There are three points that we need to consider when we hold a citizens’ assembly: topics, communication and involvement of public officials

Graham Smith, Professor at University of Westminster, Chair of KNOCA (Knowledge Network of Climate Assembly)

Date: December 5, 2022 Location: Online
Interviewer: Mikiko Kainuma, Naoyuki Mikami, Hideyuki Mori, Kenji Asakawa, Aditi Khodke, Tomoko Ishikawa

Interview with Professor Graham Smith on climate citizens’ assemblies

In Japan, citizen climate assemblies were held in Sapporo[1], Kawasaki, Musashino, and Tokorozawa. Some local governments are currently considering it. Bottlenecks in holding citizens’ assemblies include a lack of know-how and insufficient financial and human resources. There are several types of mini-publics, including citizens’ juries, planning cells, consensus conference, deliberative polls, and citizens’ assemblies. Do you have any suggestions on which one to choose for local governments with limited financial and human resources? (Kainuma)

Smith: Even the UK municipalities don’t have enough money to run full-scale climate citizens’ assemblies. The scale of them at a local level is somewhere between 40 and 50 people. Where there is not so much money, they’ve been running citizens’ juries. Their size is around 15-30 people. There is a good organization in the UK, called Shared Future[2], which is good at running citizens’ juries. They probably did four or five citizen juries. Citizens’ juries are smaller in size, allowing them to hear the public more closely. Some people like bigger one, but sometimes smaller is better.

Some local governments and a group like us, a university and a NGO, started to convene a climate assembly in a local level. There are some other local governments that are interested in having an assembly. Currently it does not seem that the Japanese national government introduce a citizens’ assembly. Will the implementation of citizens’ assemblies in local governments lead to a national citizens’ assembly? And do you think that it will help to introduce the idea of participatory deliberative democracy? (Mikami)

 Smith: It is difficult for a national government to have a climate citizens’ assembly. We need discussions between officials and members of the parliament. It is also important that government officials and parliamentarians talk with those who have held citizens’ assemblies in local areas.

Many citizens’ juries have been held in the UK. All citizen juries are at the municipal level. I’ve heard that citizens’ juries work at the local level, but not at the national level. In the UK, there was a national climate citizens assembly, but this was led by the parliament, not government. The government did not respond satisfactorily to parliament’s questions.

The UK has more local-level climate citizens’ assemblies than any other country. I think it has something to do with the political system or the political situation in the UK. In another example, in Germany, citizens conduct a national citizens’ assembly. They have already done two and plan to do more. The target is not limited to climate change.  In Germany, the government has also conducted a national-level citizens’ assembly. This is an example that the national level assemblies organized by citizens led a national level assembly organized by the national government. However, it is dangerous for citizens to hold citizens’ assemblies in order to realize a national climate citizens’ assembly. It’s very complicated.

Many citizen assemblies are already being held in Europe, but do you think they will be held in other regions such as Asia? Will knowledge transfer happen? (Mikami)

Smith: It’s a very important issue. We are not familiar with other countries. So we have to be very careful when we say something about other countries. KNOCA[3] provides information about citizens’ assemblies taking place in Europe.

It is important for people to learn. But at the same time, there is a danger of copying bad habits when everyone follows the same path. So we try to highlight what didn’t work, or what could have worked. By doing so, we hope that new citizens’ assembly organizers will improve it rather than follow it.

The first phase started with the Climate Citizen Assembly in France, ending with the Austrian and the Spanish ones. This period was very short, so I don’t think there was much time to learn, but I think in Austria and Spain, we can see that they’ve learned some of the lessons from the early ones. I think KNOCA contributed to this. Now we’re coming to the next generation. There are discussions in the Netherlands to have an assembly and there’s going to be a permanent assembly in Brussels. And we can already see that those two assemblers are already reflecting on what happened before. So they’re already learning. They’re sitting there and thinking, do we want to repeat the same thing? And so that’s really good for us that we’ve got this sense that there’s a kind of learning that’s going on.

