Assemblies have origins in ancient Athens and various Indigenous decision-making practices but have only emerged in modern use recently. Assemblies had a popular breakout in 2016, when Ireland held a National Assembly at an unprecedented scale. This inspired many other countries to hold Assemblies at all levels on a variety of issues.
Assemblies are a variation of a deliberative civic engagement process, the Citizens Jury, which was invented here in the United States in the 1970s by Ned Crosby, and advanced through his work with the Jefferson Center, which is one of the oldest practitioners of deliberative democracy in the world.
Right now, in the UK and in France, Climate Assemblies are being held in which randomly selected citizens are meeting over the course of several months to learn, discuss, deliberate, and propose climate legislation based on popular support.
In June 2019, the UK’s Government and Parliament agreed that the UK should do more to tackle climate change. They passed a law committing the UK to reaching ‘net-zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To supplement this goal, six select Parliamentary Committees convened the UK Climate Assembly; its central goal and question "How should the UK tackle climate change?" and give UK residents the power to shape how the country respond. Over the course of four weekends, 110 UK residents were invited to learn and deliberate on the question at hand. In light of COVID-19, their deliberation has transitioned online.
There are two common criticisms of the UK Assembly:
1) That its central question is its greatest weakness: many believe 2050 is too late to achieve net-zero.
2) That its decisions, which are not legally binding, will be ignored by the new government.
The French Climate Assembly, or Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat, was convened by the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, to respond to the climate crisis. It was suggested to the President by Gilets Citoyens and Democratie Ouverte as a response to the Gilets Jaunes, or "Yellow Vest" movement that formed in response to Macron's eco-tax legislation. The goal of the convention is to create responses to the climate crisis as put forth by the people.
The Convention Citoyenne consists of 150 French residents who were selected by lottery to meet over the course of six weekends. Per the Assembly members' request, the Convention was expanded to eight weekends. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, their deliberation has transitioned online.
The Convention's goals are from the outset more ambitious and concrete than those of its UK counterpart. From its website, "[the Convention's] mandate is to define a series of measures that will allow to achieve a reduction of at least 40% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990) in a spirit of social justice."
The Irish Constitutional Convention—similar to a Citizens’ Assembly, except randomly-selected citizens made up two-thirds of the body, and elected officials accounted for the rest—was invited to debate eight issues before providing recommendations to the government. Marriage equality was considered to be the most significant by far, inspiring huge mainstream and social media interest, and drawing more than 1,000 submissions from individuals and organizations for the Assembly to consider. After lengthy deliberation and discussion, the ICC voted on the matter by secret ballot: 79 percent recommended that marriage equality be put on the ballot. This strong endorsement gave the socially conservative prime minister no choice but to put the question to a referendum, in which the Irish people backed up the ICC’s recommendations, with 63 percent voting to legalize same sex marriage.