A transparency audit checklist for citizens assemblies, citizens juries and other deliberative & participative democracy forums

Deliberative & participative democracy philosophy and the process of its practical application have evolved slowly but surely over the past 35 years (that’s how far back my own personal experience goes, including pioneering many of the approaches that are more commonplace today in the late 1980s and through the 1990s when it was all very radical and often niche).

As well as steady growth in understanding and implementation over the past three decades, there have been a few bursts of activity. This includes, in the UK in the 1990s, a boom (then bust) in citizens juries. The bust was due to too much focus on method rather than purpose; lack of flexibility in approach acting as a barrier to spreading practice; cost — of the inflexible model that was promoted at the time, including by agencies running citizens juries and insisting it had to be their (expensive) way; and, especially, lack of evidence of impact on key (government) decisions. ‘High cost, low impact’ is never going to be a recipe for long-term success!

It also includes a more recent boom in citizens assemblies (this time in the UK and more widely across Ireland, Europe, North America, and Australia. This has provided an opportunity to study widespread practice (both good and not-so-good); established, emerging and experimental approaches; and a diverse range of views on the role and practice of citizens assemblies and other types of deliberative & participative democracy forum.

I have written elsewhere (and will continue to do so) about what I see as positive developments in enhancing our democracy and the not-so-positive aspects of the recent boom — with the hype, overly-prescriptive models, high cost of those overly-prescriptive models, and (thus far — crucially) limited evidence of impact, although there are some examples of impact, which is excellent, and much hope for action on the Climate Emergency (at least in the form of ‘Net Zero Emissions’ Plans for 2050 — can we do it by 2030 please?!).

Of course, we need to avoid another ‘high cost, low impact’ phase, and the desired long-term democratic shift will be best served by a combination of more evidence of high impact with more flexible low-cost approaches for wider participation as well as deeper deliberation.

A Democracy Audit Checklist

In this particular piece, however, I want to focus on objective analysis rather than subjective comment, focus on one area where almost all democracy advocates agree — the need for transparency (which leads to accountability which underpins democracy) — and set out a ‘Democracy Audit Checklist’ that can be used for planning citizens assemblies/citizens juries/deliberative & participative democracy forums, for ‘quality & transparency assurance’, and also for reflective evaluation.

A healthy democracy is founded on transparency and accountability. A citizens assembly or citizens jury (or other deliberative/participative forum) set up to enhance democracy should make it clear:

  1. the topic/question being addressed
  2. the decision-making process it feeds into
  3. who included in assembly/jury (cross-sectional or purposive sample)?
  4. who NOT included (who NOT invited or screened out and how)?
  5. how many citizens invited?
  6. how many invitees expressed interest?
  7. how many citizens selected?
  8. how were invitees selected?
  9. how were participants selected?
  10. face-to-face (f2f) assembly/jury only, online assembly/jury only, or combined f2f & online?
  11. what pre-assembly/jury engagement was there, if any?
  12. what parallel or integrated engagement options, if any, for those NOT selected (both those who expressed interest in the citizens assembly/jury but NOT selected and the wider citizenry — active or not active)?
  13. what further engagement options after the final ‘meeting’ of the assembly/jury, if any?
  14. what information given to assembly/jury members?
  15. what briefings/presentations delivered?
  16. who briefed or presented to participants?
  17. who decided who briefed or presented, eg. advisory group (who advising? who chose the advisers)?
  18. could assembly/jury members call for briefing material or presenters through the process?
  19. could participants challenge the process or initial question posed?
  20. were proceedings available for viewing (live or recorded)?
  21. what was the process for developing and agreeing final recommendations (including roles of assembly/jury members, organisers and advisers)?
  22. how was the assembly/jury evaluated (process, outputs, outcomes)?
  23. what impact did it have (eg. all or most proposals accepted? all or most recommendations implemented? timeframes for impactful action?)?
  24. costs/funding (overall, key detail such as participant expenses, who funded the assembly/jury/forum)?
  25. to what extent was the implementation as planned or evolved through the process? (examining both healthy flexibility and reasons for movement)
  26. What else? Please add to the list anything else you think is a key consideration for enhancing deliberative & participative democracy — generically or in relation to your own purpose and tailored approach!

Footnote 1: The future is digital/online; in fact it’s the present!

Those who currently only consider face-to-face citizens assembly or citizens jury approaches might think some of the above is not relevant, but online approaches will inevitably develop due to their lower cost and with more democracy advocates seeing them work well in practice, as well as ongoing enhancements in technology!

Achieving the shared goal of wider participation (including geographically dispersed populations and the fact that involving ‘everyday citizens’ inevitably means trying to include ‘busy people who can’t afford to give up 4–6 weekends to travel to a central location’!), as well as deeper deliberation, will require the development and applications of more flexible online approaches.

