How does the sortition procedure work for citizens' assemblies? How big should a citizens' assembly be and what are the costs? How are experts selected and who moderates citizens' assemblies? We answer these and other questions here.
Many people associate the term "citizens' dialogue" or "participation" with elaborate hearing procedures in which a few selected and interested people have their say and whose results disappear in drawers at the end. Even dialogues or surveys started with the best of intentions often come to nothing because it is not exactly clear what is supposed to happen with the results. Citizens' assemblies work differently.
Citizens' assemblies rely on randomly selecting people. Participants are randomly selected from the population registers and invited to take part in a citizens' assembly - with compensation, of course. In the evenings or at weekends, the participants meet to outline the issues in the large group and to discuss details in small groups and find solutions. Experts provide them with all the necessary information so that everyone has the same level of knowledge. The experts are selected from a wide range of people from politics and science, from the media or from associations, so that they do not only receive information from a certain bubble.
Citizens' Assemblies are a reflection of the population. This is because the group of participants is put together from the applications of those invited by random selection in such a way that it corresponds to the composition of the population according to criteria such as age, gender, education, place of residence and migration background. As a result, the people in a citizens' assembly bring with them a wide variety of life experiences and perspectives. This diversity ensures a high level of discussion and high-quality results.
Citizens' assemblies are not composed of the "usual suspects" who often dominate other participation processes. Lobbyists and interest groups also have no place in the discussion groups. However, as groups with expertise, they can serve as knowledge brokers in citizens' assemblies.
The assembly participants develop recommendations for solving current problems or political conflicts in a consensus-oriented and cooperative manner. These recommendations are summarised in a citizens' report and submitted to the responsible local council or parliament for consideration. Citizens' assemblies thus play an advisory role in representative democracy. They can serve as a compass for political decisions.
For a citizens' assembly, a predetermined number of people are drawn at random from the population registers of cities and municipalities. These are contacted by institutes commissioned to conduct the citizens' assembly with an invitation to the citizens' assembly. The participants in the citizens' assembly should be distributed according to criteria such as place of residence, size of place of residence, age, gender, level of education and migration background in such a way that they approximately represent the population.
In the case of a nationwide citizens' assembly, the distribution among the federal states should correspond to the share of the federal states in the total population. In the case of a citizens' assembly in a federal state, this applies accordingly to the population distribution there. In a second round of selection, the institutes accompanying the Citizens' Assembly therefore put together a group of people from the group of those randomly selected who have responded to the invitation, which is a reflection of the population according to the criteria mentioned above.
Sortition-based citizen participation has been implemented in Germany since the 1970s under the concept of "planning cell". This is a well-established participation concept that is more formalised than a citizens' assembly, has a smaller number of participants and fewer meetings. Moreover, participants are not selected through a two-stage random selection process. Overviews of previous procedures can be found at aleatorische-demokratie.de, IDPF.eu and planungszelle.de. More recently, sortition-based citizens' assemblies at the municipal level and initiatives on the topic have also become increasingly established, as can be seen in this overview.
You can only solve a problem in the best possible way if you look at it from many perspectives. You only get these perspectives if you set up a diverse problem-solving group. Because you have to listen to different opinions, the effort is higher at the beginning. Communication is also more difficult when, for example, people with different levels of education meet. But the effort is worth it because you get much better results in the end. You see things in advance that you would not have thought of in a group of very similar people and that would otherwise have become a problem later.
One of the strengths of citizens' assemblies is the diversity of their participants. Citizens' assembly members come from the most diverse social strata of the population. They are retired, in the middle of their working lives or still in school. They are equal parts male and female or sometimes diverse. They have studied or have no school-leaving qualifications. They come from villages as well as megacities. And they are long-established or their parents or they themselves immigrated to Germany. Some like to be in the limelight, others are more introverted.
Citizens' assemblies give space to the diversity of people. It is not only a matter of having a diverse line-up of participants, but also of giving each individual citizens' assembly member a voice. Especially the quieter, the more introverted, the younger, the more cautious. They are consciously encouraged to express their opinions. Different points of view are not only allowed, but also valued.
