Citizens Assembly: Towards a Politics of Considered Judgement’

Lambert here: Sounds like debate! Brexit is, however, a cautionary tale.

By Graham Smith, Professor of Politics at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, and Rosemary Bechler, a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, editor of Can Europe make it?, and a member of the coordinating collective of DiEM25. Originally published at Open Democracy.

Rosemary Bechler (RB): Graham – as a long-established expert on participatory forms of democracy, what do you think is behind this sudden interest in citizens assemblies? You wanted me to remind our readers that openDemocracy was talking to you about randomly-selected bodies and processes years before anyone else took notice! But when did the first signs of this much broader enthusiasm appear?

Graham Smith (GS): Yes, without doubt it is the flavour of the month at the moment. The first article I wrote on citizens’ juries was published twenty years ago and as I have been joking, for the first nineteen and a half of those years nobody was interested! The Irish Citizens Assembly was a game-changer, basically.

RB: When the Irish Citizens Assembly came up at a recent panel discussion openDemocracy organised for the Belfast Democracy Day, Roslyn Fuller, who is an expert in digital democracy, argued there had been far too much hype about the significance of this assembly process, that very few people after all could be involved in it, and that opinion on the abortion bill had been moving in the direction of the outcome anyway. How would you answer that?

GS: She is right about Irish society clearly becoming more liberal. The problem was how to get to a decision on this issue. If you are an Irish politician the hardest controversies to deal with are on social issues, because of the continuing influence of the Catholic church even now and the forces of conservatism within communities.

The voices against same sex marriage and abortion were very loud, strong and well-established. Historically they have been well-organised.

What is hard when issues get hoovered up by interest group politics is that ordinary citizens don’t have a place. In the war between those who want to see change and those who don’t, the question is how to get past that deadlock? So I wonder what kind of politics Roslyn thought could get us to a decision. Certainly the politicians had the opinion polls and many were convinced that there had to be constitutional change, but they were looking for another way of opening up the issues that wasn’t going to be captured by interest groups. They didn’t know for sure which way the Convention on the Constitution and the Citizens Assembly would go on either of these issues, but they wanted a more inclusive process.

We can see the same pattern emerging in the 2000’s in British Columbia, where all the political parties were in agreement that they needed a new electoral system, but each of them wanted a different one. So they passed the decision over to a citizens assembly.

But we have a real tension here between digital and deliberative democracy, if I can use that shorthand. I think the digital people are obsessed by numbers, and the funny thing is that this can very easily end up as an old politics – who is shouting the loudest? How many people are ‘liking’? That reminds me of standard electoral politics. Proponents of this approach come to you saying, “Look how many people have engaged with this!” Maybe it is a matter of political taste. The point about citizens assemblies is that it is not a large group, but it is diverse. And you cannot be sure about that with online ‘likes’. Online engagement will almost certainly not have the diverse characteristics of the broader population, whereas selection by sortition in citizens’ assemblies builds this into the process. So in terms of diversity, deliberative processes trump the kind of digital spaces that Roslyn is talking about.

Secondly, should we make our decision by responding to people’s views as they hold them now, given that their normal everyday interaction is with people like themselves, under conditions in which they may not have engaged much, if at all, with a range of other views? Or should we create a democratic space in which people work these issues through with people who are different from them and who hold views that are different from theirs?

This politics of ‘considered judgment’ is simply a different kind of politics.

RB: And do you think that this understanding of the nature of citizens assemblies and this different kind of politics is beginning to get through?

GS: I think so, yes. Previous to this recent discovery of citizens assemblies, we would spend a lot of time talking about citizens juries and citizens panels. Politicians would comment, “Oh that’s a bit small – twenty to thirty people.” But there is something about the magic number of 100 that seems to be doing some work here. It’s been interesting. Citizens juries tend to be 20 to 30 people, working over three or four days. Now we are talking about an assembly of one hundred that meets over four to six week-ends to deal with a topic. That becomes a different kind of beast. And there seems to be a growing recognition now among the political class and democracy activists, that these institutions have virtues that other bodies don’t – albeit that they aren’t the only way of doing participatory politics.