The French political system is very different from the German one, but there’s some things which we can move across. I would like to point out three things that should be taken into consideration at future citizens’ assemblies. The first thing is a topic. They should focus on critical areas where they’re very difficult to make policy or where it’s very contentious, because the policy window of the local authority or the central authority may not be open for all of the subjects of climate change and certain areas may not be as important as others.

The second point is transparency and communication. Those of us who run citizens’ assemblies know about citizens’ participation, but we don’t know much about communication. Therefore, we should put more effort into communication.

The third point is guidance. There are lots of guidance on how to run an assembly. However, there is no guidance on how to design the relationship with the public authority and what a public authority should do after an assembly has made its recommendations. KNOCA is now trying to create guidance on engagement with public authorities. There is not much to be gained from holding citizen assemblies without involvement of public authorities. You need to involve 5-6 people who belong to public authorities and are actually involved in policy. This is what KNOCA is putting the most effort into right now.

There are three points that we need to consider when we hold a citizens’ assembly: topics, communication, and involvement of public officials. However, the individual character is different depending on the citizens assembly. Some functions may be easily transferable, but Japan has its own peculiarities that need to be considered. For example, I think how you communicate will be very specific to Japanese culture. And we’ve already found that it’s really hard to talk about moving from France to Germany, from Germany to Italy, let alone going from Italy to Japan.

There are many other things to consider. For example, how to choose evidence to explain a problem, and how to explain that evidence. People have learned in different ways. However, the three points I mentioned earlier, discussion points at citizens’ assemblies, communication, and involvement of public authorities are important no matter where the climate assemblies are held.

Please tell us about the Citizens’ Panel. It seems that Scotland is planning smaller Citizens’ Panels. What is the difference between citizens’ panel, citizens’ jury, and citizens’ assembly? Is the citizens’ panel better for small municipalities to implement? (Mori)

Smith: Names don’t always mean the same thing. In Canada, all meetings held by Mass LPB are called Citizens’ Panels. But these can be called citizen juries or citizens assemblies. So I’m not sure how to name it.

Some panels seem to last longer. I am not committed to any particular method. In general, and especially among administrators, there is a tendency to think that bigger is better. Some people think we need 100 participants at a national level and 50 at a municipal level. Some believe that 34-35 representatives are adequate to discuss the new democracy in Australia.

I don’t think the number of people matters that much. It depends on what you are considering. I think that a small jury is suitable for discussions that challenge very difficult issues.

The issue is legitimacy. How people view meetings with only 12-25 people attending. This is a question of balance. These 12-25 people are doing a really good job. They do more detailed work than a meeting of 100 people. Therefore, it is not possible to judge scientifically what kind of form is good. Of course, to some extent it can be said scientifically, but to some extent it is necessary to consider it in a political sense. Politically acceptance matters.

I have spoken with many politicians. They want big numbers. It’s not a philosophical question, nor is it scientifically proven. Higher numbers make it easier for politicians to defend.

Unfortunately, outside of Ireland and Luxembourg, discussions were held in separate groups, such as the Citizens’ Climate Assembly in France. This is the equivalent of running 5 juries of 20 to 25 people or citizen panels at the same time. But it was the only way to discuss many issues. In the citizens assemblies in Canada, and the Irish citizens assembly, they did all of their work with 100 people. They didn’t break up into groups and they worked on the same topic all the time. And in many ways, that’s the classic assembly model. What the French have done, and what’s happened since then, are actually something different.

So even with the name citizen’s assembly, we have two different models, a model of the assembly that works together, and the model of an assembly that breaks into groups. And those are actually two different things. And there is a jury. I’m not sure which form would be appropriate. When the budget is small, only small meetings can be held.

