In my last post, I outlined some of the steps we took to move Climate Assembly UK online. In this post, I want to concentrate on the views of its assembly members. 

What do they think about whether citizens’ assemblies should take place in-person or remotely?  

It’s a topic that they are uniquely qualified to consider: they have tried both. That said, their experience of the online weekends is atypical – at a fully online assembly, they wouldn’t have met in-person first.

An online meeting of Climate Assembly UK

Who took part 

We asked assembly members their views in a short informal survey1 after Climate Assembly UK’s second online weekend. We didn’t make the survey compulsory, but 70 assembly members still completed it. Of those:

  • 60% had taken part in the assembly weekend by computer;
  • 20% by tablet;
  • 13% by smartphone;
  • 4% by phone call (without being able to see anyone else on the call);
  • 3% chose ‘Other’. One of these two people had joined by computer and phone call. The other had started on a computer, but switched to a tablet part-way through.  

The results below, therefore, include the views of people who joined the meetings in a variety of ways, but they don’t represent the views of all 108 assembly members. 

Online or offline? 

We decided to ask assembly members both an open and closed question. We asked the open question first, but here I’m going to reverse the order. 

The closed question was: 

Do you think the ideal location for a citizens' assembly that takes place over more than one weekend is: All in-person (everyone travels to the same venue); A mixture of in-person and online; or All online (everyone meets via internet/phone)?

This is how assembly members responded: 


All respondents (%)

Joined by computer (%)

Joined by tablet (%)

Joined by smartphone (%)

Joined by phone call (%)

Other (%)

All in-person (everyone travels to the same venue)







A mixture of in-person and online







All online (everyone meets via internet/phone)







Two points really struck me about the results. The first was how many assembly members chose “A mixture of in-person and online.” I was surprised the percentage was so high, although that surprise lessened when I read assembly members’ comments (keep reading!).  

The second was the variation depending on how assembly members joined the meeting. It’s a very small sample to draw conclusions from, but the results also make sense. All the assembly members who joined the meeting by phone call and both assembly members who joined in an ‘Other’ way said assemblies should be all in-person. That’s logical. It’s just not as good taking part online if you can’t see everyone or you have tech issues. Joining by smartphone is the next most limiting option because of the small size of the screen, so the slight lean towards all in-person assemblies here – when compared to the views of those who joined by computer or tablet – makes sense too. 

This variation highlights for me how important it is to think about accessibility and quality of experience for all assembly members. Short of buying people equipment (possible) and potentially teaching them any necessary skills (doable but harder – and really hard in lockdown), there is a limit to what you can do to ensure everyone has a comparable and positive time.

I found the results of the closed question interesting, but it’s the responses to the open one that blew my mind. I should have expected the breadth of insight: after all I run citizens’ assemblies all the time, but the fact assembly members hadn’t really discussed this topic meant it caught me off-guard.

The open question we asked assembly members was: 

We are being asked a lot at the moment whether we think citizens' assemblies should be run online in future, or whether it is important for assembly members to meet in-person. We would like to know what you think about this. What is your current view?

I’ve broken down the responses by whether assembly members went on to say that assemblies should be a mix of in-person and online, or offline only. Sadly no one who chose “all online” left a comment. I’ve opted to quote assembly members at some length so that this is as much in their own words as possible and to do justice to the range of points they made. 

 “A mixture of in-person and online”

Let’s start with assembly members who said that the ideal location for an assembly was “A mixture of in-person and online.” I’ve loosely grouped their responses into four themes. 

1. When to use online and what for

Several assembly members suggested that it’s important for the first meeting of an assembly to be face-to-face, but that after that a shift online is possible: 

“I think an opening and closing real world assembly is important but intermediate sessions or small group work could perhaps be conducted online.”

“I think running citizens assemblies online should be done permanently in future. The technology is available to the majority of people to make this happen. You may possibly want to host the first session in person, so everyone has the opportunity to experience both and it gives the ideal opportunity to show the assembly members … how to use technology.”

“For me it has been a good combination. It has helped a lot to have known and seen the participants before meeting online.”

