Sue Gray, Sir Keir Starmer’s Chief of Staff, recently suggested that a future Labour government would look at different ways of engaging people to help make decisions in complex or controversial policy areas.

In a time of increased polarisation of public opinion and debate, citizens’ assemblies in particular are gaining traction. But what are they and how do they work?

Citizens’ assemblies are not a new concept, but they’re not that well known either. If you have heard of them, that might be because of the high-profile exercises held by the Irish government on issues of abortion and climate change. Or it might be because you’ve seen one of the growing numbers being undertaken by local authorities across the UK.

The process involves bringing together a group of ordinary, randomly selected citizens (in the case of the Irish examples, 99 plus a chairperson for a total of 100) to deliberate on a particular issue or policy area. This group then meets across a number of sessions, often at weekends, where they will hear from subject matter experts, discuss the topics in groups and vote on proposed outcomes.

Proponents of citizens’ assemblies say that they offer the time and opportunity for regular citizens to learn in much more detail what makes up a topic, and deliberate it fully. There is also a sense that it builds trust between people and politicians – that decisions are being made with and not just for communities.

On the other hand, critics have said that this method can never truly be representative and that competency among assembly members cannot be guaranteed. Interestingly, some also feel that direct, deliberative democracy like this actually undermines the wider democratic process, by diluting the power of elected representatives.

Whatever your views, it’s likely that we’ll see more of this kind of engagement in the future, not least if as expected, the Labour Party win the General Election later this year.

At Copper, we recently ran a similar deliberative exercise with Cornwall Council, bringing together over 40 people from across the country to discuss decarbonisation of the energy system as part of its Residents’ Energy Panel.

And what is clear from this exercise is that while there may be limitations to undertaking engagement like this, and that it does require an investment of time and resources, there is no end to engaged, articulate and motivated local residents willing to give up their time to help shape policy.

When part of a comprehensive programme of consultation and engagement, this type of exercise has the potential to not only give those involved a sense of ownership over the outcomes but can also help to give wider communities a sense that things are being done with them and not just to them.

For more information on Copper’s engagement work, visit our case studies page.