Even in large meetings, there are various ways to discuss. fewer topics and have everyone discuss, or divide into groups and discuss more. I can’t answer the question about the best number of people. All I can say is that the desire to have a big meeting is usually there. But I don’t think bigger is necessarily better. I think it’s sometimes good to deliberate in small groups. At least if the group can bring people together in a somewhat different composition. In this respect I find the work of Shared Future interesting.

Mori: The reason I asked about the number of participants is because of the Kawasaki Citizens’ Assembly case.  When the organizers of the Kawasaki Citizens’ Assembly first met the mayor, the mayor requested the organizer to increase the number to 150.  As the population of Kawasaki city is 1.5 million. If one person represents 10,000 people, the idea is that there are 150 people. Despite their best efforts, the organizers were unable to gather 150 people. In the end, the number of people was half. But numbers seem to matter to mayors and politicians.

Smith: So this is more of a political issue than a method issue. Many people want to have assemblies, which are the same size as their parliament or the same size as their counsel, in order that there’s some sort of reflection, but there’s no scientific reason. it’s purely political.

Citizens’ assemblies select people who represent their country or region by lottery from among groups classified by age, gender, income, and so on. However, in the case of the Kawasaki Citizens’ Assembly, some people dropped out during the process. Therefore, it does not meet the criteria set in the beginning. Can it be called a citizens’ assembly even if it does not constitute a mini-public? (Mori)

Smith : In Scotland, we had six weekends of public meetings. As far as I know, only two have left. In Denmark, about 20 people passed out. I don’t know why.

This is a problem and results in distorted samples. One way to solve this is to provide more support to participants. The Citizens’ Assembly in Scotland and the UK were very supportive. The other thing I’ve seen is they have supplementary members, and swap the members at the first or the second weekends.

So your question is, can we still call it mini-public? I think we have to accept it.  I think the Japanese political system is different from the UK and Denmark. I think the challenge is to try and find out why those people didn’t carry on. Because only by understanding that, we can make sure that next time it doesn’t happen. Do you have any insight into why people dropped out?

Mori: After the meeting, I summarized the contents of the meeting. More female participants dropped out than male participants. For women, I think one of the reasons is that they have a lot to do at work and at home. I also think it has something to do with how the session was done. Compared to European citizens’ assemblies, the process was long and the density of discussion in the sessions was low. So I think some of the participants lost interest. I haven’t found the real reason yet, but I’m looking at some important factors. When we started this process, everyone involved wanted to call it the Citizens Assembly or Citizens Jury. So the composition of the participants is important. The fact that participants are not mini-public means that they are not representing citizens, which is very important.

Smith: I think if we had more citizens’ assemblies, more issues would come up. It is also a difficult problem in Europe. I still don’t understand why it happened in Denmark and not elsewhere. We are trying to find out why. Why did it happen in Japan? It may be a cultural issue different from Denmark. Do you also support children in Japan?

Mori: In the case of the citizens’ meeting in Kawasaki City, it is also related to the problem of communication in Japan. I attended a citizen’s conference in Kawasaki, and I thought that compared to Europe, the Japanese people have unique characteristics. For example, participants remain silent unless encouraged. They also tend to agree with what influential people and loud voices say. In this situation, it is more like a dialogue between facilitator and participant than deliberation. Something like this happened at a citizens’ assembly in Kawasaki City. Participants spend a lot of time asking questions to understand what has been explained rather than deliberating. Can we say mini-publics even in such a case?

Smith: I don’t know Japanese culture, so this is a very difficult question. What I can tell you is that most public meetings are not the deliberations that scientists would like them to be. It is the flow of discussion, the flow of ideas, the flow of rational people putting forward propositions and then people kind of unpacking them. And you know, it’s messy. And so I think there’s a real danger that we have this ideal of deliberative democracy which we impose on these processes. So these processes existed before deliberative democracy existed as a theory.

Deliberative processes such as juries and planning cells had happened before deliberative democracy appeared as a theoretical idea. And I feel that sometimes we are expecting too much of these things. I am looking for a space in which people are comfortable to put forward ideas and other people feel comfortable to respond to those ideas, and that, they are developing a conversation, which is free and fair, and where the time people talk is relatively equal.