This is how high quality results are achieved in the end.
The sortition procedure ensures that basically all people have the same chance to participate in a citizens' assembly. For this purpose, a selection is made once again from all those randomly selected who express interest in participating: The participants in the Citizens' Assembly were selected according to criteria such as age, gender, educational, place of residence and migration background in such a way that it corresponds as closely as possible to the distribution of people in the area in which the Citizens' Council takes place.
In order to enable as many people as possible to participate, those drawn by lot will be addressed in easy-to-understand language. Travel and accommodation costs are covered and meals are provided. All participants receive an expense allowance. If necessary, care for children or other dependents will be provided. The venues are barrier-free, i.e. also accessible for wheelchair users. People drawn by lot who do not respond to their invitation can also be visited in person or contacted by telephone to motivate them to participate, to explain why their participation is important and to clarify any concerns they may have.
Citizens' assemblies are in principle open to all. The requirements that people have to fulfil in order to get into the lottery can be regulated individually or generally laid down by law.
If citizens' assemblies are a legally regulated and constantly used instrument of democracy, it also makes sense to regulate the conditions for participation in general. In doing so, one can orientate oneself on the circle of those entitled to vote in each case, but does not have to do so. For example, only Germans aged 18 and over are eligible to vote in federal elections, but a citizens' assembly could also include people without a German passport, or young people under 18.
In some federal states, the minimum age for participation in state elections and referendums is 16. The same applies to local elections and citizens' referendums in a number of federal states. In some states, citizens' petitions can be signed by young people as young as 14. In addition, all EU citizens without a German passport who are registered as primary residents in a municipality are entitled to vote in municipal elections and referendums. Residents' motions addressed to the municipal council may even be signed by all people resident in the respective municipality, regardless of nationality. This could then also be a point of reference for citizens' assemblies in the respective federal states and municipalities.
It would also be possible to include homeless people without a registration address and refugees in citizens' assembly, for example, so that they can also contribute their perspectives. A contingent of seats was kept free for such population groups at the randomly selected Democracy Convention 2019 in Frankfurt/Main, for example.
There is no fixed scale for the number of participants in citizens' assemblies according to the size of the municipality or country. The number of participants depends on the goal of the process and the resources available.
The discussions on the respective citizens' assembly topic take place in moderated small groups of 7 - 8 people. The more complex the issue, the more time is required. For some issues, a diversity represented by 20 participants can be sufficient, so that there are no additional costs for a larger number of participants including moderation.
Other questions, on the other hand, need a larger number of participants in order to represent the necessary diversity of perspectives and to be able to highlight the social controversy on the topic. A higher number of participants can also increase the acceptance of the process.
Citizens' assemblies are generally larger than planning cells, which usually consist of only 25 people, because they are as representative as possible of the reference population. The size is limited by costs and manageability. A citizens' assembly with 1,000 participants in one place, for example, would be very expensive and not very practicable, whereas a size of 100 participants has become established at the (supra-)regional level.
The number of days a citizens' assembly meets depends on the topic and the resources available for it. For example, a citizens' assembly on climate change with its many sub-topics will need more time for information and discussion than an assembly on the redesign of a market place. It is also important how much funding is available to hold a citizens' assembly. The more money there is, the longer an assembly can meet. The duration of existing citizens' assemblies varies from one weekend to several weekend meetings within several months.
When planning a citizens' assembly, the question should always be answered as to how much time at least is needed for meaningful information and discussion of the chosen topic, without knowledge transfer and debate coming up short. On the other hand, citizens' assemblies should not meet too often. The longer a citizens' assembly lasts, the more people are unable to participate due to private or professional commitments. Moreover, the longer a citizens' assembly lasts, the more likely it is that groups with different opinions and spokespersons will form within the participants. This effect is detrimental to the process, the quality of which is based on an exchange between all on an equal footing and without power imbalances.
