"You wait your whole life for a citizens' assembly and then suddenly there are ten at once!" This is how Tim Hughes, executive director of the British democracy organisation "Involve" until 2021, was pleased about the development in Great Britain. Citizens' assemblies have been mushrooming there since 2019.
In a citizens' assembly, randomly selected citizens discuss a predefined topic. They are informed by independent experts about all important aspects of the topic. The participants are drawn from a sample of the population from population registers of municipalities of different sizes and geographical locations. Care is taken to ensure that the list of participants is as complete a representation of the population as possible in terms of gender, age, education, size of place of residence and any migration background. The people in the random samples are written to and invited to participate in the citizens' assembly. The actual citizens' assembly is then drawn from the group of interested people.
Citizens' assemblies fill the representation gap
By establishing citizens' assemblies, politicians are responding to criticism of the decision-making structures in democracy up to now. This is because citizens' assemblies complement representative democracy by filling the "representation gap" of elected parliaments. For example, women are often underrepresented in parliaments. The perspectives of people with lower levels of education, marginalised groups and younger citizens are also hardly represented in all parliaments. Yet democracy means more to many people than just a cross on the ballot paper. They want to be involved in political decisions. People often complain that elected parliaments cannot find satisfactory answers to problems such as the climate crisis or the migration issue. One of the reasons for this is that professional politicians are not free of constraints.
Ordinary citizens, on the other hand, do not have to be re-elected, which is why they are much more open to information from different directions around an issue and can search for solutions as a group with the greatest possible support. Away from political infighting, citizens' assemblies are therefore meant to find consensus on possible measures, which parliaments then adopt and decide on at best.
"Citizens' assemblies are more representative"
"When it comes to reflecting the social characteristics and world views of the population as a whole as well as possible, randomly selected assemblies are more representative," said political scientist Prof. Dr. Hubertus Buchstein in a recent FAZ article on the subject. At the municipal level, the probability of being drawn by lot in the course of one's life is very high. If the citizens then took up the work in the committee, they would develop a lasting political interest beyond their time in the citizens' assembly. This has been proven by studies.
For Buchstein, future issues that are highly relevant for many generations, such as climate protection, lend themselves to consultation in citizens' assemblies. In addition, especially at the municipal level, citizens' assemblies are a good choice when the conflicts are complex, as is often the case with transport planning.
The model for the new citizens' assemblies currently being initiated in large numbers, especially in Great Britain, is the Citizens' Assembly (or its predecessor, the Constitutional Convention) in Ireland, whose proposals on marriage for same-sex couples and on abortion rights found broad majorities in referendums. As a result of the good experience gained, similar citizens' assemblies are currently being planned or are already underway nationally and locally in Great Britain.
In 2020, a first national citizens' assembly dealt with possible measures against climate catastrophe and formulated recommendations. Local citizens' assemblies on the topic have been held in about 30 municipalities. In the London borough of Camden, the first climate citizens' assembly of its kind in the UK made 17 recommendations for local action on climate change in July. In Oxford, similar action was taken in November. In Bristol, the city council had even decided to introduce a permanent citizens' assembly in January 2020. In Scotland and Wales, citizens' assemblies were set up to consult on the future of the two components of the UK.
Permanent citizens' council in East Belgium
Citizens' assemblies do not only exist in the UK, however. In Belgium, the parliament of the German-speaking Community, with its approximately 77,000 inhabitants, has decided to set up a citizens' assembly in 2019. The citizens' council there is existing permanently.
The permanent citizens' council, consisting of 24 randomly selected men and women, was established on 16 September 2019. It remains in office for 18 months, after which one third of the members will be replaced every six months by newly drawn citizens. These come from citizens' assemblies of 25 to 50 members, who are also randomly selected. Each year, the participants are supposed to deal with one to three issues, which can be proposed by the government, the parliament, two of its members or ordinary citizens, who have to collect one hundred signatures for it. The minimum age of those drawn is set at 16 years, and participation is voluntary.
