Reading a book can determine the course of one's life. After Claudia Chwalisz read the book "Against Elections" by the Belgian historian David van Reybrouck, she was so enthusiastic about randomly selected citizens' assemblies that she now devotes herself to the subject professionally.
At the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the political scientist has been working on this topic for several years now. At the autumn conference on deliberative democracy on 18-19 November 2021 in Eupen, Belgium, Chwalisz shared her expert knowledge with the participants. David van Reybrouck was also present and interviewed the Canadian-born researcher, who now lives in Paris, on the results of her research.
OECD study on citizens' assemblies
Chwalisz presented the results of a study on citizens' assemblies conducted by the OECD under her leadership to the 30 or so participants at the conference organised by the Belgian organisation G1000 in the venerable Heidberg Monastery. The OECD found the most cases of randomly selected citizens' assemblies in Germany and Australia. Germany is at the top of the table partly because Prof. Peter Dienel revived the sortition democracy already practised in ancient Athens in the 1970s and created practical cases of application under the name "planning cell".
The most common topics of citizens' assemblies were urban planning, health, environment and infrastructure. However, referring to a citizens' assembly list on the site Buergerrat.de, van Reybrouck also pointed out that in recent years the number of climate assemblies has "exploded". According to Chwalisz, Ireland is the country with the most national citizens' assemblies. However, because their use is not regulated by law in any way, the application of this democratic instrument can be stopped there at any time by a new government.
Representative participants make informed decisions
For Chwalisz, citizens' assemblies are important because representative groups of participants make informed decisions and find common ground. Not all population groups are represented there all the time, but there is a high diversity of people with very different walks of life and perspectives in citizens' assemblies.
But how do you get randomly selected people excited about participating in citizens' assemblies? "Getting people there is the big challenge," says Chwalisz. The form of the invitation, for example, is an important element. It should look like the invitation to a wedding. One participant explained that even the colour of the paper on which the invitation is printed can have an effect. It was agreed that all participants of a citizens' assembly should feel comfortable and actually involved.
How to select participants?
There was also discussion about how to do the random selection. Linus Strothmann from Werder an der Havel advocated making intensive efforts to get as many people as possible to participate in a citizens' assembly. This could be done, for example, through personal visits. Strothmann has successfully used this door knocking himself as the representative for residents' participation in the city of Werder.
So far, a large number of invitations are sent out for many citizens' assemblies. This is done in order to get enough applications from the ranks of those randomly selected to be able to apply the stratified sortition procedure. In this process, the final group of participants is put together from the applications for a citizens' assembly in such a way that it is a reflection of the population according to criteria such as age, gender, education, place of residence and migration background.
However, since the response rate to citizens' assembly invitations is relatively low at around five per cent on average and the motivation of people with low educational qualifications to participate is a particular problem, creating a representation of the population in a citizens' assembly is not easy. Strothmann also sees a problem in sorting citizens' assemblies according to certain criteria, but leaving others out of consideration. "We rate certain groups as important and overlook others," Strothmann criticised. By door knocking, this problem could be avoided, he said.
Thorsten Sterk, a citizens' assembly campaigner working for Mehr Demokratie, called for diversity not only in citizens' assemblies themselves, but also in their organisational teams. He said that if all those who were selected saw themselves represented, the willingness of people of colour, for example, to participate would increase. In this context, Sterk criticised the fact that the speakers at the event were all as white as the participants. This was in contradiction to the diversity sought in citizens' assemblies, also with regard to skin colour and culture.
The democracy conference also dealt with the practical application of democracy by sortition. Linus Strothmann reported on the "random selection of the tree blossom festival" in Werder/Havel, a procedure that was used to develop a new modern concept for the most important city festival in the Brandenburg municipality. In the process, ideas had emerged that had not found a majority in the city council. For example, a minimum price for fruit wine, so that it is no longer the most affordable amusement for young people at the festival compared to other attractions. In addition, local fruit wine producers should be better protected from cheap suppliers from outside.
Lise Deshautel, as a member of the organising team of the French Climate Assembly, reported on its procedure and results. In 2020, 150 randomly selected French citizens recommended 149 measures to tackle the climate crisis. However, many of the recommendations got bogged down in the ministries and in parliament. When President Emmanuel Macron received the recommendations, he already had three "wild cards", i.e. recommendations that he was not prepared to accept.
Referendums on assembly recommendations
Macron himself had set up the Climate Assembly after protests by the yellow wests movement against a new carbon tax. In doing so, he had also promised to forward the assembly recommendations "without filters" to parliament or to let all French people vote on them in a referendum. However, a referendum on anchoring climate protection in the French constitution did not take place, as parliament and senate could not agree on a wording for the constitutional amendment.
Against this background, David van Reybrouck presented his proposal of so-called "preferendums" for discussion. In referendums, citizens should be able to vote on how much they support the recommendations of citizens' assemblies. This should give the recommendations more weight.
Permanent Citizens' Dialogue in East Belgium
From Brussels, Jonathan Moskovic reported on the existing mixed committees in the regional parliament. The committees are made up of one quarter elected politicians and three quarters randomly selected citizens. Together, the committee members develop proposals on which the parliament must decide within three months.
Because the venue Eupen is also home to one of three permanent citizens' assemblies worldwide, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, as President of the Parliament of the German-speaking Community in East Belgium, reported on the origin and practice of the citizens' dialogue there. Since 2019, two randomly selected citizens' assemblies have been held on the topics of care and inclusion. Another citizens' assembly on the topic of "Housing for All" is currently underway. Lambertz reported that the results of the citizens' assembly on care were currently being implemented. "Not every recommendation will be implemented, a will to compromise is necessary," the parliamentary president explained. In 2022, the experiences to date would be reviewed in an evaluation seminar.
Mechtilde Neuens assessed her participation in the first citizens' assembly as very positive. At the beginning, she had never expected that the group could come to constructive results together, but this attitude changed more and more with each subsequent day of meetings.
Between the presentations and plenary discussions, the conferees also discussed what they saw as problems to be remedied in citizens' assemblies. For example, the influence of experts who provide the participants of citizens' assemblies with knowledge on the respective topic was debated. One of the recommendations was to have the assembly participants themselves select the experts. Assembly members could also be given the task of researching information themselves and present it to all participants, for example on the internet.
Strategies for establishing citizens' assemblies
In "speed dating" rounds with small groups that regrouped every seven minutes, promising strategies for establishing citizens' assemblies were discussed. Thorsten Sterk from Mehr Demokratie recommended actively involving members of parliament from all parliamentary groups in ongoing citizens' assemblies. This was done, for example, in the Citizens' Assemblies on Democracy and "Germany's Role in the World" organised by Mehr Demokratie. The President of the Bundestag at the time, Wolfgang Schäuble, had supported both citizens' assemblies and thus lent them weight.