“I think it is vital to meet initially for a weekend. By meeting other participants, being part of the Assembly becomes a reality and an important and meaningful event. Over a residential weekend, it was good to have time to socially interact and get to know others and [it] made us more of a bonded working group which we could visualise while working remotely. If it was only online, perhaps the Assembly would not have seemed so real or even as important.”

Others suggested using online for smaller parts of the assembly process. For example, one assembly member suggested we “[m]eet but allow more time for thought on voting by doing it online.” Another said: 

“Definitely in person. While you get down to the nitty-gritty of the subject. You don’t have that proper interaction between Assembly members that I found made us going to Birmingham work.”

2. What’s good about online

Some assembly members made comments about the advantages of online assembly weekends: 

“I liked meeting up with the assembly members, but in some ways online is easier as it cuts out travel issues.”

“Meeting in person is important also sets the tone with assembly staff - I think it puts you in the right mindset to all be together. With that said I think more people have spoken in my discussions online and perhaps aren’t as fearful of negativity from other participants as it isn’t in person - a bit of the Facebook troll syndrome as such.”

“I think that once online conferencing is much more common and we become less self conscious it would definitely be much more convenient, better for the environment and less expensive. It would be great if we could have more assemblies, to include more people as I have learnt so much and education is the key to change.  I have missed the personal interaction with various Assembly members but I think we were inclined to be drawn to like minded people [outside of assembly sessions – the sessions had seating plans], which is probably not the intention of the assembly.”

“I believe that it might work beneficially organising these type of events online in the future as less arrangements will be needed by the events' organisers and by the participants. In these cases, special consideration should be given to utilise all recent telecommunication tools to minimise the lack of personal interaction. However, as it is definitely not the same experience, it may not be always the most appropriate for assemblies to be made online.”

Another assembly member wrote about what they like less, whilst also noting the potential environmental benefits of working online: 

“I think I gained a lot more out of it in person, I felt there was a greater ability to have in depth discussions both while at the tables and during the breaks. I felt this allowed a lot more consolidation of the information you have heard as through the extra discussions I was able to formulate more opinions and share knowledge with other members that could then be fed back into the table discussions. I see the environmental benefit of having them online but I do think it has hindered the amount of information that can be gathered and shared. It also is not as appealing just online as it was great having the opportunity to meet people from across the UK that ordinarily you wouldn't meet.”

3. Online is fine, but…

Some assembly members suggested that online works, even if they prefer offline:

“I’d be lying if I said the first two months wasn’t good. It was great meeting new people and was a lovely atmosphere. Although, this method of finishing it has worked great.”

“Prefer in person, more personal and involvement better, but online worked well also.”

“Meeting online is fine. It's a big ask for participants if a 4 weekend assembly turns into a 12 weekend online assembly... I found these online sessions still took up a whole weekend and I couldn't plan anything else.”

Others noted potential issues with participation if assemblies were held purely online:

“It is important to meet in person.  If it had been solely online, I would not have participated.”

“If you do it purely online I think ensuring participation would be difficult.”

4. Online is better than nothing

One assembly member referred to current social distancing rules, a point also picked up by some assembly members who chose the “All in-person” option: 

“The online weekends have been organised really well at such short notice and I'm glad that the assembly can carry on under the circumstances. In general, I think assemblies benefit from greater interaction and getting to know other members and experts which is not possible online. I think the concept of assemblies is too important not to run them over the period of social distancing which could last years, so I think online assemblies are a good alternative but once groups are allowed to gather again, they should return to proper meetings.”

“All in-person”

Assembly members who said that the ideal location for an assembly was “All in-person” raised some similar issues as well as some new ones. I’ve grouped them roughly into five themes. 

1. Easier, more nuanced discussion 

A lot of assembly members made comments about finding discussion easier, freer, more in-depth and more nuanced in person. For example: 

“Meeting in person is much much better, so many advantages and so much easier to hold a group conversation.”

“The assembly is far better as meetings in person. Many of the nuances of human interaction are lost on Zoom.”

“I think it is vital to meet face to face, it allows for a more honest and expressive forms of interaction. However if the only alternative (given the current situation) is online then the format to date   - especially given the limited time to prepare - has been key to keeping the momentum, purpose and engagement of the assembly members.”

“I preferred the assemblies in person, I think it is easier to have a constructive conversation when you can see the other people properly and aren't accidentally speaking over someone. It also gives you a chance to get to know some of the other people who are doing it.”