We’ve done various assemblies where we’ve made sure that the facilitation ensures that different people are able to speak and that particular people don’t dominate.

If you think that it is difficult for everyone to speak equally as a part of Japanese culture, I think you need to think of more creative facilitation techniques, which allow people to be more comfortable and easier to express ideas. Maybe there are other creative ways of doing this.

There may be other people in Japan who have ideas on this matter. You might want to ask some of the UK facilitators. Even in the UK, some people make influential statements at the meeting.

But we tried to create a situation where people with different opinions could speak up. If you think Japanese culture makes it difficult for participants to have an equal voice, find a way to avoid that.

Coming back to the point we made earlier, I think the forum for citizens’ assemblies should be more diverse, more open and more democratic. We sometimes put these things on a pedestal and hope they reach perfection. But as long as it’s performing better than ever, it’s a step forward.

Mori: After the Kawasaki Citizens Assembly was over, the participants were asked a few questions. The question that interested me was whether you felt guided by the Secretariat in making your recommendations. More than half of the participants answered “yes”. This may be due to the nature of Japanese communication, or it may be due to facilitation techniques. I’m not sure, so I asked.

Smith: Even in Europe, there are big differences in facilitation techniques from country to country. There are also citizen assemblies that are mostly self-organized with little facilitation. Some citizens’ assemblies in France, Denmark, the UK and Germany are much more tightly controlled by the facilitator.  But even those facilitators will work differently, depending upon cultural differences about how they need to work. So facilitation is just such a difficult subject.

And come to know that different styles of learning exist among people. Not everyone reacts equally well to graphs such as scenarios. Everyone is different, so we provide information in different ways. We haven’t worked enough on these things and we’re still learning. It’s very difficult.

I have organized a public participation workshop on a low carbon lifestyle. In that workshop, some citizens were a little bit demanding for the policy recommendations, when we ask for policy recommendation. I guess they probably thought they needed some involvement in policy. Otherwise the recommendations are irrelevant. Do public meetings in Europe have such kind of problem as well? (Asakawa)

Smith: So your question is, can recommendations from citizens be implemented by the government?

Asakawa: My question is whether their recommendations are realistic. In the case of transportation, some citizens want more public transportation. However, there is a financial problem to increase. In case of lifestyle, we need cooperation to increase vegetarian diet. There needs to be a balance between citizen commitment and support from municipalities. Otherwise, recommendations from citizens become excessive demands.

Smith: Certainly, citizen demands can be excessive. Some people complain that the government does nothing. It’s a difficult problem and needs more consideration. One needs more clarity about the trade-offs. Citizens sometimes make recommendations without thinking too much about the status quo and the constraints. One way is to use scenarios. Scenarios are useful for considering trade-offs because they present several options and conditions for realizing them. Several citizens’ assemblies in the UK use scenarios.

We sometimes ask our citizens, “What would you like us to do?” This is not very effective. We need to think about the implications and feasibility of different policies.

We’re starting to think about the trade-offs. It is necessary to consider the trade-offs, not just say we want this and this when you can’t necessarily have both. We need to think about what kind of information to present to citizens’ assembly, but recently we have started showing suggestions from citizens to policy makers and stakeholders and giving feedback to citizens about their opinions. This is a learning loop. Presenting the opinions of policy makers to the public, I ask them if they have considered such things. This was carried out in Germany. It doesn’t seem to have been published in English yet.

It was held in a small town in Germany. From my understanding, they set up a science board and a stakeholder board together with the Citizens Assembly. The science board addresses issues that the city is facing. They show very specific areas of problems such as problems in housing and energy. A group of stakeholders show what they think the city can do. The Citizens’ Assembly will refer to their opinions and make recommendations.

