Democratising democracy with citizens' assemblies

15. November 2021
Bürgerrat "Bildung und Lernen"

Citizens' assemblies can provide a constructive response to the challenges that plague current representative democracies, such as loss of trust, selective participatory abstention and social polarisation. This is the tenor of a study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

On 36 pages, the political scientists Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Merkel, Dr. Filip Milačić and Dr. Andreas Schäfer deal with the background and a problem analysis of the current development of democracy, lead a discussion on the theory of democracy and report on political experiences and scientific results in the study of citizens' assemblies. They also deal in detail with the procedures of randomly selected assemblies.

Prerequisites for good citizens' assemblies

In their consideration, they conclude that citizens' assemblies can always unfold their potential if they meet the criteria of including all strata of the population according to their share of the population, the procedural quality of consultative procedures as well as systemic effectiveness. Key points:

  • the sortition procedure must be designed in such a way that people from all affected strata of society participate
  • the internal communication process must be organised and moderated in such a way that all participants, regardless of their social background and habitus, can participate on an equal footing
  • the process itself must be open-ended
  • citizens' assemblies must be embedded in the democratic political system as an independent and influential factor
  • citizens' assemblies must follow a careful design, which is also characterised in each case by a binding and transparent set of objectives

"In this way, citizens' assemblies have a good chance of living up to their normative expectations and effectively feeding the perspective of "average citizens" into the political process," the authors of the study write.

Narrowing the gap between citizens and decision-makers

Citizens' assemblies could thus contribute to narrowing the gap between citizens on the one hand and policy-makers on the other. They introduce a new logic into representative systems characterised by electoral competition. "This could avoid the focus on elites, class-specific political abstention, the undue importance of political marketing at the expense of content or the present orientation of democratic politics at the expense of future issues," the political scientists think.

If citizens and the general public perceive that citizens' assemblies deliver what they promise, trust in democratic institutions will grow. Public opinion-forming will be promoted and participation in political processes will be both broadened and deepened.

Read more: Study: Citizens' Assemblies - New Ways to democratise democracy