumulative learning: embedded into the design of the Assembly, to ensure members develop a rich understanding of the issues considered and have time to do so
- Open-mindedness: the Assembly will be a forum for open-minded deliberation between participants, ensuring the public see it as a genuine process of enquiry, and to help ensure that it receives an open-minded response from the parliament and government
Meetings of the Assembly
The Assembly was intended to meet over 6 weekends between autumn 2019 and spring 2020 and to submit its report in early summer 2020. However, meetings 5 and 6 scheduled for March and April had to be postponed in line with the public health measures put in place in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The Assembly reconvened when the initial public health measures were relaxed in the summer and met on an online basis, completing its work through four shorter meetings held between September and December 2020.
The first meeting of the Assembly took place in the Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh and included a welcome reception at Edinburgh Castle. Weekends 2 to 4 were held at the Golden Jubilee hotel and conference centre in Clydebank. Key considerations on determining the venue for Assembly sessions included the size and availability of conference facilities and accommodation, and ease of access for members travelling from throughout Scotland. The Golden Jubilee had the added advantage of being owned by the NHS so the public sector benefitted from the booking and all staff were paid the living wage.
At the outset consideration was given to rotating meetings to different venues. However, this would have resulted in substantial logistical challenges for members and additional costs. A single location was also considered preferable as members would become familiar with the venue and how to get there.
Roles and responsibilities in Assembly delivery
The Assembly website provides extensive information on who has been involved in delivering the Assembly. The main roles and responsibilities are summarised below.
The Scottish Government appointed Conveners to lead the Assembly. This followed the approach taken in Ireland, and was intended to provide additional assurance on the Assembly’s independence from government. The Conveners, who are not Assembly members, were responsible for:
- Stewarding the Assembly by overseeing the planning arrangements to ensure the Assembly delivers its remit
- Convening meetings of the Assembly by hosting and contributing to them
- Representing the Assembly in the media and in public
The Assembly Convener is Kate Wimpress. Kate has an extensive background in community engagement and cultural initiatives, and has worked for arts and social justice organisations across Scotland and Northern Ireland. Trained in Fine Art and European Cultural Planning, Kate is currently the Director of North Edinburgh Arts and Chair of Scotland’s Regeneration Forum. Further details about Kate are set out on the website and included at Annex 3. Until December 2019 when he stepped down for personal reasons, the Scottish politician David Martin was co-Convener.
The Convener is supported by a Secretariat primarily staffed by civil servants seconded from the Scottish Government. The Secretariat is responsible for day to day operations, member liaison, management of contracts and resources, liaison with witnesses and the preparation of materials and reports.
The Stewarding group consisted of a group of independent experts and advisers who were mainly tasked with providing advice and support to the Convener. The group generally met on a monthly basis. Details of the membership and remit of Stewarding group members is published on the Assembly website and included at Annex 4.
Members Reference Group
Once the Assembly was firmly established a Members reference group was put in place. Membership of the group was voluntary and initially was undertaken on a rotating basis. After the Assembly reconvened in the summer an open invitation was extended to all members to participate and the group subsequently met on a weekly basis. A core group of members consistently attended the group, a commitment which required substantial additional time from them. This group has provided invaluable insights on the Assembly experience and significantly contributed to the delivery of the Assembly.
All of the political parties represented in the parliament, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, provided a representative to participate in a panel. The panel members attended the 3rd meeting of the Assembly during which they engaged in discussion about political priorities and how politics is conducted in Scotland. A further meeting with the panel was due to take place in weekend 5 but did not take place due to COVID. The discussion with panel members was important to Assembly members’ deliberations.
Assembly design and facilitation
A range of contractors have provided specialist services to the Assembly. All contracts were awarded by the Scottish Government in compliance with public procurement rules. Contract management was undertaken by the Secretariat.
A design and facilitation contract was awarded to a partnership between The Democratic Society (Demsoc), Involve and Mark Diffley Consultancy and Research Ltd (MDCR). Demsoc have extensive experience of delivering stakeholder engagement and citizens’ participation events. Examples include delivering the Innovation in Democracy Programme and the European Citizens Panel. Involve is a leading public participation charity who have designed and delivered many of the citizens’ assemblies that have taken place in the UK, including the Citizens’ Assembly for Wales, the Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland and the UK Climate Assembly. MDCR is a social research provider with experience in all kinds of qualitative research.
The partnership was responsible for the design and delivery of Assembly meetings, working closely with the Secretariat and the Convener. Responsibilities included providing a team of facilitators sourced from 3 partner organisations and subcontracted from the Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC). The SCDC is a leading body for community development in Scotland. At weekends 1 to 4 there were 14 table facilitators working with groups of around 8 to 9 members. Online working in weekends 5 to 8 was undertaken in smaller groups, with 16 table facilitators.