Participants in the Citizens’ Assembly consult scientific and stakeholder groups, but the final decision is made by the Citizens’ Assembly. So the assembly meets for certain periods, breaks, then meets again, and I quite liked this idea of a kind of iterative process, where the citizens are understanding where the real problems in the city are.

While it is helpful to hear stakeholders’ inputs, I do not encourage the citizens assemblies to weigh the views of scientific or stakeholder groups. Citizens’ assemblies are meaningful in listening to their opinions and making original recommendations.

So far, many citizens’ assemblies have produced recommendations that had already been adopted in government policies. This is a waste of time. We try to keep the public as informed as possible. Of course, this will take time, and there are issues on financial and human resources as well. But I think it produces much better results than not doing so.

I can understand your problem very well. I have participated in various participatory processes where citizens just produce wish lists. This was the case not only in citizen assemblies and citizen juries, but also in other participatory processes. And those wish lists have no relationship to what can or can’t be done.

I have a question about financial resources. Is there a recommended ratio of how to allocate resources between the recruitment stage, the implementation stage and the post assembly stage? I am asking this because I attended the presentation from Austria. And there was a discussion point that how soon the Secretariat of the assembly should dissolve after the assembling. That was curious. (Khodke)

Smith: I don’t know what the correct answer is. I heard the Austrians say that half of their budget was on communication. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t think there is a rule, but I think it’s something we need to think more about, because in the most places they don’t have budget for afterwards. I have heard that Austria, Spain and Scotland have set aside a portion of their budgets for consideration after the Citizens’ Assembly.

And of course, a lot of these costs depend on how the costs are calculated. In the case of public officials, the costs may not be shown because that’s taken by the government.

So it varies. In Scotland, the Secretary was funded by the government. In Spain, the Secretariat people were funded  by the European Climate Foundation. So the cost is very different. And many of these assemblies happened during COVID. So they were online. The costs were different if you’re doing it online and doing it offline.

There are also differences in the cost of recruiting participants from the public. in Austria they have a statistics agency that did the recruitment. Whereas in other places, you actually have to hire a company to do it, because they don’t have that data.

I think the best thing you can do is to look at an assembly that looks like the kind of assembly you’re running and then look at the costings for that particular assembly, because they’re all so different from each other. They have different governance structures. They have different structures in terms of who’s doing what, in terms of different parts of the assembly. They have different lives afterwards. So it’s just really difficult to have a rule.

Do you have any suggestions to keep citizens from dropping out? I had the opportunity to interview to Dr. Juliet Carpenter, who held the Oxford Jury. She told me that they thought about various things to keep the citizens participate until the end. One of them was to prepare food and drinks as much as possible including homemade cakes. (Kainuma)

Smith: In Scotland, there were a couple of online assemblies when the organize sent participants a parcel with cakes. Everybody has the same cake at lunchtime. When we I did a jury many years ago, it wasn’t on climate, and everyone was getting very tired. We needed to do the voting and it was just a very difficult jury. And we sent out for ice cream, and everybody got ice cream, and everyone was really happy. And it gave everybody another hour of energy.

It seems that citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries are organized in parallel to the existing political system. I shared about the idea of citizens’ assembly/citizens’ jury with the government official in a small city in India. They asked me about their role if they start to communicate directly with citizens in situations such as citizens’ assemblies and citizen juries. Are there examples of Citizens’ Jury/Citizens’ Assembly integration with regular parliamentary and bureaucratic functions? Is there an official role for an official to act as a facilitator or play any role on a jury or parliament? (Khodke)

Smith: I’ve heard examples of using politicians and officials. The problem is they are not good facilitators. They always want to talk. There is also an example in which when a participating citizen thinks that an official is talking too much. He or she gives a sign, and when the official sees the sign, he or she puts a piece of sweets in his mouth and stops talking.