The biggest cost of a citizens' assembly is the process support and implementation of the procedure by an institute. The selection process and the postal invitations, on the other hand, are not as significant. In addition to the expenses for the meetings, there are usually preparatory discussions with the administration, for example, which are also remunerated. A lump sum can also be agreed for follow-up work. In addition, there are expenses for the participants (catering, conference costs). It is often helpful to pay an expense allowance (about 30 to 70 euros per meeting). This can be used to reimburse parking fees, childcare or other costs. Depending on how the results of the citizens' assembly are recorded, it may be advisable to have the results printed as a booklet or brochure. Depending on the number of pages, the print run and the quality of the printing, the costs can quickly run into four figures.
However, the federal, state and local governments often conduct their own participation processes. Whether they invite people to an event via posters and Facebook or write to people randomly selected from the registration register does not have to make a big difference in costs. The additional costs are then really only the postage.
According to Prof. Hans-Joachim Lietzmann of the Institute for Democracy and Participation Research at the University of Wuppertal, another more general calculation shows that costs of 1,000 to 1,500 euros per participant can be expected for four days of meetings.
Conclusion: Here, too, the answer is difficult and depends on the local circumstances and the demands made on the process.
When considering the costs, it should be noted that the alternative to a citizens' assembly is rarely a zero option. If no citizens' assembly takes place, another participation or planning procedure is often necessary with similarly high or even higher costs, which may bring qualitatively less good results.
Planning procedures for infrastructure or urban development projects, for example, are particularly cost-intensive when external companies are commissioned to prepare concepts. The same applies to external advice in legislation. In 2020, for example, the federal government sought advice from companies and law firms for 433.5 million euros. In contrast, a nationwide citizens' assembly is very cheap in comparison. The Citizens' Assembly on Democracy cost 1.4 million euros and the Citizens' Assembly on "Germany's Role in the World" 1.8 million euros. It should be noted that such experimental pilot projects are more expensive as "one-offs" than "mass-produced" assemblies.
Not investing in citizen participation can also have financial revenge. If projects are not accepted by the population due to a lack of participation, the costs of enforcing them against demonstrations and strikes as well as in court proceedings are very high very quickly. The social consequence is the development of a feeling of powerlessness in the population, along with less trust in democracy and the state. Without citizens' participation, the danger of wrong decisions and the resulting bad investments is higher.
Citizen participation, on the other hand, prevents the development of conflicts and strengthens people's identification with their political system, which thus benefits twice over. Another advantage is the permanent activation of citizens' assembly participants, who continue to be involved in democracy and the common good, at least in part, even after the end of the assembly. In citizens' assemblies they could experience that they are politically competent, that they are listened to and that their contribution is effective. These are experiences that most people do not otherwise have in their lives. This experience is formative.
For all these reasons, citizens' assemblies are a worthwhile investment.
Citizens' assemblies, like other participation processes, should be financed by the federal government, the state or the municipality, depending on the topic and responsibility. However, if politics and administration are not yet willing to cooperate, a citizens' assembly can be financed as a pilot project, e.g. through foundation funds, donations from wealthy citizens, local businesses or through appeals for donations and crowdfunding campaigns on the internet. To support crowdfunding campaigns, there are portals where one only has to post one's own fundraising campaign with text and pictures in order to be able to advertise it.
The determination of the topics of citizens' assemblies can be done in different ways. On the one hand, the government or parliament can determine the topic. In addition, people who have already been drawn at random, experts, members of parliament, and associations and organizations can be asked about aspects that they would like to see discussed in the citizens' assembly, which has previously determined the topic.
In the German-speaking Community in East Belgium, a committee made up of people drawn at random determines the topics. The government, parliament and citizens can make suggestions. In Vorarlberg, Austria, and in the Polish city of Gdansk, citizens with a certain number of signatures can convene a citizens' council themselves.