RB: openDemocracy’s 50.50 section was busy investigating the online messaging from foreign sources drawn to the Irish decision on abortion, and determined to defeat the bill. As you say, digital politics with its one-way messaging, however targeted, can be very old politics. But are there ways of creating a wider impact for the democratic process in a citizens assembly that don’t intrude on its own deliberative dynamics? Could there be a wider media impact that is useful?

GS: The impact on a broader public is always a problem, simply because most people can’t spend their time inside the assembly process. You are raising quite an interesting point here which also touches on what happens to the recommendations, the output from a citizens assembly, in terms of impact on that wider public.

A Polish activist, Marcin Gerwin has been working very closely with Polish mayors, in particular with Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdansk, who was tragically assassinated recently. Marcin has run a number of assemblies and has managed to get agreement from the mayor to implement all decisions where 80% agreement is achieved amongst participants. Anywhere between 50 and 80%, the mayor has discretion about whether to implement. These citizens assembly recommendations don’t go back to the public in a referendum. The Assembly is recognised as a legitimate method of decision-making in itself. But of course, recommendations can go to the public, as they did in both Ireland and Canada where the mini-public was linked directly to a referendum. But I have some concerns about this, because you spend all this time in the deliberative space reaching a nuanced decision, and then throw it open to people who have not been through a similar process.

What happened in Ireland was the citizens assembly contributed to a better debate around the abortion issue; the media coverage did appear to influence the wider debate for the better. The Assembly came to around 67% support for abortion, and that was almost exactly the same figure as in the referendum.

The Irish example was surprising to many of us, since highly divisive issues like same sex marriage and abortion are not ones that you would normally put to a referendum. Especially same sex marriage – an issue involving a minority community. Normally you don’t put minority issues to a referendum. But, arguably, the Convention on the Constitution and the Citizens Assembly changed the context. So Roslyn was certainly right about a changing public opinion. But that wasn’t enough.

Have you seen the documentary The 34th, about the Irish campaign for same sex marriage? If you have access to Netflix, watch it – it will make you cry. It is amazing.

RB: I found this definition of deliberation on the Citizen Assembly/Democracy Matters web page you have with UCL:

What is ‘deliberation’?

‘Deliberation’ is long and careful discussion crafted towards making a decision. Deliberative processes emphasise the importance of reflection and informed discussion in decision-making. This allows people to adopt more nuanced positions on the issues at hand, with a better understanding of the trade-offs inherent in a given decision.

For deliberation to be effective it is important that an appropriate amount of time is provided for people to familiarise themselves with the various aspects of a question. While people ought to be exposed to arguments representing contrary positions, they should also be given the time and resources to discuss and reflect on the issues away from the too-easy sloganising of political campaigning. The outcome of a deliberative process should be one in which people feel more able to make an informed decision on a given issue.

I thought it was good, because it captures the importance to democracy of conversation – of people being open to each other’s point of view and the possibility of changing their minds. This is an awareness of democratic potential which seems to have been totally absent from the Brexit process from the moment when Theresa May first uttered those ill-fated words, “Brexit means Brexit”. So apart from the Citizens Assembly of Ireland isn’t it this glaring lack of exchange and ‘considered judgment’ which has contributed to a renewed interest in these deliberative processes?

GS: You know that we did a Citizens Assembly on Brexit in Manchester in September, 2017, led by UCL’s Constitution Unit? It was a “pilot” in many ways. We didn’t have the money to run it over four or five weekends, so we had two weekends and we had to restrict the agenda and the number of participants. We focused on the UK’s future economic relationship with the EU and migration because we thought that would be a good test for the model.

