"Is someone trying to trick me?"

22. July 2022

Everyone is talking about citizens' assemblies at the moment. In Germany three citizens' assembly will be established at the federal level during this legislative period. But things are also going on at the state and local levels. In the Upper Palatinate town of Amberg, for example, the first citizens' jury will soon be convened. Armin Amrhein from Amberg was a participant in the nationwide Citizens' Assembly on Democracy held in 2019. So it's high time we talked to him about his experiences and the upcoming citizens' jury in his town.

Question: Armin, you are one of the people who were randomly selected for the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy in 2019. How did you feel when you received the invitation letter?

Armin Amrhein: Yes, at first you look at the letter somewhat critically and think: "Is this some kind of strange advertisement, is someone trying to trick me again?" Then I did some research - also on the internet - and found out that the invitation is to be taken seriously. And the topic sounded very interesting, including the fact that I was selected as one of the few participants from all over Germany. And I then announced that I would like to take part and was drawn accordingly and then also took part in the events.

Question: Can you explain the process of the Citizens' Assembly? How did it all work? How did the Citizens' Assembly in Leipzig work?

Amrhein: Yes, there were preparatory meetings. It was possible to read up on this, including which other topics were to be dealt with. We then met in Leipzig on a Saturday and Sunday. We were drawn by lot to form a table group with six or seven participants and two facilitators.

And in these table groups, topics for the promotion of direct democracy were discussed. Great care was taken to ensure that everyone at the table had a chance to speak and make their contributions. It has to be said that the facilitators were very well trained for this and paid attention to a very balanced ratio.

The groups then collected ideas on the various topics. These were then condensed and finally turned into a paper with recommendations on the topics of direct democracy and ways to improve citizens' participation in democratic decision-making. The recommendations are also freely available on the internet and there you can see what was discussed and how citizens from very different backgrounds see the possibility of participating more closely in the political process.

Question: You have just said that the citizens' assembly was put together by lot. And it is an unusual instrument to begin with. It is no longer anchored in our understanding of democracy that people can be chosen by lot. What do you think is the advantage of this sortition procedure?

Amrhein: The sortition procedure ensures that citizens from all walks of life or with the most diverse backgrounds can participate in the event. These are not only those who are massively interested in political processes, but you also arouse the interest of many others. And it is only a small part of the people who have responded who have been written to.

In other words, the Citizens' Assembly brings together people whose interest has been aroused in a certain topic that interests them and that is the subject of the Citizens' Assembly. In the case of those who responded, where they had to fill in certain data about themselves, care was taken to reach as good a cross-section of the population as possible, be it gender, age, level of education, origin, large cities, small towns, rural population, etc. And it has to be said that you reach as many people as possible in this way.

And it has to be said that they reach a much better cross-section of the population than the Bundestag does. It's not 100%, it won't be possible, but it's simply a much better cross-section. And because it also offers childcare, care for those in need of care and the like, people who otherwise hardly ever leave the house and who otherwise cannot participate in the political process in this form can also take part.

Question: You have just said that a citizens' assembly can consist of 160 people, as in your case with the Citizens' Assembly  on Democracy. When the participants work, they come together in small groups. Before the participants join these small groups, there is input from experts. And I would be interested to know how, from your point of view, these expert inputs helped the discussion? What did it do to you as a group? Did it help you to then be able to discuss?

Amrhein: Yes, definitely. You have to familiarise yourself with the topic that you are supposed to deal with. You can't just decide things on the basis of your gut feeling; you need a certain input that conveys what democratic processes can actually look like. For example, how a referendum works in Germany or in a federal state, and so on.

There was also input from other countries on how things are done there. The possibilities that exist in Switzerland through direct democracy were shown, and citizens' assemblies that have actually taken place in Ireland were presented. And the problems that arise within this framework were also described. That is also an important input from my point of view.

I have to say that from my point of view, the information was not too one-sided in any way, but there were always two or more sides whose representatives appeared in the panel discussion, for example.