An issue suitable for a citizens' assembly should first fall within the decision-making competence of the responsible parliament or municipal council. A municipal citizens' assembly on education policy, for example, would not make sense, but on a local offer of school types that is satisfactory for all.
Moreover, a question should be answerable by the participants in the given time and under the available resources. If the federal government, a state or a municipality has little time and money available for a citizens' assembly, a particularly concrete question is needed. It is particularly important that the more concrete the questions, the clearer the recommendations. Abstract and very open questions, such as "How do we imagine the future in our neighbourhood?" will receive very broad answers that are less likely to be directly incorporated into political work.
In general, it is particularly helpful to use citizens' assemblies for issues where there is conflict in the population or where no solution satisfactory to the large majority could be found with previous political means.
For people who have not been randomly selected to participate in a citizens' assembly, there are various other ways to participate. For example, interested people can contribute their ideas and suggestions via a website. Their proposals then flow into the deliberations of the citizens' assembly members.
Another possibility is to hold citizens' cafés, where interested people are informed about the results of a citizens' assembly after it has ended. There they can comment on the formulated recommendations and make suggestions for improvement that can be incorporated into the overall result.
Furthermore, it is possible to offer events parallel to a citizens' assembly that are open to all interested parties. The same issues would be discussed there as in the citizens' assembly. The results of the citizens' assembly and open citizens' meetings would be brought together and fed into the deliberations of the municipal council or parliament.
If one wants to take into account people who are particularly affected by a topic, one can have them consult among themselves in so-called focus groups in order to bring the views, opinions and ideas of these groups into the process. For example, farmers could be invited to a focus group on the "future of agriculture", or care staff to the topic "future of care". The results of these focus groups then feed into the deliberations of the citizens' assembly.
Participation in citizens' assemblies does not require any special prior knowledge. During the assembly meetings, the participants are informed by experts about the topic under discussion in all necessary details. In the end, everyone has the same level of knowledge. Through lectures and discussion among themselves, the participants form an opinion.
Because they are not experts, citizens' assembly participants can approach a topic in an unbiased way. Their opinions have not yet been solidified. All experiences show that people who participate in citizens' assembly are very motivated and willing to inform themselves and to engage in discussions. They often do this outside the assembly by consulting sources such as TV, newspapers, books and the internet. All participants are aware of the fact that they enjoy a privilege of participation. Accordingly, they take their task seriously.
Studies show that the more people think they are already competent or even consider themselves experts, the less willing they are to correct their opinions. This effect is avoided in citizens' assemblies.
The experts appearing in a citizens' assembly are selected by a body that is specifically founded for the organisation of the assembly. A so-called accompanying or track group can be set up, consisting of members of parliament or municipal council, the administration, citizens' initiatives, concerned civil society actors (e.g. associations) or well-known personalities (locally e.g. the pastor or the pharmacist).
This group, which should consist of no more than 8 - 10 people, would have the sole task of advising and accompanying the process. Conflicts can be negotiated and resolved here. This also includes the selection of the advising experts. In principle, it makes sense to clarify in preliminary discussions with those affected or interest groups which experts would be suitable. If necessary, the citizens' assembly participants can also be given the opportunity to invite further experts themselves during the ongoing process.
The selection of experts to present in a citizens' assembly is based on the following criteria:
1. thematic competence/expertise
2. balance of expert voices on a topic / as far as possible all viewpoints and perspectives should be represented
3. good general comprehensibility/ability to explain clearly
4. diversity (different genders, age groups, institutions, domestic/foreign, people of colour considered).
In citizens' assemblies, the actual debates take place in small groups to which neither the experts nor the media or politicians have access. This ensures that an honest and open-ended discussion can unfold in a protected space and that no one has to worry about "embarrassing" or "undesirable" statements. The role of the experts, like the entire citizens' assembly process, is also often observed, evaluated and assessed by independent scientific institutes.
In a citizens' assembly, people with a wide range of political opinions have their say. Especially in the small group discussions, views are also expressed that reflect the entire spectrum from the left, progressive to the conservative to the more right-wing spectrum of opinion.However, by gaining expertise and interacting with people with different opinions, more moderate and more public-spirited positions ultimately prevail.