The choice of migration was fascinating as it turned out because participants had no idea that the UK government could actually be much stricter about immigration within EU rules. That was an eye-opener and appears to have led to an entirely new position on migration that our preparatory mapping hadn’t at all predicted. The conversation, which was very ‘British’ in its appeal to fairness, made it clear that what frustrated people most about migration was unfairness. It didn’t seem to be immigration that bothered people as much as whether the rules were right and fair and being implemented fairly. After the legal scholar Professor Catherine Barnard from Cambridge dispelled a few urban myths about EU policy, benefit abuse and so on, we were amazed when the Assembly, with more Leavers than Remainers, came up with a rather liberal view on migration.

We had more than fifty per cent leavers, but very few members wanted a Hard Brexit. We had a couple of extreme anti-immigrationists in the room as you would expect from a diverse group. At each of the small tables we made sure that there was a mix of Leavers and Remainers all the time, so that everyone heard a diversity of positions. At the end of the event, I thought those with strong views on immigration might complain about the process. But one of them came up to me and said that it was absolutely fantastic to take part, “I got to say my piece, I heard what others had to say, including some things which I haven’t heard before. I haven’t really changed my view, but I’m much more understanding. And I lost. That’s the way it goes. It was a good process.” Wow!

The other issue that surfaced was Northern Ireland. We oversampled people from Northern Ireland, six participants in all, and a couple of them kept saying that Brexit looked as if it was going to have huge repercussions for them. On the priorities for a future deal which we asked the whole cohort to produce, Northern Ireland came up as one of the top priorities, which again, we had not anticipated. That was really interesting and a precursor to what followed in the Brexit negotiations.

It was a very interesting exercise. What the citizens came up with during those days of deliberation, the problems they highlighted, have surfaced in all sorts of ways in the weeks and months that followed. But, it was held at entirely the wrong time. We had wanted it to happen earlier, but then May called her election, and when it did run, it coincided with the Conservative Party conference in which everyone started banging on about Hard Brexit. It got lost in that noise.

RB: Isn’t it true that on the issues debated in that assembly, the participants, chosen by sortition to reflect not only the proportions of the referendum vote for leave and remain, but also the demographic spread of the UK population, finally decided that they would indeed opt for a negotiated Brexit, but if that were for some reason unavailable… they were very clear that they would prefer for the time being to stay within the customs union and the single market and think again, so to speak?

GS: Yes. That was actually one of the problems with their recommendations. This represented a rather poor negotiating position for the UK government: “If you don’t give us a bespoke deal, we are going to stay within the single market”…! Nevertheless, the Assembly’s insights could have been picked up as evidence to back up positions held by the Labour Party and at various points by Theresa May – but it wasn’t.

So the recommendations got lost and didn’t have the impact on the Brexit process that we had hoped for. But the project had two aims. One was to influence the Brexit debate by contributing a considered response to the question, if we were going to leave, what should Brexit actually look like? – which by the way is something it would still be nice to know! The second aim was to create a showcase for the citizens’ assembly model. If citizens can talk together about Brexit and come up with useful recommendations, then you can talk about anything. The Irish case had already happened; then Involve, which worked with us on the Brexit Assembly, was commissioned by Sarah Wollaston and Clive Betts, chairs of two Select Committees to run an Assembly on social care. Along with the experience we had from the Brexit Assembly and two earlier assemblies we ran on devolution, we had strong evidence to show that they could work in the UK context.

What really allowed the idea to enter the policy space in the UK was the way the Brexit process was becoming such a disaster. Nobody could avoid that conclusion. This created the space for two or three MPs, Stella Creasy (remainer calling for a second referendum), Lisa Nandy (a leaver) and Caroline Lucas to call for a Citizens Assembly to break the deadlock. These politicians weren’t agreeing about what should happen with Brexit, but they were agreeing that there needed to be a different process.

I was delighted to be a signatory to the letter to the Guardian which was organised by Neal Lawson at Compass calling for a Brexit Assembly. My friends said, “Oh look – nineteen famous people and you!” You’ll appreciate that two days after that letter went into The Guardian, it was picked up by the Daily Mail and the headline was “Luvvies will sort out Brexit!” I can retire happy now!