Digital and PR services
Digital services were provided by Whitespace, who designed the Assembly website and many of the online resources. Through Whitespace, filming services were provided from Glocast, including livestreaming of Assembly plenary sessions. In addition 3x1 were initially appointed as the PR agency for the Assembly, tasked with developing the Assembly’s profile and building awareness amongst stakeholders and the media in the initial Assembly phase.
Communications and engagement
Our communications and engagement work has responded to the unique challenge of sharing the story of the very first Citizens’ Assembly to be held in Scotland. The work aimed to establish the value of deliberative democracy and promote awareness of the Assembly’s vision and recommendations.
Social media channels (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) provide avenues for informing stakeholders and the general public, making the Assembly’s work accessible and transparent. Livestreams appeared on Facebook and our YouTube channel in addition to the Assembly website accompanied by BSL and closed captions. Our YouTube channel hosts a range of additional video content created around weekend meetings, including highlights videos featuring members’ reflections and distilling key evidence from expert speakers. The Convener posted regular blogs and updated our subscribers via email on the progress of Assembly work throughout.
The Scottish Government provided resources to deliver the Assembly. A budget of around £1.4 million was set, in line with similar national Citizens Assemblies, for example, Ireland. The main elements of the budget are accounted for by the gift of thanks to members and the travel and other expenses incurred through Assembly attendance, venue and accommodation hire as well as payments to contractors for Assembly design, facilitation and digital and PR services. The initial budget is set out in the report at Annex 5.
The Scottish Government commissioned an independent research initiative to run throughout the Assembly. This research was been undertaken collaboratively by Scottish Government Social Research in partnership with 3 independent academic researchers: Dr Oliver Escobar and Professor Ailsa Henderson, University of Edinburgh and Dr Stephen Elstub, University of Newcastle. Research plans were reviewed by a Research Advisory Group set up to support the project, consisting of those who have international experience of conducting research in the field of democratic innovation and representatives from the Citizens’ Assembly Secretariat and the Scottish Government.
The overall aims of the research were to provide learning about the process to support the delivery of the current Assembly and to meet the Scottish Government’s commitment to review and learn from the experience as well as to situate the Scottish experience within a wider body of international evidence on Citizens’ Assemblies. The specific objectives were to:
- provide ongoing evaluative evidence about the Assembly process to convenors and the Secretariat
- evaluate the success of the CA as a model of democratic engagement in Scotland
- produce a research dataset on the CA that will be available for use by researchers, practitioners and leaders and ensure Scotland’s contribution to the developing global evidence on democratic innovation
The research provides evidence about both the internal operation of the Citizens’ Assembly and the external relationship between the Assembly and wider Scottish society. The methods used to address the external dimension involved a population survey, analysis of media coverage of the Assembly and interviews with stakeholders. The internal dimension gathered data on assembly members’ understanding, attitudes and experiences as well as the quality of deliberation and facilitation through:
- Member Surveys – to track members’ experience, knowledge and learning, members have completed surveys throughout the course of the Assembly meetings
- Non-participant observation – Members of the research team have attended all assembly meetings to collect observational data during the course of the weekend, including facilitator briefings. During the online weekends the research team also observed a small number of the breakout room discussions
- Audio recordings of facilitated group discussions – a small sample of the discussions have been recorded each weekend and analysis has focused on quantifying the quality of deliberation
Following each Assembly meeting the research team prepared research briefings. These briefings, which are published on the Assembly website, provided important evidence to support Assembly design and operations. Once the Assembly has reported, the research team will conduct a range of further qualitative interviews. Findings will be published in a Scottish Government Social Research report in September 2021. This report will provide lessons for informing similar democratic processes in Scotland and beyond.
The impact of Covid-19 on the Assembly
The public health measures put in place in March 2020 in response to Covid-19 resulted in the cancellation of weekends 5 and 6 and a temporary suspension of the Assembly. Over this period most of the Secretariat volunteered to temporarily return to the Scottish Government to assist with the pandemic response effort. Communication was maintained with members during this time and the Assembly reconvened on an online basis in September 2020.
On reconvening, it was important for members to consider the effect of the pandemic on the country and the wider world, including its possible impact on their own lives. Given its already broad nature, the Assembly remit did not have to change to take this into consideration. Minor technical amendments were made to the terms of reference and memorandum of understanding to reflect the move online, notably the move to shorter sessions over four weekends and an extended timeframe for reporting and members took part in online induction sessions prior to the Assembly reconvening online. Overall the move online was very successful with adjustments to design and the length of sessions being made to accommodate the changed approach. As ever, members rose to meet the challenge in whatever way was necessary.
"To get online, I had to borrow my 78 year old mother’s ipad! Who has to do that?! Another funny one was when I had to stop my dog barking as it was upsetting another member’s cat who was in the background in their house!"
"My sons a gamer and I’ve had to pay him £20 last weekend to stay off line to make sure I get a good signal"
Members continued to report high levels of satisfaction about the Assembly through the move online, although they very much missed the informal social engagement which had been such an important feature of face to face meetings.