The experts are very important, because otherwise you only hear those who today perhaps spread their opinion through the press and new media, but not necessarily those who have little interest in it or don't even know how they can get involved. From my point of view, it is important to include these groups.

Question: How many small groups were there at the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy?

Amrhein: There were about 20, seven people from each of the 160 participants.

Question: Were you always in the same small group? Or were the participants in each small group re-drawn for each session?

Amrhein: There was also a new draw, so that you could also discuss with other people. Of course, there are always those who participate more loudly or more, but simply to get a certain mixture in. It also led to better discussions than if a group was too narrow-minded.

Question: In the end, as participants, you drew up a citizens' report. How did you arrive at this final result? How did the consensus come about that these are the recommendations you want to adopt as a citizens' assembly?

Amrhein: All the results from the small groups were formulated by people who were ultimately elected. You could stand up there and say "I want to be one of those who concentrate the whole thing, all these inputs." There were about 12 - 13 people and also some facilitators. In a relatively short time, they turned all the results into proposals that could be included in such an expert report.

In other words, the whole thing was summarised in a concentrated way and proposals were worked out. These were then presented. Maybe some fine-tuning could still be done, but then the whole assembly voted on which proposals to accept and which to reject.

It is not always the case that 99.8 per cent of the proposals are accepted. It varies, but for the most part there was a consensus on what was wanted. It was not such a controversial topic, it has to be said. Most people are in favour of better citizen participation in political processes. Therefore, different results are to be expected for other topics, where the whole thing is not so clear-cut.

Question: How many individual recommendations were there in the citizens' report?

Amrhein: I think there were around 20.

Question: This report was produced in 2019 as the final product of the citizens' assembly. What happened to the report then? So how was it taken up politically, this report?

Amrhein: On the one hand, it was handed over to parliament on the "Day of Democracy" in November 2019, to Mr. Schäuble (at the time President of the Bundestag - editor's note), who then also spoke about it. In addition, there was a representative from each parliamentary group who also spoke about it.

There was also supposed to be an inspection the following year, which unfortunately fell victim to COVID-19. Unfortunately, we have not received much feedback on the matter so far. What is clearly noticeable, however, is that citizens' assemblies have now been included in some party programmes and are also mentioned accordingly in the coalition agreement. This is an important step towards making progress in this area. We have also done some work in the framework of citizens' assemblies, especially within the group of former participants, in which we are trying to push the issue, partly now also more at the local or state level.

On the other hand, we - there were three assembly participants from my town at the time - wrote to the members of the Bundestag together with the request for a discussion and we then also managed to meet two members of the Bundestag and present the topic to them.

We also wrote to members of the Bundestag before the elections. I wrote to about 60 members of parliament in Bavaria. But the response was rather modest. Before the election, everyone was very busy. There is a task within our group to do this again now and write to the current MPs.

Question: There will be a state election in Bavaria next year. Perhaps there could be a framework for approaching certain members of parliament or politicians to raise the issue?

Amrhein: Yes, certainly also at the state level. This should certainly not be limited to the federal level. Especially at the state and municipal level, it is definitely an interesting topic that I would like to spread now. I think that such a citizens' jury in Amberg will also find a certain interest, be it positive or negative. It is important that it is simply known and that perhaps more people take it up at this point. And when you see how much the whole thing brings locally, then I hope that it will be a body that is convened more often to deal with issues.

Question: You have already mentioned it: In Amberg, the first sortition-based citizens' jury in Bavaria will soon take place. And it will be about the future of the citizens' hospital area. For you as a participant in a citizens' assembly: How do you assess the public discussion surrounding the upcoming citizens' jury in Amberg?

Amrhein: On the one hand, I think it's good to have a citizens' jury. On the other hand, I have to say that there is a lack of information among many people about what a citizens' jury actually does. It is relatively difficult for me to see why this deficit exists.

Perhaps, for example, the press writes too little about citizens' assemblies because they don't have the space in the newspapers or because they are not very interested, or perhaps they didn't get the information and didn't want to? There would also be the possibility to get it. And the same can be said for a number of letters to the editor that put things in there that simply don't correspond to the truth.