2. The social side 

Picking up from the last quote above, some assembly members said that they valued the social side of meeting offline:  

“I much prefer to meet everyone participating in person as opposed to doing it online. I don’t have any issues with using the online facility and in fact there is far less background noise that can cause problems when you are in a room with lots of other members. I do miss the social side of being in the one venue (hotel) and meeting and speaking with the other participants some of whom I was getting to know very well. I hope we can perhaps all meet up sometime in the future.”

3. Focus and atmosphere 

Quite a few assembly members picked up on the different environment created by everyone being in one place and how that can affect behaviours and feelings. I agree with this, but was surprised to see it so front of mind for so many people: 

“It is better meeting in person, you know people are focused and there is a buzz missing from the internet meetings.”

“In my opinion, citizens’ assemblies should be about meeting in person for a period of time as it makes for better discussions in more atmospheric surroundings. People are more likely to be focused, relaxed and open when they are all together in the same environment.”

“The online format feels like a small focus group not a Representative Assembly [because you can’t see everyone else all the time].  We lose a lot of the feeling of diversity even though the make-up of the groups change each session.”

“Without at least the first (and maybe the second) sessions happening live, it would be difficult to create a team culture.”

4. What happens outside the meeting

Some assembly members talked about what happens outside the formal assembly sessions at offline weekends. I found this interesting. It’s not something I usually ever get to hear about: 

“Also when you are face to face there is the opportunity to discuss some of the issues outside of the meeting in a more relaxed setting and this can produce some of the best ideas and conversations and helps to have a more productive formal discussion later.”

“I think we got a lot out of the in person assembly. Having the meals and the whole thing organized in the hotel allowed for more in-depth discussions to develop outside of the table discussions. This also allowed for us to be more open at the tables. However an all online assembly would be fine if that was all the budget allowed for. Having engaging online discussions are quite interesting as well.”

5. Access and participation 

One assembly member noted issues with access online:

“I also worry that if all assemblies were online it would exclude those who did not have the capability to join in or discourage those who did not feel they were able to use the technology.  I have found it is easier to concentrate on the topic while face to face as at home my family is also here and although my husband has tried to keep the children occupied while I have been busy they are still a distraction as they cannot be silent for that amount of time.  Also during the last session my neighbour was drilling something which to me was loud and distracting!”

Another assembly member suggested that “online isn’t motivating.”  


The key question, of course, is what to take away from the above. I’ve quoted assembly members at such length partly so that everyone can reach their own conclusions. But to offer a few initial ones of my own…

Once the lockdown lifts, I think there is a case for using online for part of the assembly process – be that whole weekends or individual tasks such as voting. However the first weekend (at the very least) should be done in person and any move online needs to be based on careful consideration of assembly members’ access needs. I tend to agree with assembly members that sessions such a listening and questioning speakers are better suited to online than in-depth group discussions. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do the latter online – the outputs from the online discussions at Climate Assembly UK have been rich and powerful – but if I had a choice I would keep at least some of these in-person.  

That said, the lockdown hasn’t lifted and restrictions may be in place for quite some time. Here I agree with assembly members that a fully online assembly is better than no assembly at all. People’s voices should continue to be heard, not least given the huge impacts of the decisions government will take in the coming months. 

What’s needed are mitigating steps to address the list of areas that assembly members have so very helpfully signposted above. This seems feasible to me. For example, you could start an online assembly with a purely ‘getting-to-know-you’ session, before people dive into the assembly content. It’s also very possible to create a more informal space for participants to talk to each other between meetings (although note the challenge of ensuring everyone could access it). This idea of a set of mitigating steps for online assemblies is one that I would like to give further attention. But this post is already long, so I will leave that for a later date.

  • 1. Involve isn’t running the official evaluation of Climate Assembly UK. We can’t evaluate ourselves. However, the official ‘weekend four’ evaluation survey only needed to go to assembly members after the final online weekend. That meant we had two online weekends where we could send out a short survey of our own. The primary purpose of these unofficial surveys was to check for any feedback so we could improve the online experience.  But we also took the opportunity, after weekend two online, to sound out assembly members on their views about online assemblies more generally.