COVID-19: More dialogue recommended
The randomly selected Forum COVID-19 in the German state of Saxony recommends more citizen dialogue from politicians in crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. This suggestion, among many others, can be found in the Citizens' Report of the forum published on 19 March 2022.
"It is important to show people that politics listens to them and that their experiences are important in times of crisis," the forum participants write in their report. To achieve this goal, sortition-based citizens' assemblies are proposed at different levels. Furthermore, in the view of the Citizens' Forum, feedback should be sought from the population after new ordinances on COVID-19. In general, participation formats with citizens should be established as a form of communication between politics and the population. However, anti-democratic attitudes and opinions should not be further legitimised by giving them too much space. Rather, civil society and political actors should offer support to democratically committed representatives. 89.2 per cent of the Forum participants voted in favour of this.
43 recommendations and 190 ideas
From July 2021 to January 2022, the citizens' forum held monthly digital consultations on the pandemic and its social consequences. In the course of the process, the members listened to 13 experts. The report drawn up by the participants in 26 hours of joint work contains 43 recommendations and around 190 ideas in the four fields of action: health, education, economy and politics and administration.
In crisis communication, for example, the participants of the COVID-19 Forum would like to see transparency, objectivity and comprehensibility in order to create trust. "Complicated virological formulations during the pandemic were confusing for many," says the citizens' report. Among other things, a central platform with information on daily updated COVID-19 measures is desired.
Communicating uncertainty and fallibility
Politicians are called upon to openly communicate uncertainty and fallibility. Pandemic policy is a dynamic process that is always changing. However, if uncertainties and contradictions are not openly addressed, this could lead to mistrust.
According to the Forum participants, a high vaccination rate is a prerequisite for an end to the COVID-19 infection control measures. In addition to compulsory vaccination for all professional groups, the Forum members would like to see encouragement to vaccinate instead of "fear campaigns". Experts should discuss controversial issues in public, vaccinations should be explained objectively and their side effects should also be named. 64.9 percent of the Forum participants voted in favour of this.
Paying attention to mental health
Regarding "health", the Saxon state government is called upon to take people's mental health into account when developing infection control measures. The federal and state governments should therefore include relevant experts in the advisory committees on the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, virologists were the preferred respondents, while perspectives from the professional fields of mental health and social work were underrepresented.
Forum COVID-19 also pleads for relief, promotion and fair pay for health and care workers during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. "Financial and non-material incentives must be created to make nursing and medical professions attractive in the long term," say the citizen reviewers. In general, the health sector should work for the common good and not have to make a profit.
Promote digital education
In the field of education, the forum recommends that digital and analogue teaching methods be used regularly in the education system, that they be taught competently and that they be combined. "There were very different approaches to home schooling. The quality largely depended on the commitment and knowledge of the respective teachers," criticise the forum members. The teachers' level of knowledge regarding digital teaching methods should be improved and aligned according to the changed requirements, they say.
To relieve employees during the pandemic, working hours should be made flexible and adapted to the individual situation of the employees. "Childcare must be guaranteed both for families who are in the home office and those who cannot go to the home office," Forum COVID-19 wants. They also say that the hours of childcare are too inflexible, and it must be possible to guarantee it until 6pm.
Forum randomly selected
The selection and invitation to Forum COVID-19 functioned on the one hand according to the principle of random selection and on the other hand according to the principle of representative composition. The random procedure was intended to ensure that all Saxons over the age of 16 could be randomly selected and thus theoretically had the opportunity to participate. The representative composition of the citizens' forum was intended to create a miniature Saxony. For example, the ratio of old to young people or of rural to urban dwellers roughly corresponded to that of the Saxon population as a whole.
The State Statistical Office had drawn up a representative sample of 5,000 people for the COVID-19 Forum. Citizens from this sample were invited to participate in the Forum. From those who expressed their interest in voluntary participation in the Citizens' Forum via a feedback form, a new draw was made. The State Statistical Office took into account quotas for demographic characteristics such as age, gender, education, size of residence and migration history of the participants. Thus, a group of 50 people, plus some latecomers, was put together to represent as good a representation of the population as possible.
"An exciting experience"
Saxony's Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer called Forum COVID-19 "an exciting experience that we will certainly repeat." He said the state government would look at the proposals and comment on them. Katja Meier, Minister of State for Justice and Democracy, Europe and Equality, praised the constructive nature of the debate, which could serve as an example. She said that mayors had already contacted her who wanted to take up the format and use it. She pointed out that the state government had already made 1.2 million Euros available for local participation procedures such as citizens' assemblies.
Participants in the COVID-19 Forum were also satisfied: "I really liked it and if I were asked, I would participate again," said Lavinia Claar, a student of economics. Through the forum, she had come into contact with people with whom she had nothing to do in everyday life. This gave her the chance to hear opinions outside her own bubble. Teacher Danny Marx sees a great future in sortition. He therefore proposes that it be anchored in the state constitution as an instrument of democracy.
"Citizens' assemblies are like bridges"
Democracy researcher Prof. Dr. Hans Vorländer from the Technical University of Dresden took a stand on the chances of success of randomly selected citizens' assemblies. "Citizens' assemblies are like bridges. They connect civil society with decision-makers. In them, citizens make constructive proposals for solutions to the problems that politicians have to decide on. Politics becomes 'responsive', it listens and responds to questions and proposals that come from the middle of society. This is how trust in democracy and social cohesion are strengthened," he explained.
On 31 January 2023, the state cabinet dealt with the results of the first Saxon citizens' assembly "Forum COVID-19". The opinions of the state government as well as of IHK organisations and the DGB are available to the general public on the internet portal www.beteiligen.sachsen.de. In the statements, the government lists measures it has already taken in the past. However, new measures that could be traced back to the COVID-19 Forum are almost nowhere to be found in them. However, the state government states that it wants to use the experience gained with the COVID-19 Forum as a basis for the further development of participation formats at the state level.