The 2019 America in One Room project in the US showed how deliberative processes in the form of citizens' assemblies can even help participants to move away from extreme political positions and become more understanding of other opinions during the process. Participants received comprehensive and balanced information on five topics: Immigration, the economy, health care, foreign policy and the environment. Over the course of four days, they discussed these issues in small facilitated groups and larger plenary sessions.
Participants completed a detailed questionnaire before and after the event. After participating in America in One Room, participants had moved towards the political centre on almost every issue. In addition, the proportion of participants who thought that American democracy "works well" doubled. The proportion who thought that people with different opinions had "good reasons" for doing so increased by 20 percentage points. The effects also persisted in the long term.
There are institutes that specialise in the implementation of participation processes. They train their own facilitators or contract external people with facilitation experience for the process. The moderator ensures, among other things, that all citizens' assembly participants have an equal say in discussions and that experts convey their knowledge in a factual and comprehensible manner.
The Citizen Participation Network offers an overview of professional providers of citizen participation on its website.
Citizens' assemblies provide politicians with an orientation on how an average of the population thinks about a current political issue after comprehensive information and discussion. The results of citizens' assemblies allow an assessment of which measures a majority of the population would support on issues such as climate protection, care or pension reform. The recommendations formulated in a citizens' assembly can serve as a helpful compass for political decisions in councils and parliaments.
Citizens' assembly members learn how complicated political decision-making processes sometimes are. They learn about the dilemmas that MPs often find themselves in when making decisions. This leads to a change in the attitude of assembly participants towards the work of MPs, which is viewed with more respect.
Almost all MPs and councillors have issues they are particularly passionate about. Often, however, these do not receive enough attention in the councils and parliaments. Or a decision on them is blocked due to ideological differences or it turns out unsatisfactory. If the population also sees this critically, a citizens' assembly can find a viable solution for problems that have not been dealt with or have been dealt with unsatisfactorily. This also opens up new ways for elected representatives to achieve a broad debate on an issue that is important to them.
Another argument: Politicians are often confronted with the accusation that they decide far away from the concerns of the people "out there" and leave important issues completely out of the equation. The success of politically extreme individuals and movements comes, among other things, from the fact that people experience politics as far removed from their everyday lives. Even many people with moderate political views find politics remote and no longer tangible. In citizens' assemblies, politics and the people are connected from the beginning. When politics discusses important issues directly with the people, it sends a positive signal and strengthens trust in politics again.
For administrations, citizens' assemblies have the advantage that the interaction between administrative staff and citizens is characterised by objectivity rather than emotionality. This is not the case in many normal public hearings. The expertise available in administrations is recognised. Citizens' assemblies usually offer more time for consultation than other participation events because they are held over several sessions. For the participants, this allows for a more intensive engagement with the subject matter and a deeper understanding of the effects of planning. Planning alternatives can be discussed in detail. Information deficits are reduced. This develops an understanding for the work of administrations.
Criticism of planning by citizens is transformed into a constructive analysis of the planning problem and into appropriate proposals for solutions. Through sortition, public interest-oriented citizens' participation takes place beyond the participation of those directly affected by a planning process. This is why citizens' assemblies are particularly suitable for accompanying public planning.
The citizens who dedicate their precious time to this project can be very sure that the results will not come to nothing, but will be taken seriously by the politicians. If a citizens' assembly takes place on the initiative of politicians or the population, all sides are involved in the process and interested in the outcome. Bundled in a citizens' report, citizens' assembly recommendations are also taken notice of by politicians and the media.
Citizens' assemblies are a forum of people from very different backgrounds who discuss with each other at eye level. Consensus-oriented solutions to current problems are found through cooperative collaboration. The interaction is respectful and characterised by appreciation. All participants have an equal say. This experience strengthens confidence in one's own competence. Participants in the citizens' assembly experience themselves and their contributions to the discussion as effective. This often leads to assembly participants remaining politically interested and active even after the end of their assembly, which they sometimes were not before. Citizens' assemblies are therefore a very unique and valuable experience for most participants.
