Deliberative approaches like citizen assemblies are gaining traction, particularly to inform climate policy. To ensure the legitimacy of these processes, Jen Roberts and co-authors argue that the process of selecting experts involved in citizen deliberations should be transparent, and must consider diversity and inclusivity
New ways of involving citizens in decision-making, such as citizen assemblies, have gained prominence in the UK and internationally. These deliberative approaches aim to revitalise democracy. They do this by offering a clear route for citizens to influence political priorities and decisions, building trust in the decision process, and closing the gap between publics and politicians. They are also particularly suited to complex societal issues. As a result, national and local governments are increasingly using citizen assemblies, juries or panels to inform climate policy and action.
Citizen deliberations aim to ensure political equality and promote representation, especially of citizens who tend to be marginalised by existing institutions of representative democracy. Organisers consistently report participant demographic diversity, and processes to support participation, and there is a focus on fairness and transparency.
Transparency and inclusion principles must be embedded throughout the design, delivery and reporting on citizen deliberations
However, the focus, to date, has been around representation and transparency of the process of citizen participant recruitment and being ‘in the room’ during the process itself. But this is not the only role within these processes. Transparency and inclusion principles must be embedded throughout the design, delivery and reporting on citizen deliberations. Currently, they are not.
Deliberative approaches typically involve input from experts to share information, perspectives, and experience with citizen participants. Experts help participants understand the topic at hand, potential policy solutions, the wider policy context, and the lived experience of those affected. The number of contributing experts could be anywhere between fewer than ten and over 100, depending on the process design.
Despite their important role, there is no transparency around the process of identifying, selecting and involving experts
Despite their important role, there is no transparency around the process of identifying, selecting and involving experts. The same applies to the selection of those in governance roles that oversee this process. Citizen deliberation reports do not include demographic information nor diversity and inclusion goals for experts. This remains the case even when the number of experts is on a par with the number of public participants. Any – rare – reference to expert diversity is in relation to the breadth of stakeholders and perspectives.
Without demographic information it is not possible to assess over-representation or under-representation of particular groups among expert witnesses. Furthermore, it is currently unclear whether barriers to participation in citizen deliberations as experts or in governing roles are understood, managed, and mitigated. Equity, diversity and inclusion targets or measures to support participation of experts from underrepresented or marginalised demographics or identities are simply not reported. Nor do we have any detailed and transparent account of the process of identifying and selecting experts, or those appointed to oversee expert input.
For democratic legitimacy, diversity and inclusion considerations must extend beyond citizen participants to include organisers and contributors. This includes those in governance and informing roles.
Deliberative processes like citizen assemblies are designed to improve the policy-making process by increasing democratic legitimacy of decision-making. Democratic processes should be equitable and accessible. As a result, it is important to understand how we can design processes in the most democratically legitimate way.
Diversity among experts will benefit the democratic quality of the deliberative process and its outcomes in several ways.
In terms of the deliberative process itself, the information, perspectives and experiences shared will be more representative of the views and interests of the public, and especially those of traditionally marginalised and underrepresented groups. Furthermore, greater diversity among witnesses is likely to increase engagement among participants who belong to marginalised groups. It will also influence how information is received. Feeling represented among ‘elites’ can enhance feelings of political interest and engagement among citizens.
Expert diversity will have benefits within the deliberative process itself, and will increase legitimacy and engagement in the eyes of the public
A diverse set of witnesses is likely to make citizen deliberations and outputs more legitimate in the eyes of the wider public, too. This in turn affects individuals’ willingness to accept and comply with decisions. First, people perceive processes that consult those affected by the policy to be more legitimate. The inequities inherent in climate impact and mitigation place additional importance on inclusion and representation. Second, ensuring that witnesses represent the diversity of society may strengthen trust in the political process. It may also encourage a sense of citizenship and belonging among traditionally excluded groups, supporting political engagement.
Expert diversity is important for the legitimacy of outcomes among the wider public. Therefore, it is paramount that organisers and governing bodies of deliberative processes provide resources for, and implement, transparent and inclusive processes for expert involvement.
Our research shows that to embed fairness and transparency throughout the design and delivery and reporting on citizen deliberations, organisers must commit to open reporting on diversity and inclusion. These considerations must extend beyond citizen participants to include organisers and contributors – including those in governance and informing roles.
To ensure legitimacy of citizen deliberations we recommend:
Embedding inclusion principles throughout the design and delivery of deliberative processes requires commitment and action from the people commissioning the activity, those involved in governing and delivering it, the experts themselves, public participants, and wider society.
Only by doing so can we guarantee that all roles in any decision-making process are genuinely inclusive.