RB: But that was far from the end of the matter?

GS: I am flabbergasted by the extent to which citizen’s assemblies are in the political discourse at the moment. It’s not just amongst MPs and the political establishment, but right through to Extinction Rebellion (XR). XR’s third demand is a citizens’ assembly to oversee the government response to the climate emergency. It’s been fun working with XR activists to begin to flesh out how that might work.

Meanwhile the letter helped influence the Guardian’s editorial stance towards a citizens assembly and coincided with back benchers proposing ways for Parliament to get out of its stalemate. Our earlier Citizens Assembly on Brexit was long over and no answer to the current deadlock. But Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy were bringing people together to talk about this as an option, and to put forward an amendment in the indicative votes. It did not get selected, which was fortuitous because the timetable suggested it could be done and dusted in ten weeks, which was clearly impossible.

Those of us advising the MPs were consistent in arguing that it needed more time.

What I and others have been emphasising is that citizens assemblies take time, that you just can’t rush them. Moreover, we have never run a citizens assembly in a febrile atmosphere like Brexit has produced. You need buy in from across the political divides. We are in a phase of people thinking , “Ah, citizens assemblies will sort out everything” and inevitably there has to be a rowing back from that position.

RB: How long should such a citizens assembly, as a better way of returning to the people, take?

GS: Six months minimum, maybe longer. But I would also want to know from the start that there was political buy-in.

I think even now you can do a citizens assembly on how you get out of this mess. But it needs time. We would have to say to the EU, “We need to have at least a year.” I think the UK would get a hearing for this approach. Following his rather rushed and unfocused national conversation, President Macron is setting up a mini-public on climate change, so he is clearly into this sort of engagement. But the space for a citizens assembly has to be created. We have to have acceptance from the political parties that this is the right thing to do. It could be done. But the political conditions aren’t there.

RB: And your colleagues who don’t agree with you on this think what?

GS: Quite reasonably, some are really worried that this could be a terrible test case for a citizens assembly, and that the chances of it going badly wrong are high just because of the political context. We know we can run a citizens assembly on such a contested issue, but we do need the context to be right. There is concern that this could put back the cause of citizen assemblies, because the politicians are not ready for it. But at the same time of course XR and the SNP are talking about citizens assemblies, and Graham Allen, the former Nottinghamshire MP, is working with Involve on a citizen–led constitutional convention. The idea is everywhere.

RB: How does Graham Allen’s project fit into this?

GS: As you know, Graham has been working for years to try to realise an idea proposed by people like Stuart White, writing on openDemocracy, of their being a citizen-led constitutional convention which would have citizens assemblies at its heart. Together with King’s College and Involve, he has funding for a scoping project to design the process. They’ve brought in people like myself and Democratic Society to think through how citizens assemblies can be central to the design. Once the design is in places, they can go back to the foundations to say, “OK. Are you going to fund this constitutional convention?” He has buy-in from quite an impressive range of political figures within and outside parliament – although not official support from the political parties.

RB: What about Gordon Brown’s proposal for a rolling People’s Royal Commission on Brexit?

GS: I think he has muddied the waters somewhat. President Macron has recently run a number of assemblies as part of a national conversation on a whole range of problems that France is facing at the moment. Brown wants something similar for the UK. But this may well lead to confusion.

A citizens assembly only really works well when it is given a clear task and where its link to decision making is well understood.

Part Two forthcoming – how to make citizens assemblies work

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. PlutoniumKun

    I can confirm that the Citizens Assembly was a huge success in Ireland – I was deeply sceptical at first, I thought it was just an excuse by the politicians to avoid difficult topics, but it undoubtedly took the ‘sting’ out of very contentious issues. It focused public discussion on the core proposal, not ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and took the extremes on either side out of the debate. The language that emerged was also ‘natural’, it came from regular people who’d thought about the issues, not lawyers or activists. This made it much easier for people who were very uncertain about the issues to decide on their vote in an informed way. The Referendums were far less tortuous and painful because of this – the public discussion was remarkably mature.

