In 2023, the first federal citizens' assembly is to take place in Germany, officially initiated by the Bundestag. Before holding the first assembly at the federal level, the Subcommittee on Civic Engagement of the Bundestag had many questions for two invited experts on 19 October 2022.
The committee had invited Barbara Bosch and Prof. Dr. Brigitte Geißel to speak and answer questions. Bosch is State Councillor for Civil Society and Citizen Participation in Baden-Württemberg, a federal state with comparatively much experience in democracy by sortition. Brigitte Geißel heads the Research Centre for Democratic Innovations at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main.
"Find out earlier what moves the citizens"
Barbara Bosch was the first to take up the cudgels for citizens' assemblies. "With dialogue-oriented citizen participation, politics and administration learn much earlier what moves the citizens," said the former mayor of Reutlingen. But it must be clear that this participation is wanted. The loud groups currently have a preponderance, the silent majority has no voice. Dialogue-based processes give precisely these people a voice," Bosch continued. Dialogue-based citizen participation does not delay decisions, it can rather accelerate them.
"With random selection, we also reach those who are not politically engaged," said the State Councillor, explaining one advantage of citizens' assemblies. The experience has been consistently positive, and the scientific evaluation explicitly confirms this.
"Citizens do not feel well represented"
Bosch suggested that the Bundestag should establish its own rules for dealing with citizens' assembly recommendations, for example through its rules of procedure. If politicians reject the recommendations of citizens' assemblies, they must have good reasons for doing so. The questions to randomly selected citizens should be as concrete as possible. For example, a municipality should not ask how a city can become carbon-neutral, but how car traffic in a city can be reduced.
According to Prof. Dr. Brigitte Geißel, many citizens feel that they are not well represented only by having the opportunity to participate in elections. "Elections no longer seem to be enough. We need new forms of citizen participation," says the democracy researcher. Through random selection in citizens' assemblies, she said, a reflection of society can be created.
Conditions for the success of citizens' assemblies
A good interaction between citizens' assemblies and decision-makers is important for an effective procedure. Other conditions for success: Sufficient resources and openness to results. "Citizen participation in decisions that have already been made does not work," says Geißel. Citizens' assemblies must be established at an early stage of decision-making. In addition, she said, transparency is important from the very beginning.
The political scientist also suggested thinking about whether the population should not also be given the right to convene a citizens' assembly. She referred to the Austrian province of Vorarlberg, where the provincial government must hold a citizens' assembly on the issue demanded by the signatures after at least 1,000 signatures have been submitted.
Questions from committee members
A number of questions arose for the committee members from the presentations: For example, CDU MP Johannes Steiniger wanted to know how a citizens' assembly with maybe 100 members could reduce dissatisfaction with democracy in a population of 82 million people. He also fears a dwindling willingness to engage in politics, for example in city councils.
"The effect of citizens' assemblies is there, if the results are dealt with accordingly," Barbara Bosch explained in her answer. Public consultations in the Bundestag on citizens' assembly recommendations are therefore important. Dialogue-based participation does not lead to less, but to more citizen involvement in local politics. Citizens' assemblies help local politicians to locate their decisions.
"Start with citizen participation at an early stage"
The state councillor also had an answer to fears about the delay of decisions through citizen participation: "You win if you start early and transparently with citizen participation, then there is no delay."
For the FDP, MP Martin Gassner-Herz asked about the meaning of recruitment quotas for citizen assemblies, which are put together according to criteria such as age, gender, education, place of residence and migration background in such a way that they represent a reflection of the population. Is this then still a random selection, Gassner-Herz wanted to know. Bosch explained the function of mapping social milieus through this procedure.
"Bundestag not a mirror of society"
"The Bundestag is not a mirror of society. We have almost no MPs without a university degree any more," Professor Geißel remarked critically. The stratified sortition procedure, she said, was intended to prevent citizens' assemblies from once again containing only the "usual suspects" who participate at every opportunity anyway. Like Bosch, she confirmed the experience that citizens are politically mobilised by participating in citizens' assemblies and that their willingness to stay involved grows. Politicians do not have to fear being disempowered by citizens' assemblies. They have a purely advisory function.
Ralph Edelhäußer, a member of parliament for the CSU, sees an advantage of citizens' assemblies in winning over for politics those who do not get a chance in elections, since voters often only choose the better-known names.
SPD MP Erik von Malottki wanted to know what happens if the recommendations of citizens' assemblies are not implemented? "Citizens' assemblies always make a series of recommendations," explained democracy expert Geißel. When it comes to implementation, politicians sometimes cherry-pick. If politicians do not follow citizens' assembly recommendations, the arguments must be convincing.
Ina Latendorf, a Left Party MP, asked about the balance and neutrality of the information that citizens' assembly participants receive for their deliberations and decisions. "There must always be the impression that there is no manipulation," Geißel answered the question. Transparency is therefore important, he said.
As a member of parliament for the SPD, Ariane Fäscher considers the participation of young people important. Therefore, she asked for corresponding possibilities. Barbara Bosch reported that in Baden-Württemberg there had been good experiences with online citizen participation during the COVID-19 pandemic. This had also made it possible to reach other people than usual. Young people, for example, are very well versed in participation procedures via chat.
Emilia Fester, a Green MEP, wanted to know how long citizens' assemblies meet. The mentioned meeting times of e.g. three hours a day over several weeks seemed very short to her. A lot can be worked through in three hours, Barbara Bosch clarified. "Do not underestimate the citizens!"
Exclusion criteria for citizens' assembly topics
Asked about exclusion criteria for citizens' assembly topics, Bosch explained that she does not consider such topics suitable for which there is no competence at the respective level. In addition, she said, mini publics on non-specific issues do not make sense. In Baden-Württemberg, however, the state government plans to hold citizens' assemblies before all important legislative projects in the future.
The expert discussion in the subcommittee "Civic Engagement" was already the second on citizens' assemblies. On 6 October 2020, the committee had already heard various experts on the subject. At that time, too, all invited experts had supported the use of citizens' assemblies.