From my point of view, it is simply important that the information about what a citizens' assembly does reaches the people. For example, a citizens' assembly does not make decisions, but makes recommendations. And from my point of view, it is important that people also participate who do not necessarily belong to the interest group that ultimately overturned the decision of the city council through the referendum.

I can well imagine that there are other interests in what should be done with this site than the interest group would like to have. Perhaps housing is more important for young families or housing in the city for older people. And that's why it's important that a certain mix of people from Amberg come up with proposals and arguments about what they think is important for the city centre.

Question: What do you wish for the citizens' jury in Amberg?

Amrhein: I would like to see a result that is acceptable to most citizens with regard to the proposals. It doesn't always have to be just one proposal, but that there are perhaps two, three or five, on which the city council then decides, but where the interests of the citizens who took part in the citizens' jury are really behind it and thus also cover the interests of those who of course did not take part in the citizens' jury. It is not just a question of listening to those who shout loudly, but also of putting the interests of others on the table and making a sensible decision.

Question: A major criticism of the Amberg Citizens' Jury is that only two of the ten experts actually speak on the topic of environmental protection, but several departments from the city administration are given the opportunity to present the city's point of view.

Amrhein: Well, you should then also see that the participants themselves perhaps have the chance to say "I want to hear someone on a certain topic, I want to hear a certain person or a certain group. I would like to have discussions between certain people." From my point of view, it is important that the participants have a say. That was not the case with the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy, it is also difficult. You can only do that if there are longer intervals between the sessions and if it is feasible from an organisational point of view. Now that so many people are equipped with video conferencing material, it might even be a bit easier to get someone to do it. I think it is important that the participants can then vote, but also the various bodies involved.

Question: While we are on the subject of criticism, you just mentioned prejudices. What other prejudices or misinformation do people have about the citizens' jury that you perceive in Amberg?

Amrhein: One important point is always that people would decide. They don't decide. Moreover, people would participate who have no interest at all. That is also a prejudice.

It is not the case that everyone who has been selected has to come. First, many more people than necessary are randomly selected and written to. After that, only those who are really interested will contact us. You shouldn't force anyone, that wouldn't do any good. Those who are forced to participate will not be productive. It should always be voluntary and then the people who are really interested will come forward.

But it is also important that if people are interested who would otherwise not participate, that they have perhaps not cared about the topic so far or have not been able to care. This encourages many people to get involved. And you can also see with the active former participants that they really like it and that their political interest has suddenly been awakened.

Question: I have two more questions. One is directly about the upcoming citizens' jury in Amberg. How do you think the results of the citizens' jury should be dealt with?

Amrhein: The citizens' jury should ultimately draw up recommendations for the use of this citizens' hospital site. From my point of view, this does not necessarily have to be a single recommendation, but it can also include alternatives.

There is also nothing to be said against convening other bodies, as other letter writers have suggested, where other groups can make proposals. They can then perhaps even act as experts. They can also add their proposals to the recommendations of the citizens' jury.

The important thing is that the decisions are ultimately made by our elected representatives. They will certainly not - at least not without detailed justification - be completely off the mark. Of course, one can say "that all sounds good, but we can't afford it at the moment". That can always happen, of course. There are limits to everything, in terms of funding or even the need for staff. Of course, a city council has to take that into account.

Question: Could you imagine that after the citizens' jury the recommendations will be voted on again by the citizens? So could you imagine that after the citizens' jury there could also be another referendum?

Amrhein: I can certainly imagine that. This would also be discussed quite intensively in the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy and also proposed accordingly, that a citizens' assembly be proposed as preparation for decisions, no matter at what level. Because people can deal intensively with this topic and also explore the pros and cons of certain solutions and the whole thing should be published after the Citizens' Assembly in order to give the citizens a good basis of information. I can imagine a citizens' assembly preparing an issue in such a way that there is a good basis of information for a referendum.

The interview was conducted by Jan Renner of Mehr Demokratie.