    In addition, btw, to marriage equality and abortion, it also let to an overwhelming vote last month to liberalise divorce laws.

    It also has the important role in taking pressure off politicians – these issues tend to be seen as ‘no win’ topics for them, so they do their best to avoid them.

    It is entirely different from ‘digital democracy’, which is an appalling concept, its not democracy at all, just a form of mob rule. The essence of a Citizens Assembly is that a representative group of ordinary people listen, talk, and discuss openly topics that they’d never had to deal with before. While there is certainly an element of ‘steering’ in the choice in experts to brief them, they outcomes have been very considered and sensible.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      The “fieldwork” i do out of habit is like an ad hoc version of this, sometimes…when it’s at it’s best, at least.
      democracy, debate, discourse all has to be a part of our collective lifestyle for it to work best.
      not this run to a polling place every so often, and then go back to your ordinary workaday.
      from the feedstore and produce aisle, i think that there’s an unconscious hunger for such engagement, but people don’t know how.
      out here, the only experience of this sort of thing(beyond the sometimes lively city council meetings) are the various civic clubs(lions, the red hat ladies, the “sorority”, etc)…but these are dominated by “organiser” types—busybodies who run the show…which seems to be offputting to many people.
      and they are also populated mainly by the better off.
      Lions is the most egalitarian, and least doctrinaire.
      i think my secret agoraphobia(i talk when i’m nervous) serendipitously clicked into that gap. I wish i had the time, the body(i’m toast by the time everybody else is free) and the balls(and patience!) to start a philosophy club or something, so as to introduce a habit of deliberative discourse out here in the hinterlands.

  2. Clive

    Yet again, I’m scratching my head as to why there’s any incomprehension about how Remain has failed to make any headway since June 2016. To say that the main reason why Remain keeps failing is solely down to Remain’ers might be a little harsh, but this Open Democracy article does a lot of heavy lifting for me on that notion.

    There was a referendum. Remain lost. It has spent three years unable to come to terms with that loss. The longer it spends trying to change the past, the more it appears to be suffering from an incurable case of sore-loserdom and the less credibility it retains. But still it keeps on trying. At no point prior to the referendum — when each “side” figured they would or could win — did either posit that a referendum might not be the best way of resolving the matter, or at least putting it to the public to opine on. During the referendum there was a campaign. Many attempted to influence opinion so as to create what was supposedly an informed population. But none at the time were especially trusted, most were actively disbelieved (a trend which has only gotten worse since).

    So, having concluded that the referendum result was as a result of an ill-informed populous, after all, we can’t have people coming to a conclusion we think “isn’t right”, now, can we? — which neatly circumvents the proponents of a Citizens’ Assembly’s responsibility for how the public started off as ill-informed in the first place and then stayed ill-informed during the referendum campaign — and thus toxifying the concept of the referendum, we now find that having failed to convince enough people of the benefits of a second referendum (which would, presumably, in the minds of those who want the question reopened again have concluded is now not going to achieve their aims of reversing the original vote) we get this, in effect, re-branding of a second referendum.

    But without the baggage (which they helped create) around referenda and also the added benefit of tweaking the starting conditions — you get “the right sort of people” participating and deplorables who might have views on,say, immigration get subjected to a bit of group peer pressure — as groups tend to coalesce around a middle ground.

    At least they had sufficient self-awareness of how the Daily Mail savaged the whole concept in a headline.