So I think it’s a very difficult problem. Politicians have an important role in the ward they are in charge of. I have no intention of denying it. The role of politicians is important. Citizens’ assemblies discuss specific issues. It may be a problem that politicians don’t think much about on a daily basis. The citizens assembly’s role is to hear what citizens think. What you can do in a citizens’ assembly is different from what you can do as a politician.  It is important for politicians to participate in such processes. One way is for participants to meet politicians in person. There have been panels in the past where citizens and politicians worked together. For example, the first Irish Convention had 66 randomly selected citizens and 33 appointed politicians worked together.

Another example is a committee in a Belgian city where politicians and citizens work together. I think this is very interesting and worth investigating, but these are separate from citizens’ assemblies/juries although they use lotteries and facilitators.

I think there’s lots of ways we could be creative. And I think that we should not be stuck with one particular method. We should try and do this in lots of creative ways.  I think the point is the difference between standard representative democracy and the idea of deliberative and participatory democracy.

There is tension and we have to manage it. I mean, it’s not a good idea to do these things where politicians are against it. But it happens sometimes.  So the challenge is to get them involved in the process and do what we can to make them understand that politicians and citizens think differently. And I don’t know how you do it. As you know, it’s different in different places.

I have a question about the budget. Local Government has very limited budget. And actually, this was also the case with Kawasaki. Renumerations were paid to the participants. That comes up to a substantial amount from their point of view. Some participants declined. I wonder if it is okey that no particular renumeration would be paid to these assembly members. I think that will make things much easier from budget point of view for small cities. (Mori)

Smith: From a budget standpoint, it might be easier to hold a citizen assembly without paying an honorarium. However, recruiting participants becomes more difficult. There are two reasons for handing out honoraria. One reason is that it is natural to distribute honoraria to people who are trying to contribute to the city. The mayor, city council members, and city officials are all paid. Why shouldn’t only citizens receive money? Another reason is that some people participate because they will get a reward. By stopping rewards, you’re refusing these people to participate.

Next question is the combination of this citizen group, and the parliamentarians. You said you do not call it citizens assembly, it’s a different kind of meeting. There is one city in Japan, where they intended to carry out citizens assembly of climate, but because of the very strong demand from certain groups of citizens, in addition to citizens assemble group based upon sortition, they add some very eager citizens to that group. And then formulated a kind of group to discuss climate issues. How do you call it? It’s still considered to be a citizen’s assembly or something different at all? (Mori)

Smith: It is related to the definition of a citizens’ assembly. What is citizens’ assembly? What is not the citizens’ assembly? And it’s really hard to distinguish it.

Mori: Some NGOs want to participate in citizen assemblies.

Smith: The point here is that we’re trying to create a space that isn’t full of activists. There is the G1000 Belgium and the G1000 Netherlands [4].  The G1000 Belgian participants are 600 randomly selected citizens, 100 community activists, 100 government officials, 100 business people, etc. They hold meetings by lottery and other methods. They usually do this over a day or two to address specific local issues. So for me, this is not a citizens’ assembly, but another form of using a lottery system.

There are several systems that use lotteries to create space for citizens, including citizens’ assembly, citizens’ juries, and citizens’ consensus meetings. There, citizens are informed and deliberate.

And then there are another group of institutions which I think the Irish convention, the Brussels Commissions and G1000. They are creating another set of institutions, which is sortition plus other things. And I think that’s fine. I think that it’s absolutely fine to be doing that. And we should be experimenting with this.

There are many types of meetings that use the lottery system, and all of them are effective. Citizens’ assemblies are one of them. But it’s not a meeting attended by activists or civil servants. So, I would like to give it an appropriate name, but it is difficult because there are not many words that correspond to meetings.  As some of them will be quoted as assemblies, everyone will get very confused.  But as academics and as public administrators, we need to make sure that we recognize the similarities between things and the differences between them.




Citizen Inquiries


[4] The G1000 Civic Council; A place where we determine together what we consider important for our neighborhood , our village, our city, our province or our country.

G1000 in Netherlands , G1000 Citizens’ Summit in Amersfoort, Netherlands)


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