Footnote 2: Recruiting and selecting ‘fit for purpose’ samples of the population, with flexibility not limiting prescription

Some (most?) citizens assembly/citizens jury advocates say they “must be a cross-section of all citizens” but this is just one form of deliberative forum. For issues affecting particular population sub-sets, it is applying good practice research principles and, I would argue, good practice deliberative & participative democracy philosophy, to have the member composition designed ‘fit for purpose’, so not always a straightfoward cross-section.

In some cases, that will be a demographic cross-section, or a sample ‘representative’ of certain views/positions, or it will involve ‘screen in/out’ to focus on a particular sub-set, or weighted to that sub-set.

Once again, flexible adaptation and ‘fit for purpose’, tailored designs are crucial, not having the ‘straitjacket’ of one prescriptive model, or seeing assemblies/juries as a ‘product’ to buy rather than an adaptable framework.

Footnote 3: Encouraging flexible adaptation for optimal democratic participation, avoiding limiting prescription

As highlighted at the beginning of this piece, the evolution of deliberative & participative democracy over the past 30 years has been fascinating, including the latest ‘Deliberative Wave’, and more especially the citizens assembly boom. This wave/boom has provided ‘the deliberative and participative democracy movement’ with many opportunities but the #DelibWave has also provided threats to ‘the democracy project’.

It is always good to see diverse approaches as a healthy, long-term democratic shift needs flexibility (‘fit for purpose’ not having democrats feeling under pressure to ‘buy the prescribed model off the shelf’) and cost-effective methods that will help to spread democratic practice, including digital.

Paul Vittles FMRS FAMI FRSA is a Research Fellow and community engagement pioneer, who has been an advocate for and practitioner of deliberative & participative democracy over the past 35 years.

Paul has worked with governments at all levels in the UK and Australia, with 80 councils as clients (after being the first Research & Engagement Manager with City of York Council). He has been a consultant to the NHS; many arms-length government agencies and regulators; community foundations, charities and not-for-profit organisations; professional societies & member organisations; regulated energy and utilities businesses; corporates and private developers wanting to engage appropriately and effectively with their communities; and many partnerships and alliances comprising combinations of these.

Paul has designed and facilitated thousands of research, consultation, engagement, and democracy projects and initiatives. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Paul led or facilitated many innovative and pioneering face-to-face approaches: including city/community regeneration; new types of school and learning facilities; building health and social care services around service users and carers; involving citizens in traffic and transport planning; and — perhaps most famously — leading the engagement exercise to decide what to do with the site of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester, the former home of the serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West (Paul met with all the victims’ families before leading the team undertaking engagement with the local community).

Paul presented ‘The Role of Research in a Democratic Framework’ to the 1991 Market Research Society (MRS) Conference, and has presented many award-winning papers to research, evaluation and engagement conferences, as well as serving on national task forces, developing and evaluating national policy (from The Patients Charter in the UK to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS, in Australia to national suicide prevention strategies).

Paul was founder and ‘Chief Facilitator’ for ‘ListenHear: The Global Campaign for Effective Listening’ which won the 2011 TEDxSydney competition for “the best idea worth spreading”. Paul was a TEDxSydney ‘Fast Ideas’ finalist in 2014, speaking to 2,300 people at the Sydney Opera House (and many more live online) about #DigitalLifeSaving — using digital communications technology to save lives. Paul also facilitated the ‘Breakthrough Ideas for Suicide Prevention’ Forum, and helped implement some of those ideas.

In 2013–14, Paul pioneered online research and engagement approaches, challenging 120 clients (from the ABC to the Australian Government to funeral services providers) to identify ‘what can’t be done online’ and then doing it — online! Paul presented some of these pioneering case studies at the 2014 Australian Market and Social Research Society (AMSRS) Conference (written up by Green Book), and subsequent conferences such as the Information & Innovation Exchange (IIeX).

Since 2013, Paul has designed and facilitated 180 online forums, which is why he baulks at the continuing claims by some democracy advocates, as well as democracy critics, ‘this can’t be done online’. Paul knows from experience that it CAN all be done online (although flexibility, ‘fit for purpose’, ‘horses for courses’ is always the way it should be) — including the citizens assembly and citizens jury model — and adopts a ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ philosophy for his professional practice as well as his personal life!

These days, Paul’s focus is on transformational change projects (in community development, improving quality of life for older people, optimising mental health and wellbeing for all segments of society, suicide prevention and the Zero Suicide Movement) and facilitating sustainable success as a consultant, coach and counsellor.

Researcher (FMRS), marketer (FAMI), consultant, coach & counsellor who helps people and organisations with transformational change and sustainable success.

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