Doing Politics Differently
The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland

Chapter Three: The Assembly learning journey


This chapter describes the learning journey of the Assembly. Chapters 4 and 5 describe in more detail the work leading to formulation of the vision and recommendations.

Above all, the Assembly journey has been about the evolution of democracy in Scotland. It has provided us with a roadmap for doing politics differently in the future. On this journey, new and lasting friendships have been formed and a shared commitment setting out a new direction for the country has been forged. Regardless of age, background, experience or political view, Assembly members have travelled together, learning about the country and worked together on the challenges and choices we face.

As shown in their individual diaries, the Assembly has been a very positive experience for members. Anyone who has been involved, including through presenting evidence or observing proceedings, has seen this for themselves.

“It feels like we’re all in on it now, a real hive mind. We’re striving forward with a set of ideas. I think it’s all coming together. We’re slowly landing on it and seeing the shift.”

It is this direct experience – the energy, buzz and creativity in the room and over the airwaves, the banter, humour and sharing of stories – where the Assembly has come to life. Assembly members truly have been a mirror of the nation; reflecting our strengths and diversity, our independence of spirit and thought, our personal integrity and the positive values that we share of tolerance and acceptance of difference.

“I was taken with how everyone seemed to suspend their judgements, and took the chance to understand, even accept the others more, despite the to-be-expected disagreements on certain topics. This requires compassion, patience, and a good heart, and I would say that we achieved more understanding than separation. I think there was some big learning for many of us.”

The context within which the Assembly has undertaken its work have been extraordinary. It met against the backdrop of the greatest political, economic and social upheaval in the post-war era, and it examined the really important policy issues and challenges of our time such as climate change, rising inequalities, health and wellbeing, the future of work and the economy, public finances and taxation. Members heard from experts on a broad range of topics and explored how politics is conducted and how decisions are taken.

Whilst this stage of the Assembly journey is now largely complete, there are enormous opportunities for Scotland to learn from and build on to create a more progressive modern democracy fit to deal with the challenges we face; a democracy where citizens are fully involved in discussion and decision making, including on the topics covered in the recommendations in this report.

“It has been very intense and we’re now finding our level in the whole process. And the way I’m seeing this forum, we are now a buttress. We sort of support the establishment from the bottom up as we can evaluate and find out what the people of Scotland need and we can sample the issues as we come from lots of different areas and that is all good. We can collect all this information which we can feed back into the system for it to be implemented. How it is implemented is up to the government. How they do it is up to them, but they have to do something.”

An overview of the learning journey

An important and unusual feature of this Assembly has been the very broad nature of the remit and the requirement that members be involved in deciding what should be covered. Assembly design and planning has not been easy and it has not been possible to cover issues in the depth that would have come with a more narrowly drawn agenda. However, the approach has undoubtedly also brought significant benefits in putting members in charge and giving them the freedom to range widely across a broad spectrum of topics.

"Sometimes you sit at a table and get so frustrated, but at other times you feel so humbled by what you’ve learned at this Assembly. We’ve all learned to be more patient and tolerant. Every group I’ve been in we’ve come to an agreement at the end and nobody has left on bad terms and I think that’s proof that this works. We care about each other and this country."

At its core the Assembly journey has been about developing knowledge and awareness about the country, discussion about the things that matter most to citizens and setting an agenda for the future. It included exploration of challenges around a broadly definition of building a sustainable country and on the resources to support this, specifically public finances and taxation. The Assembly reflected on the impact of Covid-19 and prepared a collective vision for the future of the country and agreed priorities for action. These outputs have been informed by all that members heard, discussed and learned through the process. In structural terms, weekends 1 to 4 mainly involved learning, development of skills in deliberation and familiarisation with techniques, typically through presentation of evidence and discussion with experts, deliberation in small groups and agreement on interim outputs, often including voting to indicate levels of support for the range of outputs. Weekend 5 involved considering the impact of Covid-19 and weekends 6 to 8 involved members working together in small groups to consider this earlier work, preparing statements of vision, developing the scope and text of recommendations and supporting materials, and voting to decide the final Assembly vision and recommendations.

The following diagrams summarise the deliberative process undertaken across the weekends:

Deliberative Process: Weekends 1-5
Graphic text below

Graphic text below

In advance of the weekend: Members’ review background materials (optional)

Warm up: Groups consider prompt question and share lived experience

Learn: Presentation of evidence by experts

Deliberate: Q&A sessions and group discussions

Recommend: Groups agree what is important and draft interim outputs to help inform final conclusions

Share: Members present group’s ideas in plenary sessions

Deliberative Process: Weekends 6-8
Graphic text below

Graphic text below

Members considered work from weekends 1-5 (evidence, discussions and interim outputs)

Groups each prepared a draft vision element

Groups each reviewed other vision elements

Groups refined vision element after review

Groups drafted recommendation

Groups reviewed other recommendations

Groups refined recommendation after review

Voted to decide the final Assembly Vision and Recommendations

A key aspect of the journey has been the ways in which members have grown as informed, critical and committed citizens. Members’ skills and confidence in engaging with evidence and in deliberation and working together to prepare outputs, have grown enormously over the course of the Assembly. Members themselves have reflected in formal and informal feedback on the deeper complexity, volume and breadth of evidence that has been presented over the course of the Assembly, on how hard they were pushed and how they rose to the challenge, gaining new and deeper knowledge of the topics, insights into the complexities of policy making and a growing belief in the significance of their own and the Assembly’s collective views on these issues.