Decisions by consensus
Decisions are usually taken by consensus, but at least by a four-fifths majority, and are passed on to parliament and the government by the higher-level citizens' assembly. The citizens' assembly recommendations are not binding, but the government and parliament must publicly justify themselves if they reject the citizens' recommendations. Permanent citizens' assemblies with similar or different procedures also exist in Aachen, Brussels, Copenhagen and Paris.
In the Austrian province of Vorarlberg, citizens' assemblies have existed at the provincial level since 2011. Since then, such mini publics have been held there on topics such as asylum, education, youth, climate, agriculture, mobility and electoral law. In addition, there are numerous municipal citizens' jurys.
Citizens' assemblies and referendums
There have also been experiments with citizens' assemblies in cities such as Gdansk and Madrid, as well as in South Australia. In the US state of Oregon, a randomly selected citizens' assembly called the Citizens Initiative Review (CIR) until 2016 formulated information on referendums, which are held regularly here as in 23 other states. The CIR drafted statements that listed the most important facts and the main reasons for approving and rejecting the respective issue. This statement was included in the voting booklet that is mailed to all eligible voters in Oregon along with other voting materials. Similar experiments are now also taking place in Switzerland.
Studies show that more and more people "trust the information provided by these groups more than that provided by the authorities", says Alice el-Wakil, a doctoral student in political theory at the University of Zurich and the Centre for Democracy Aarau (ZDA) in an article on swissinfo.ch. This could curb problems with disinformation and fake news spread in campaigns before referendums. "Thanks to sortition, the principle of equality becomes stronger and includes people who are not usually equal," el Wakil said. At the same time, she said, these discussion forums allow the public and the authorities to receive new information.
Citizens' Assembly on Democracy
In Germany, the initiative "Mehr Demokratie" (More Democracy) and the Schöpflin Foundation had launched the first drawn nationwide Citizens' Assembly on Democracy in 2019. In six regional conferences throughout Germany, interested citizens had developed topic proposals in a moderated process, which the randomly selected Citizens' Assembly worked on over two weekends in Leipzig in September. The resulting 22 democracy recommendations were handed over to Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble on 15 November 2019. The project was supported by the President of the Bundestag and by politicians from all parties represented in the Bundestag, who discussed with the citizens at the regional conferences. The procedure was carried out in practice here by the participation experts from IFOK and nexus.
The idea of sortition is actually very old. In ancient Athens, for example, the Council of 500 was appointed by lot. It drew up legislative proposals and the government emerged from it. The lottery was intended to create equality among all citizens and to curb corruption.
During the Renaissance, sortition was used in many Italian city states such as Venice, Florence and Bologna. From here, the idea also reached Frankfurt am Main. In Spain, the procedure was used in Aragon, Saragossa and Barcelona. Only gradually did elections become established.
Predecessor Planning Cell
In Germany, the principle of the citizens' assembly was revived in the 1970s by the planning cell created by Prof. Peter C. Dienel, among others. The democratic instrument with the somewhat unwieldy name was originally intended as a consultative procedure to improve planning decisions. In recent years, the procedure has been successfully applied at both municipal and supra-regional level to various thematic issues, e.g. to improve local public transport in Hanover, to clarify planning cases that have been unresolved and controversial for many years, and in technology assessment. In each case, it has provided the political decision-making bodies and clients with valuable recommendations and advice. Related procedures are citizens' conferences and planning workshops.
Citizens' assemblies deal with issues of fundamental social importance and with issues that are to be decided nationally, as in the citizens' assemblies in Ireland. This fact and the connection with the referendums that caused a sensation worldwide, together with the above-mentioned criticism of encrustations of democracy, may have led to the intense interest in this participation procedure. The exciting question for the future is whether the new citizens' assemblies will find acceptance among the population and be heard by politicians, and whether they will lead to the creation of further citizens' assemblies.
Background: Citizens' assemblies worldwide