The Reference Panel Playbook:
Eight moves for designing a deliberative process


Reference Panels — a.k.a. Citizens' Assemblies, Commissions and Juries — are a leading example of long-form deliberative processes that are frequently used by governments and public agencies to obtain detailed guidance on important and sometimes controversial policies.  Reference Panels do not make decisions for governments. Instead they play a complementary role by supporting elected officials and public authorities to make informed decisions that enjoy broad and considered public support.

But what makes one work?

MASS LBP is an internationally-recognized leader in the design of deliberative processes. Over the past decade, we have worked with residents across Canada to advise governments on everything from privacy law, to injection drug use, to affordable housing, to taxation. To date, we have completed more than 25 different reference panels, juries, assemblies and commissions with more than 1000 Canadians. Collectively, these Canadians have contributed 30,000 hours of deliberation to improving public policies . Not surprisingly, we’ve learned a few things along the way. Here are eight moves from our playbook to help you plan your own deliberative process.


Play #1:  Define the task

Reference Panels are platforms for problem-solving and good problem-solving requires having a clearly defined problem.  You need to take special care to define the panel's task appropriately.   Though the temptation might be to invite the panel to solve many problems, we've found that a narrow mandate works best.  Together members can tackle complex policy problems, but a defined mandate is important to ground and focus their work. No one will volunteer their Saturdays for endless blue-sky activities or talk for talk’s sake.

Once you’ve determined the Assembly’s task, consider drafting a detailed Terms of Reference. As the process unfolds, this can be a useful touchstone that reminds all parties of the Assembly’s purpose.

You’ll want to consider:

·       What core issue(s) are you trying to resolve?

·       What type of direction would be most helpful from the public?

·       Are there defined policy options on the table, or are the options open-ended?

·       What do you want to learn from the panel that you don’t already know?

·       What constraints exist that cannot be changed or influenced?

·       Will you be able to act on the advice you receive?



Play #2:  Plan your response

What will you do with the Assembly’s recommendations?  

The Assembly will devote considerable time and effort to writing its report. As such, members will want assurance that their report will be taken seriously. In a democratic system, you can’t promise to implement all the Assembly’s recommendations, but you can commit to heed and respond to its advice. The more specific you can be about how you’ll do this, the more confidence members will have in the process.

You’ll want to consider:

·       How will the Assembly’s recommendations fit within the existing policy development process?

·       Who will respond to the Assembly’s recommendations? What form will this take?

·       Will officials publically receive the Assembly’s report?

·       How will you recognize and celebrate the hard work of the Assembly?



Play #3:  Ensure independence and balance

How will you ensure the Assembly’s integrity?

A well-designed Assembly can bring legitimacy to controversial choices. This legitimacy stems from the Assembly’s independence, its balance, and its empowerment of regular citizens. To an outside observer it should be clear that the Assembly’s design is reasonable and fair—the quickest way to tarnish the Assembly’s work is to identify a bias.

You’ll want to consider:

·       Should the Assembly be run at arm’s length from government?

·       Should certain parties be exempt from participation (for example, government employees)?

·       Should there be an Advisory Committee of recognized experts who can verify that the Assembly’s learning program is balanced?

·       Should the Assembly’s learning program be made publicly available?

·       To build community trust, is it beneficial to allow the public to observe portions of the Assembly meetings?



Play #4:  Recruiting participants

Who will be in the room?

For an Assembly to succeed, it is important to have the right people in the room—people who reflect the community and are diverse in thought and background. Too often in public engagement this is not the case. To address this challenge, MASS has pioneered the use of what we call the ‘Civic Lottery’. This involves mailing thousands of personalized letters to residents inviting them to volunteer for the Assembly. From the pool of volunteers, members are then randomly selected to broadly represent the demographics of the community. The Civic Lottery has a number of advantages—personalized letters broaden participation, random selection increases fairness, and the use of demographic filters ensures that the Assembly reflects the community.

As part of the Civic Lottery process, you’ll need to decide on what demographic filters to use. We always recommend that the Assembly is gender balanced and reflects the age range of your community. Otherwise the choice is yours. You may want proportional numbers of renters and homeowners on your Assembly if you are tackling housing policy; or you may want to guarantee representation from the indigenous community. But, one note of caution: there’s a beautiful simplicity to random selection, don’t over-orchestrate the process

You’ll want to consider:

·       How many people should be on the Assembly? We consider the ideal range to be 28 to 36.