Citizens' assemblies are designed in such a way that they do not only represent a certain bubble, but include a cross-section of the entire population. They deliberately address those who are frustrated with politics, who feel that they are not being heard and who think that a lot is going wrong at the moment.
The basic conviction is that it is important and right to talk to each other - about issues, not about opinions or personalities - as long as certain rules of interaction are respected. It goes without saying that there is no place for statements that are misanthropic, racist, contemptuous of minorities, glorify violence or are disrespectful - from whatever political direction - either in the events to identify issues or in the small groups that discuss solutions.
It's true - people from socially weaker backgrounds participate in politics less often than people with higher educational qualifications and good security. A citizens' assembly offers the chance to integrate even those who are not actually politically engaged. Through random selection, a wide variety of people come together.
The practice of citizens' assemblies in other countries shows that after a "warm-up phase" everyone gets involved, no one makes themselves small or does not dare to speak, and no one abuses the discussions as a "stage". The allowance for expenses and the organisation of care for children or relatives ensure that everyone can afford to participate in a citizens' assembly.
Since the members of citizens' assemblies are not elected, they have no decision-making power. Their recommendations are formally non-binding. In principle, however, it is possible for a parliament or municipal council to decide to deal with the results even before a citizens' assembly begins. Participants should be able to present the results of the citizens' assembly in the parliament or municipal council or in the relevant committees. For this purpose, they can be called in as guests or "knowledgeable citizens".
It is important that someone sees to it that the administration and council deal with the results and give feedback on which recommendations they adopt and which they do not. At the local level, however, it is up to the local council as well as the citizens to decide whether to initiate a referendum on the results. There is no legal possibility to decide in advance to call a direct-democratic vote on the outcome of a citizens' assembly. The municipal council could, however, announce such a thing in advance out of a political will.
Experience shows, however, that the recommendations of a citizens' assembly are not formulated in such a way that a question could be formulated from them that could be answered in a referendum with a simple "yes" or "no" - at least this cannot be assumed. However, initiatives can formulate concrete citizens' initiatives from the proposals of a citizens' assembly if its recommendations are not implemented.
It is often worthwhile to think from the problem: What political problem is there that you do not see satisfactorily solved so far, but which a citizens' assembly could help to solve? If there are other ways to tackle the problem (e.g. an open letter from local actors, citizens' motions to the city council or citizens' petitions), these should also be considered.
Since it is always particularly difficult to work alone, the first step should always be to find like-minded people to work with and share the work. For example, depending on their talents, skills and interests, activists can divide themselves into areas of work such as lobbying, press work, online editing for their own website, social media editing, networking, material and video production, information stand work, etc.
You should approach all people who could be useful for convening a citizens' assembly. In addition to politicians, administrators and the media, these are also people who are well known, have authority or enjoy trust, e.g. as clergy, artists, sportsmen and women, etc. And of course it makes sense to cooperate with citizens' assembly experts and get advice from them.
The term "citizens' assembly" is not clearly defined and leads to false associations for many people, especially because it is quickly understood as an "alternative to the city council or the parliament". Others associate it with a certain party or political direction. That is why it is important to inform the population comprehensively about the qualities of the process. It should be pointed out in particular that this is a new form of citizen participation, which should not be confused with direct democracy, as it is a consultative, i.e. advisory, form of participation.
Often there are already participation offerings: Here it can make sense to apply the principle of random selection to the existing procedures. If a participation process is planned anyway, it could be suggested to randomly select the participants instead of the usual interest-based participation. After all, politicians and administrators are sometimes disappointed that only those who are committed anyway and have the necessary time and resources tend to participate. In this way, it may be possible to find support for the alternative of drawing lots in administration and politics.
You can find an overview of already existing citizens' assembly initiatives here.