    In what might well be a first, I’m with Politico on how dumb this all is

    I often wonder to myself if, instead of endlessly trying and failing to wrestle a victory from the jaws of defeat, Remain had, instead, simply stayed silent, said nothing and merely let Leave’ers continue on their merry way from June 2016. I have a distinct hunch that Leave would have quite possibly — if not collapsed then at least got bogged down — then ended up failing to agree among itself and be floundering on its own internal contradictions. But no. Remain continues to give Leave something to resist against, thereby continuing to unite, re-energize and reactivate it.

    1. Carolinian

      “Whatever you’re for I’m against it” (Groucho Marx song).

      The Athenians had direct democracy but it didn’t last long. Meanwhile here in the “republic if you can keep it” things are going to hell in a handbasket as Trump threatens to become our own mad king George (over Iran) and the Congress that is supposed to keep him in check thinks he should instead be attacking Russia. Ordinary people seem to have very little say indeed.

      1. Clive

        Yes indeed-ey. The elephant in the room here. It really doesn’t matter if its a referendum, a congressional election, a “peoples” “assembly” or my mother-in-law’s cat asked to be proxy-deciding by choosing whether to eat what’s put in her feeding dish (or not), if the legislature is — as here in good ole’ Blighty, too — either hopelessly captured by special interests, beholden to party machinations, dishonest, taciturn or in a seemingly constant battle with the executive (or all of these) then it matters not a jot how public views and wishes are discussed, determined and collated.

        For example, how many times does the US legislature need to be told “We. Want. Single. Payer” (or medicare for all, or however you want to phrase an expression of “something better than the awful mess we have right now”) ? Will it ever enact that and honour those wishes? Not a chance. No matter how many Citizens Assemblies, petitions, campaigns or elections you hold.

        And yes, you”ll have Mad King Donald go messin’ with Venezuela or hassling Iran, regardless of what you or anyone there might think of the subject.

        1. Synoia

          Recent world Kings:

          Mad King Donald
          Mendacious King Obama
          Stupid King George
          NAFTA King Bill
          MIC Machine King George
          Alzheimer’s King Regan
          Dixiecrat King Carter

  3. RBHoughton

    What a fine discussion NC – many thanks. Why is it always this site that stirs the intellect?

    So pleased to see an explanation of the word ‘deliberation’ – something Legislators claim to do when they confuse it with declamation.

    Please send hundreds of copies to Legislators everywhere.

  4. Paul P

    The HBO film on Brexit showed a thin relationship between
    the political parties and the population. When Dominick Cummings, the campaign organizer for the Leave campaign, meets with a couple in their home, they are amazed no ‘official’ has contacted them in 10 or 15 years. The same lack of relationship exists in the US. A few years ago, someone from NYS
    Working Families Party knocked on my door and asked for a donation. I asked him why he wasn’t contacting me to put me in contact with others in the neighborhood to get involved in some way. No real answer was forthcoming. In my job, I had the opportunity to join a union. Our union organized a yearly trip to Albany to lobby on issues, but never broke the membership down into election districts and organized ongoing local visits to representatives coupled with ongoing education on issues. Assemblies have their place. But, deliberation would be served by
    making deliberation a part of the political process. I like to ask people whether they know the names of their city, state, and federal representatives and whether they have ever visited them to discuss issues. Too many people can’t name their representatives.

    1. Clive

      A big criticism of the U.K. parliamentary system is that there are “too many” representatives. There may be some downsides to having 650 representatives for a country of only 66 million people, but the c. 100,000:1 ratio does at least mean that your representative is reasonably accessible and not too thinly spread.

      I’ve contacted my parliamentary representative on three occasions. Each time I’ve received a detailed (about a page long) reply that wasn’t too generic. One in particular was very specific and tailored to my enquiry.

      In two cases (one was against unrestricted and pointless offshoring of labour, one to ask that Greece be taken off the torture rack it was tied to by the ECB, one was to support the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement) being the wretched Conservatives, I didn’t agree at all with the reply I received but for one about the Withdrawal Agreement, as my MP is a government minister and this was government policy, he said he’d be supporting it.

      Others I’ve spoken to report similar engagement levels from the representative here.

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