BLOG 5th March 2019

A​ Citizens' Assembly for the Arts?

You know that time in meetings when you say something and before you know where you are you’ve created a ‘job’ for yourself? 

That happened to me at the brilliant Belfast City Council Culture Forum at the end of January. Long story short this session was all about change and thinking of different ways of making Belfast into a truly vibrant cultural city.  The session was so good because it really was trying to get us all to think about transformation – not always easy but definitely energising. As part of a discussion on Advocacy I mentioned that there had been a bit of twitter chat from a colleague who runs an arts venue in the Republic of Ireland about a Citizens Assembly for the Arts. It piqued my interest because I was on the board of an organisation called Building Change trust who funded a pilot Citizens Assembly in NI in 2018.

As soon as I mentioned the idea a lot of people said they thought it was a good one and so I went off to investigate a bit more.  Colette our Comms Exec tweeted about it too and again we had more positive reaction.

To be clear, a citizens’ assembly is defined as: 

a group of people who are brought together to discuss an issue or issues, and reach a conclusion about what they think should happen. The people who take part are chosen so they reflect the wider population – in terms of demographics (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, social class) and sometimes relevant attitudes (e.g. preferences for a small or large state).

While ‘experts’ can give evidence it is the people in the Citizens Assembly who make the final decisions and recommendations which can then go forward to either national or local government. Bear in mind that although the culture sector would be involved in presenting information we wouldn’t be part of the Assembly itself and so we would no control over what they decide. Part of setting it up would be to agree what exactly the Citizens Assembly is being asked to discuss and make recommendations on.

I thought it best to talk to people who know more about this than I do so I contacted Involve who were responsible for delivering the pilot Citizens' Assembly in NI at the end of 2018 which looked at the future of health and social care in NI.  Click on the links to find out more about that.

Involve have a Belfast office and while there are no immediate plans to run another NI Citizens Assembly from them, they would really like to help us deliver one around arts and culture. It is also worth saying that Tim Hughes who is the Director of Involve is in NI on 29th of March as part of the Imagine Festival and will be talking about ‘What next for a Citizens' Assembly for NI?’ – if anyone wants to go.

The NI pilot was pretty costly as it involved 100 people over 2 residential weekends but Involve say you can deliver a really good Citizens Assembly in less expensive ways e.g. 50 people and in a non-residential setting. It all depends on what exactly we want to do and what the available budget might be.

To sum up: Involve is keen to help and Belfast City Council is open to further discussions on this. I’m going to follow-up with BCC and then we can see if it’s a runner. In the meantime please let us know what you think about this idea, or comment below.

Fiona Bell

Chief Executive

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