·       Given the policy issue(s) at stake, what groups should be reflected on the Assembly?

·       Given your community, what groups should be reflected on the Assembly?

·       In the personalized letters, how will the Assembly’s task be framed to emphasize its importance to your community?

·       In the personalized letters, who will be the public figure personally inviting people to participate?



Play #5: Create a curriculum

What information will the Assembly need?

A distinguishing feature of the long-form deliberative process is its intensive learning program. The aim is to provide members with the skills and knowledge they need to make informed recommendations. This means three kinds of learning should take place: 1) social learning—how to work and make decisions together; 2) process learning—how to express ideas as useful policy recommendations; and 3) content learning—what members need to know about the context, the range of perspectives, the trade offs, and the best practices relevant to their topic.

To achieve this, members should hear directly from experts and key stakeholders representing all sides of an issue. Members should also be provided with up-to-date information about the specific policy context. Finally, and most importantly, members should have ample time to wrestle with the issues together.

You’ll want to consider:

·       What information about the policy context will the Assembly need?

·       What up-to-date facts and figures will the Assembly need?

·       What case studies from comparable jurisdictions might be helpful for the Assembly to consider?

·       What are the different perspectives on this issue that should be represented? Who might best speak for them?

·       Are there any key stakeholder perspectives that should be included?

·       Are there established experts who can provide the Assembly with useful rules of thumb?



Play #6: Involve the wider public

How will you involve the broader public?

The broader public has an important role to play in a Citizens’ Assembly. The more the public understands about the Assembly, the more respect they will have for the process and the results. Some people will want to follow the Assembly’s work closely online or via list-serve updates; others will want to participate directly.

Assembly members also learn a lot from the public. This learning can be organized informally—for example, members talking about the issues with their friends and neighbours. Or, this learning can be organized formally through a public submissions process or a survey. What is often most useful to members is a public roundtable—a meeting hosted by the Assembly in which members test their ideas directly with the public.

You’ll want to consider:

·       What channels will be used to inform the public about the Assembly and its work?

·       Will the Assembly have its own website? What information will be shared on the website?

·       Is it important to release periodic updates about the Assembly’s work?

·       Will the Assembly host its own public roundtable meeting(s)?

·       Would a public survey, or other type of public engagement event, be able to provide useful information to the Assembly?

·       Would it be beneficial for the Assembly to accept submissions from the public?



Play #7:  The host and facilitation team

Who will host the Assembly?

A neutral and independent team can provide the Assembly with invaluable guidance and support. At MASS, we offer what we see as the full ‘Civic Concierge’ service. This means we aim to staff the members of the Assembly: do they have a burning question they want answered? do they need to debrief on the phone after a meeting? Or, do they need a blueberry muffin in the morning to feel appreciated? Whatever their real-people worries or needs, our job is to support them so that they can do their job.  

In the meetings, this support also comes through experienced moderation. The moderator’s job is to keep the meetings moving at a steady pace, crystalize key learnings, and hold space for important discussions. The moderator in turn is supported by a team of local facilitators, often graduate students, who sit with the members and help keep their work on track.

You’ll want to consider:

·       Is it important for the Assembly to be run independently?

·       Who will moderate the Assembly?



Play #8: Time and money

Do you have the budget?

Citizens’ Assemblies don’t need to be expensive or time consuming. At MASS, an average, four- Saturday Assembly will cost approximately $60,000 and can be completed in 4 to 6 months. This includes everything: the assembly design, the Civic lottery, learning program development, member support, event logistics, moderation and facilitation, and a polished final report.

Other expenses include the venue for the meetings and a small accessibility fund. Members will volunteer their time, but they shouldn’t be out of pocket for any related expenses. This means you’ll want to budget to cover travel, parking, childcare, or eldercare costs.

You’ll want to consider:

·       What’s a realistic timeline for this process?

·       What’s a realistic budget for this process?

·       How far are members having to travel? Is it best to minimize travel expenses by holding consecutive meetings?

·       Where will the meetings be held? Do you have access to a venue that conveys the importance of this civic exercise?