"Brought out of political disenchantment"

28. February 2024

From September 2023 to January 2024, the first Citizens' Assembly commissioned by the German Bundestag „Nutrition in Transition“, ran. There had already been federal mini-publics organised by civil society organisations and others. Anand Kumar and Urte Stahl took part in the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy and the Citizens' Assembly on Germany's Role in the World. These contributed to the creation of the Citizens' Assembly on Nutrition. We asked them for their opinion on the latest federal mini-public.

Question: Dear Urte, dear Anand, on 20 February 2024, the Citizens' Assembly "Nutrition in Transition" presented its recommendations to Bundestag President Bärbel Bas and the parliamentary groups. How much do you like this citizens' assembly?

Urte Stahl: First of all, it was an important milestone for me that this Citizens' Assembly took place for the first time on behalf of the Bundestag. The instrument of citizens' assemblies has now become much better known to the public. And in my opinion, the Citizens' Assembly on Nutrition went really well, both in terms of organisation and results.

The fact that the participants even made funding proposals for the realisation of their recommendations shows how much they engaged with the topic. In my view, the voting results also clearly show that there is no synchronisation of opinions here, but that there is a controversial discussion right to the end, which is the essence of democratic processes.

"Results of the Citizens' Assembly point the way forward"

Anand Kumar: I see the results of the Citizens' Assembly as pointing the way forward. As in the Citizens' Assembly, in which I was able to participate, the citizens have a great desire for transparency. I was a little shocked by the demand for a free lunch for all children, because with my knowledge of how a Citizens' Assembly arrives at a recommendation to politicians, in my view this can only mean that the nutrition of a very large number of children must be in a poor state.

Question: Urte, you took part in the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy in 2019. How did you experience the mini-public back then and what did it trigger in you?

Stahl: This kind of "ticket win" was actually better than winning the lottery. Just getting to know the instrument of citizens' assemblies showed me new ways of democracy, got me out of my disenchantment with politics and made me a politically active person again. Citizens' assemblies are an indispensable building block for the further development of our parliamentary democracy.

"The advantages convinced me"

The advantages over other existing instruments of direct democracy, standard public participation and opinion polls have completely convinced me. Firstly, the sortition-based random selection, which also reaches people who were previously completely apolitical. Furthermore, this diversity helps people to engage with other life experiences and perspectives on the topic that they do not encounter in their own "bubble". The moderated discussion processes are extremely valuable here. And finally, the comprehensive and balanced content-related information is a great advantage in order to be able to make well-founded and balanced recommendations.

Question: Anand, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Citizens' Assembly "Germany's role in the World", in which you took part, was held exclusively online. What has stayed with you from this Citizens' Assembly?

Kumar: I know it sounds almost pathetic, but my accidental participation gave me back faith in my fellow human beings! The way in which people with very different personalities and opinions can work together when they have a common goal with a deadline, namely the delivery of a citizens' report, has given me lasting motivation to get involved in politics again in my free time.

"We need to create more places like this"

We need to create more places like this to create a safe atmosphere for dialogue in which everyone can have their say in a moderated way. As a young voter, I used to be very motivated, then at some point I became disillusioned and was well on the way to becoming a cynic before I took part in the Citizens' Assembly "Germany's Role in the World".

Question: You have both been involved in the Forum of former Citizens' Assembly Participants for some time. What is this forum and what does your work there look like? Can people join you?

Stahl: I set up this forum in 2020, initially to exchange ideas with the participants of the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy, to network and to consider how we can make the instrument better known as multipliers and participants.

We are focussing primarily on the federal and state levels, as there is still a great need for more information and room for improvement. Fortunately, citizens' assemblies have already gained a lot of momentum at municipal level, where there are other networking and discussion forums.

"We are happy to welcome new members"

Since 2020, more participants have joined from other mini-publics across Germany and we are of course always happy to welcome new members and interested parties. In our online meetings, which take place roughly every four to six weeks, we discuss what we can currently do, particularly through communication work.

For example, during the 2021 coalition negotiations, we drafted a resolution to the parliamentary groups with the signatures of numerous former Citizens' Assembly participants that mini-publics should take place on behalf of the Bundestag. We are currently also collecting signatures from former participants to send an appeal to the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag, which is critical of the Citizens' Assembly, and to enter into dialogue with them.

"Sharing positive experiences"

Kumar: I simply want to share my positive experience with as many people as possible. As some politicians still take a critical view of the Citizens' Assembly, we try to get in touch with such decision-makers in particular.

Sometimes it also comes down to motivating each other in a monthly online meeting to stay involved if you have been disappointed again.

We are happy to welcome any member of a Citizens' Assembly who wants to see what we are up to.
Question: What are the reactions when you talk to politicians or the media about citizens' assemblies?

Kumar: I think one thing that people I talk to about the topic - politicians, the media and also friends and acquaintances - always say is that they can really feel my enthusiasm when I talk about my personal experience. I think that's the best feedback. Fortunately, this emotional response has also prompted many critics to take another look at the arguments in favour of citizen rates.

Stahl: The reactions are varied, but mostly good. As former participants and "normal citizens", we are perceived differently and perhaps more favourably by politicians and the media than the "usual" organised lobby groups. In this respect, we see ourselves as a complement to the important work of Mehr Demokratie.

"Communicating the essence of citizens' assemblies in a different way"

With our reports based on our own experience, we are able to convey the essence of citizens' assemblies in a completely different way - often more tangibly and emotionally - as many of our members are genuinely convinced and enthusiastic about the instrument. And we are also living proof that citizens' assemblies can really galvanise participants into constructive political participation. This is also an important argument for politicians.

Question: What future would you like to see for citizens' assemblies?

Kumar: On the one hand, I would like to see more citizens' reports on a wide range of topics from randomly selected committees. However, I would also like the addressees in politics to incorporate the results of such reports into their work.

Accusations also apply to members of parliament

Politicians need to come to terms with the fact that the accusation sometimes levelled at them that Citizens' Assembly participants are dependent on the type of expert input and do not themselves have in-depth specialist knowledge in all areas also applies to practically every elected member of the Bundestag!

And for all their criticism, please explain to me what other instrument involves people who are not involved in politics and don't even vote in a political process? If they can think of a better one, that would of course be welcome!

Stahl: I would like to see them firmly anchored in law as an instrument, particularly at federal level and in those federal states where they are not yet practised, and that they are held regularly, i.e. at least once a year. I would also like politicians to see the recommendations of the citizens' assemblies as valuable advice and to scrutinise them thoroughly for implementation. Nobody should expect that all recommendations can be implemented 1:1, but the reasons for this should be explained transparently.

Combining citizens' assemblies with referendums

I hope that trust in the instrument will continue to grow so that more controversial issues can also be discussed in future. And ultimately, the path should eventually lead to referendums being held in combination with upstream citizens' assemblies at federal level.


Anand Kumar is 52 years old and lives in Darmstadt. He works as an independent financial advisor. In his free time, he enjoys playing guitar in two bands, running in fun runs and trying to strengthen democracy.

Urte Stahl is 50 years old and lives in Friesenheim near Offenburg. She is a landscape planner and carries out consultations and planning on the subject of biodiversity, near-natural and climate-adapted open spaces. Her hobbies include gardening, a bit of sport and other voluntary activities in the church and Naturschutzbund, a nature conservation organisation.

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