Citizens' assemblies have become one of the most innovative ways to deepen citizens' participation in political decision-making and help to increase public confidence in the political process, said Karl-Heinz Lambertz, President of the Parliament of the German-speaking Community of East Belgium, at the launch of a report adopted by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe on 23 March 2022.
The report offers guidelines for municipalities and regions, illustrated by case studies at local and regional level: Mostar (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Oud-Heverlee (Belgium), the Climate Assembly in Scotland and the Permanent Citizens' Dialogue in East Belgium.
Important points within the guidelines are
- Terms of reference and follow-up
- Selection of participants
- Selection of topics and the remit
- Organisation of the process
There are special guidelines for conducting citizens' juries in small municipalities.
Citizens' Assembly in Mostar
At the congress, Mario Kordić, as mayor of Mostar, reported on experiences with a citizens' assembly in his city on the topic of "cleanliness of the city and maintenance of public spaces in Mostar". "Thanks to the participation of citizens, the action plan of the city of Mostar was unanimously adopted, with their recommendations being taken into account in the city's budgets." He was referring to a citizens' assembly organised as part of the Congress-led project "Building Democratic Participation in the City of Mostar". Mostar is a larger ethnicallydivided city with a history of political deadlock and polarisation.
One of the assembly recommendations called upon the mayor to investigate how citizens’ assemblies could be institutionalised in Mostar. The exercise was clearly perceived by the members as a useful method for policymaking in their city.
Citizens' assemblies, according to the Congress, have proven to be very helpful in addressing certain types of problems that are that are difficult to resolve in a partisan electoral environment. Because the setting of deliberation creates a space where mutual understanding and respectful equal discussion can take place, polarised issues become less contentious
Participants more independent than politicians
Compared to politicians, randomly selected citizens are much freer to change their minds or compromise when they receive new information. For politicians, such topics are often very hard to compromise on as they could often entail a potential electoral cost, especially when there is a clear partisan line - and consequently an electoral promise that would be “broken”. Since participants in citizens' assemblies are not bound by electoral cycles, they tend to take a more long-term perspective on political issues.
Citizens' assemblies "work together with elected politicians, with each having their respective roles; in this way, citizens help politicians to do their job. The method is therefore complementary to elected representative democracy," Congress explains. Research has also shown, it says, that a randomly selected and therefore diverse and balanced group of citizens can solve political problems better through collective intelligence - even better than experts.
"By empowering citizens to prepare decision-making processes, deliberative methods demonstrate that public participation is taken seriously," the report continues. By publishing the information citizens receive in such a process, these methods also improve the transparency of political decisions. For all these reasons, citizens' assemblies could also strengthen trust in democracy at the local level.
The Congress also sees citizens' assemblies as well equipped against corruption. "Theoretically, it is probably not impossible to corrupt a group of citizens who are deliberating, but the conditions make it very unlikely. In such a process, all citizens are strictly equal in the decision-making process, and therefore it would take a significant number of corrupted citizens to influence a decision made during deliberation."
Equality in participation
According to Congress, empirical studies have shown that many forms of citizen participation have strong biases with regard to participants. "The idea of 'equality in participation' inherent in deliberative democracy has therefore led to a rekindling of the age-old idea of drawing citizens by lot for decision-making processes. This practice that dates back to Athenian democracy sees this as the best procedure to ensure that citizens have an equal chance to be part of a group that can influence policy measures," the conference report said. This also helps to create a group that the wider public can consider representative enough to enable them to accept the result of their deliberations
The institutionalisation of sortition procedures, for example in eastern Belgium and the Brussels region, makes it clear that these methods are becoming a fundamental part of the way governments will involve citizens in decision-making. This congress underlines the importance of institutionalising citizens' assemblies: "While there is increasing evidence that citizen assemblies engender trust in the specific policy recommendations they produce, stronger systemic effects such as increased trust in democracy will require a more institutionalised approach to work. We cannot expect one single deliberative process to have that kind of effect. A longer time is needed to change citizens’ perceptions of how the democratic (and political) system works in their country."
Selection of topics
One of the most crucial decisions for a deliberative process relates to the topic or policy-question on which to work. Who can decide this and set the agenda for an assembly? In a minimal scenario it is only politicians. For any topic it is important that the question put to citizens does not presuppose a predetermined answer.
Sometimes an open call is part of the selection of topics for an assembly. This can be achieved by consulting stakeholders, as was the case in the Mostar assembly with a workshop to propose assembly topics. The general public can also be invited to suggest topics, as in the case of Ostbelgien. Doing this sends a powerful message from government and/or parliament that the latter relinquish some control of the political agenda to citizens and/or stakeholders, the Congress says.
"Have citizens make that final decision"
When an open call to the general public is part of the selection of topics, it is important to have a selection procedure for the final topic that is transparent and perceived as legitimate, the Congress explains. It is therefore advisable to have citizens make that final decision. In Ostbelgien this is done by the permanent Citizen Council, while in Mostar a random sample of the population was able to vote on three potential topics.
If citizens' assemblies are institutionalised along the lines of the East Belgium example, the tasks of choosing a topic, organising the assembly and following up on the assembly recommendations can be assigned to a separate citizens' body, the Congress recommends. Such a body would also create a permanent liaison point for the authorities to pass on information on the follow-up of the recommendations.
Back to Athenian Democracy
A citizens' body separate from the citizens' assembly also has the advantage that each citizens' group can focus on its specific tasks, which all require strong commitment but are also limited in scope. Finally, separating the power to choose a topic and the power to make recommendations on that topic is also a form of separation of powers in the institutionalisation of deliberative democracy with citizens. This in fact goes back to Athenian Democracy where this form of ‘multi-body’ citizen democracy was used.
The Congress calls for greater use of deliberative processes such as citizens' assemblies at all levels and for identifying issues where citizens' assemblies could contribute to the decision-making process. It stresses the need to plan the whole assembly process, to allow the necessary time for citizens' deliberations and, in particular, to establish fair criteria for the selection of participants. Citizens' assemblies could be institutionalised by ensuring that local governments are provided with the necessary financial resources.
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe is the institutional representation of the more than 200,000 regional and local authorities of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. It pursues the same objectives as the Council of Europe: the protection of human rights, the promotion of the rule of law and the development of democracy in the member states. As a consultative body of the Council of Europe, the Congress continuously drafts reports, recommendations and resolutions on local and regional policy issues and addresses them to the Committee of Ministers.