How to set up a community engagement panel
From a guide by Citizen's Lab
Citizens' assemblies and panels have gained popularity in recent years as a useful tool for promoting dialogue in diverse communities, addressing polarized issues, and resolving sensitive public debates. As we collectively continue to face global and local challenges in dire need of swift action, the citizens' assembly model can help us approach these problems in a well considered, inclusive, and effective way.
The most well-known examples of citizens' assemblies are large-scale, nationwide initiatives. But some of the most compelling examples of citizens' assemblies or panels actually occur on a local scale. These initiatives can easily be set up on a regional, municipal, or even neighbourhood level. In the UK, in the London borough of Waltham Forest, 45 residents formed an assembly in early 2020 to deliberate on addressing hate crimes within the community. In the German speaking region of Belgium, a permanent citizens' council was instituted to allow community members to set the agenda from the bottom-up.
Deliberative initiatives provide local governments with valuable opportunities to bring communities together and source innovative solutions on topics ranging from mobility to social care, climate, inclusion, and safety.
So, how does a citizens' assembly work, exactly? How are the members of the assembly selected? And how do they reach consensus? Let's look at the different phases of a citizens' assembly:
What are best practices?
1. Reflect on your purpose
Initial selection by sortition. Potential members of a citizens' assembly or panel are selected by lot, which eliminates selection bias.
Secondary selection. The initial and randomized selection is further narrowed down to a smaller sample of participants reflecting the general population in terms of age, ethnicity, education level, location, and gender identity. This ensures accurate representation of a wide range of viewpoints and voices, including those of traditionally underheard communities.
Deep learning. The selected assembly members are likely not experts on the topic(s) at hand. That's why they receive all the necessary information and support to learn about the subject and examine it from all angles. This could include meetings with competing interest groups, hearing the voices of those affected by the discussed issue, and Q&A sessions with experts. This step is crucial to guaranteeing everyone is on equal footing and can weigh the arguments to reach an unbiased decision.
Deliberation. Participants debate the topic at hand from every angle, attempting to bridge personal and social differences, develop empathy, and reach a mutually satisfactory agreement, position, and/or policy recommendation.
Policy recommendation. The assembly or panel concludes with a final report or advice to decision-makers. The procedures vary, but generally, drafted recommendations are put to a vote within the assembly or panel and then passed on to decision-makers.
Optional: additional participatory process. Occasionally, the assembly's advice is used as a jumping off point to engage the wider community in the conversation. For example, local governments could choose to launch a survey to gauge the community's opinions on the decision, or set up a participatory budget allowing residents to allocate budgets to the various elements of the assembly's recommendation.
Before you do anything else, consider whether a citizens' assembly is actually the right engagement method for the issues you're setting out to tackle. If you're looking to consult a specific set of people, e.g. residents of a specific neighbourhood or women between 25 and 50, an assembly isn't the right format for you. A citizens' assembly or panel involves a representative sample of the population, and often tackles topics where people need to unlock complex issues, like climate change or social care.
Once you've defined the topic at hand, it's crucial to ask the right question(s). Don't expect your citizens' assembly or panel to find the answer to questions like "How do we solve the climate crisis?". Instead, break down your topic and let community members brainstorm about concrete, measurable solutions to questions like "How can we lower greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030?"
2. Adapt to the local context
Define what the assembly or panel would look like, according to your local needs and context. The size and duration of a deliberative process are not set in stone, and depend on the size of your community and the number of topics on the table.
A citizens' assembly, on average, consists of at least 100 people and meets for at least 18 weeks, whereas a citizens' panel or jury usually consists of fewer than 50 people and meets for a shorter period of time. A good rule of thumb is that impactful deliberation often requires a minimum of 4 days. What's doable for your community?
3. Be transparent
Much like any other community engagement project, setting up a deliberative process requires clear and transparent communication. The details of the deliberative process should be communicated to the public, not just the participants of the assembly or panel. It's crucial to provide relevant and sufficient information on the process from the get-go and set realistic expectations. Consider which channels are best suited to spread the message and keep the community updated on the progress of the assembly or panel.
4. Ensure real representation
A deliberative process requires a group of community members representative of the population as a whole (age, gender, education, location, socio-economic status, migration background) to engage in the process. To make sure the selected community members can participate, consider how you'll work to break down practical barriers that might prevent people from attending. Child-care, accessible and free transportation, and an attendance stipend are all ways to ensure true equity.
5. Involve stakeholders
Define how the assembly's or panel's recommendations will fit into the decision-making process, and who will be responsible for taking these recommendations forward, both internally and externally. Internally, it helps to have a dedicated person or team pushing things forward and overseeing the process. Externally, it's important to consider which actors will play a role in making changes. Who are the relevant stakeholders to involve? Who do you need buy-in from? If your assembly tackles mobility questions, you might have to cooperate with non-public actors or local organizations to implement the results, so it's worth involving them from the start.
6. Provide the necessary tools for deliberation
It's essential to provide the group of participants information from a wide range of sources and experts on the issue they're deliberating about.
Participants should be able to ask for additional information when they feel they've only heard one side of the story or don't fully grasp all aspects of the problem yet.
A deliberative process entails careful and active listening, giving every participant an opportunity to speak, and using a mix of formats that alternate between small group and plenary discussions and activities. Consider what you need to provide these things, from venues and catering to skilled facilitators to help keep the process on track.
7. Share results and evaluate
It is critical to instil trust in the deliberative process and to foster trust among community members. Convince them that their input is valuable and that the recommendations they make will have a genuine impact on the decision making process. Share continuous updates on the progress of the assembly and keep the community informed on the implementation of the recommendations. By asking both participants and internal teams to evaluate the deliberative process, you'll gather key learnings to improve and fine-tune the process for the future.
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From a guide by Citizen's Lab, 05/07/2022