Citizens’ assemblies are as ancient as democracy itself, yet, they have received increasing attention in recent years. Assemblies are repeatedly mentioned as a solution for the most troublesome policy debates and the decreasing trust in democratic institutions. Are they a passing trend or lasting change?
A citizens’ assembly is a group of people brought together to learn about a specific policy challenge, deliberate on possible action and eventually formulate a policy recommendation for the government. This method of deliberative democracy stems from circa 500s B.C: in ancient Athens, men from all classes were randomly selected to participate in large debates on public policy.
Nowadays, citizen assemblies are used to involve citizens in sensitive societal debates. Participants are chosen randomly, but the weighting is then applied to ensure that the selection is representative of the wider population in terms of age, ethnicity, education level, geographic location, and gender. As these citizens are not necessarily experts on the issues at hand, they receive assistance to examine it from different perspectives. The inquiry phase contains meetings with competing interest groups, hearing the voices of those affected by the issue and Q&A’s with experts. Over the course of days or weeks, they move into the deliberation phase using both small-group discussions and larger debates. In the final phase, the citizens’ assembly is expected to make a clear policy recommendation to the government.
Why are citizens’ assemblies relevant now?
“If we want to preserve our democratic freedoms for ourselves and for generations to come we must reinvent democracy by enabling more direct citizen participation in political decision making. Citizens’ assemblies are a great way to do so.”George Zarkadakis
Due to the eroding trust in democratic institutions, our system desperately needs to modernize its ways. Many (local) governments are turning to methods of citizen participation of which assemblies are becoming increasingly popular. The most well-known and impactful case, without a doubt, is Ireland’s citizens’ assembly: it led to a (successful) referendum on same-sex marriage in 2014 and removing the 8th amendment on abortion in 2017. These two constitutional changes dealt with nationally sensitive topics that politicians had skirted around for a long time – and exemplify the possible impact assemblies can have on profound policy discussions.
As a result, people have called for more citizens’ assemblies on other dividing policy questions, like the climate crisis and Brexit. And with success: the UK and France have already used citizen assemblies to identify innovative and fair solutions to the climate crisis. As for Brexit: after the referendum, Scotland established an assembly to address the topic of independence and multiple Brits have called for a citizens’ assembly as well. Ironically, there was already a citizens’ assembly on Brexit before the referendum. A representative sample of 50 citizens met in Manchester to discuss the issue in September 2017. Their conclusion? A soft Brexit or no Brexit at all.
Even fruitful methods have their flaws…
The Brexit citizens’ assembly immediately illustrates the method’s biggest limitation: the execution of recommendations is dependent on politicians. Fruitless citizens’ assemblies are defined by governments that neglected policy proposals, like the electoral reform recommendations of a 2006 Dutch citizens’ assembly. Even the Irish assembly, which proved groundbreaking in legalizing abortion, has issued recommendations on climate change that have not yet had an impact. There are other concerns as well, such as if it’s actually inclusive (as participation requires time and political interest) and whether citizens can understand issues to a sufficient extent. These two worries, however, are easy to address: citizens can be compensated for participation and can obtain sufficient knowledge if given time, resources, and expert assistance. Besides, it’s not like elected leaders are always as competent as one would like.
So, what’s the benefit?
The real problem we need to solve is thus politicians’ willingness to establish assemblies and implement its recommendations. Luckily, it’s exactly those politicians who can benefit hugely from citizens’ assemblies. Here’s how:
- Popularity isn’t part of the equation: whether they like it or not, politicians have to take re-election into account – especially when it comes to sensitive policy topics. Consequently, they’re constrained by these short-term goals, which can conflict with long-term decision making. Assemblies thus provide a real opportunity: citizens deliberate without caring about the popular vote and can easily take unpopular decisions if needed. Afterward, politicians can even refer to the fact that representative citizens have come to this conclusion in case a decision needs to be justified.
- Collective intelligence to the rescue: polarisation can result in sensitive policy debates getting stuck. It can be challenging to get a stranded debate going again via day-to-day debate. Citizens’ assemblies offer the potential for opening up the debate by tapping into the collective intelligence and creativity of individuals. Herein, they can offer a fresh way forward in polarised debates.
- Taking participation to the next level: careful citizen deliberations help citizens understand the complexity and trade-offs in policy dilemmas. The combination of ownership and education empowers them to become invested and knowledgeable in a certain policy field. Other forms of participation, like online consultation and referenda, may have the potential to reach more citizens directly, but they can suffer from uninformed opinions, a low turn-out rate or end up not being representative. Does that make them useless? Absolutely not. It’s not about finding one way for citizens to participate, it’s about creating multiple opportunities to do so. The end game should always be to improve the legitimacy of your local policy decisions, which can best be done by combining methods of participation.
“The atmosphere was friendly but serious – we were proud to have been given an important task. We wanted to take in all the information, help shape the debate and make solid recommendations that were representative of our views at the end of a period of deep learning about the topics.”Louise Caldwell, participant Irish citizen assembly
Where to go from here?
Citizens’ assemblies do not solve all of the difficulties democracy is facing, but they can serve as a helping hand forward. Moreover, we shouldn’t stop experimenting there! In 2019, the smallest European federal identity, the German-speaking region of Belgium, launched a permanent citizens’ council. 24 Randomly chosen Germanophones took their seats with the power to tell elected officials which issues matter, and for each such issues to task a citizen assembly. In this Ostbelgien Model, traditional decision-makers remain to have the final say, but citizens are allowed to come up with the agenda. That’s what you call direct democracy in action!
Ready to launch a citizens’ assembly in your city? This guide by MASSLPB or the method overview by Participedia may come in handy. You can always mix in-person discussions with online deliberations and digital participation methods by using our online workshop feature. If you want to know more, don’t hesitate to reach out!