"People were confident within themselves…they knew they were allowed to be themselves. They knew they were ‘enough’ no matter who they were or what their background was."

Committed to continuing as an Assembly member remained strong throughout the Assembly process, despite the delay in operations resulting from the lockdown and through the subsequent move online.[21]

Whatever their background, age or experience, Assembly members engaged positively with complex evidence and with the tools and techniques of deliberation. Along the journey they produced a valuable set of interim outputs, including material which has not found its way fully into the final vision and recommendations, but which provides important insights into their thinking and the breadth and diversity of views. These outputs are discussed in chapters 4 and 5 below. The picture below provides a visual representation of the learning journey.


Assembly evidence

All of the work of the Assembly, including the agenda for meetings, the evidence presented at the weekends, key points in discussions and interim outputs prepared on specific topics can be found in the weekend reports and in the recordings of plenary sessions on the Assembly website. Much of the learning from weekends 1 to 4 was brought together in the interim report[22] and ‘journey so far’[23] summary papers and in the accompanying videos prepared by the Secretariat in advance of the Assembly reconvening in September.

Annex 7 provides a table of the agenda for each weekend together with a list of the evidence sessions and the outputs that were produced. Annex 8 provides a more detailed account of the evidence of the Assembly, including information on the expert speakers, links to their presentations and the full range of supporting materials that were provided to members in advance of Assembly meetings.

"Each week we’ve been given a piece of that puzzle: to learn and understand and ask questions that will lead us to making decisions at the end. But I’m also getting an understanding of really where the politics lies in all these things. I think before there might have been some kind of bubble over politics, that nobody is able to get in and ask questions, and shake them up! And I think we’re able to do that here. And I feel quite privileged and excited – – and energised! – – to say: I want to do that. I wouldn’t have done it before."

A shared understanding of facts and figures and engaging in discussion using information that is accurate, trusted and presented in an accessible form is key to a successful Citizens’ Assembly. Only on the basis of deliberation on such evidence can Assemblies come to informed conclusions that those involved can agree are fair, even if not everyone agrees with them. The breadth of the Assembly remit and limits of time meant that it was not possible to explore any single topic in detail and members noted the challenge in making recommendations which have a broad base of evidence to support them. There is no doubt that the process would have been even stronger if it had been possible to investigate issues in more detail.

Nonetheless ensuring the quality, reliability and accessibility of the evidence to be presented was central throughout the process. A key role of the Stewarding group was to help decide on the evidence provided and at an early stage evidential standards[24] were prepared and discussed as part of a wider consideration of using evidence and engaging with trusted sources. Expert speakers were identified in line with the principles and approach set out in the evidential standards. Those invited to present were drawn from a range of reputable organisations and institutions from across the UK. A full breakdown of participating speakers and the evidence given across Assembly weekends is provided in Annex 8.

Given the remit of the Assembly it was not practicable to seek general submission of evidence, which would have been desirable to allow the wider public to contribute to the process. Instead, the Secretariat with advice from the Stewarding group, identified acknowledged experts to provide a range of perspectives on the issues being discussed.

The breadth of the Assembly remit made it important to provide a rich definition of evidence, with all aspects of the Assembly learning journey being relevant. Members were invited to consider evidence as including:

  • General evidence about the country, including the constitutional position, provided by expert witnesses in line with the evidential standards
  • More detailed evidence on the challenges of building a sustainable country and relating to the public finances and tax, including some of the key constitutional aspects of those challenges, provided by expert witnesses in line with the evidential standards
  • Evidence presented on different approaches to the economy, what makes for happiness, and how values influence decision-making, provided by expert witnesses in line with the evidential standards
  • Evidential standards and how to interpret these

As well as learning from these sources, evidence also includes the Assembly experience, including reflections from the skills that members developed, the ‘lived experience’ of Assembly members, and from the discussion with the politicians’ panel about their priorities for action and how decisions are taken in and for Scotland.[25]

All of these sources of evidence have been part of the Assembly learning journey and members were encouraged to draw from in preparing recommendations. Members views on the quality and accessibility of evidence and what has been most useful to them in the work have been carefully tracked through the research initiative and published in the weekend data briefings.

The picture below provides a visual overview of the breadth of evidence considered in the Assembly

The picture below provides a visual overview of the breadth of evidence considered in the Assembly

"We felt comfortable enough to challenge each other, and that speaks volumes in terms of how we worked as a team. I know that I changed my opinion a couple of times on the basis of what other people had said."

"It was empowering for me as a Scottish citizen to see that the politicians were actually listening to us. They were being influenced by what we were saying, and not the other way around for a change! And I thought it was quite nice that you got to know them, because they gave you some personal background. So you actually thought “Okay, this is what you’re about."

"It was major amounts of information. Really complex. Challenging, but very interesting."