With citizens' assemblies against COVID-19

Augsburg was the first German city to involve citizens by sortition in the consultation on measures against the Covid-19 pandemic. In a citizens' advisory board, citizens networked with each other and with experts from the administration and politics. The advisory board was also intended to provide an opportunity to jointly discuss the issues and challenges that have arisen as a result of Covid-19 and to develop viable, democratically devised solutions to them.

The Covid-19 Citizens' Advisory Council met once a month from November 2020 to May 2021. The 22 participants consisted of ten citizens of Augsburg, Mayor Eva Weber, five members of the city council and six experts from the city administration. The advisory board was reconstituted every three months.

"Getting into conversation with people"

"It is very important to me to get into conversation with as many people as possible. The instrument of the Covid-19 Citizens' Advisory Council gives Augsburg citizens the opportunity to explain what moves them, what demands they have and what recommendations they would like to pass on to the administration and politicians," Mayor Eva Weber explained.

The participants were selected by sortition according to criteria such as age, gender, level of education, migration background and the presence of their own children as a reflection of the city's population. The participants lived in Augsburg and were at least 14 years old. They had to submit a suggestion as to which measure against Covid-19 they thought would be useful. However, the advisory board members were not randomly selected from the city's total population. Rather, interested people had to apply to get into the lottery pot. 395 interested people took advantage of this opportunity.

Citizens' Forum in Baden-Württemberg

In the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the Citizens' Forum Covid-19 aimed to gather opinions and moods and make them visible.  The state government wanted to hear how people feel about the situation and what their needs are. How have people perceived developments? What are they expecting from the state government? In its recommendations, the majority of the Citizens' Forum was, among other things, in favour of a general vaccination obligation and against 2G regulations. The exclusion of the unvaccinated could lead to the division of society.

The 50 members were randomly selected from all parts of the country, from small communities and large cities, and from all age groups and social strata. "There are often craftsmen or nurses among them who otherwise rarely get involved," said Gisela Erler, State Councillor for Citizen Participation in the state government.  All citizens were allowed to feed suggestions for topics into the citizens' forum. It could be about the psychosocial consequences for older people, for example, or about neighbourhood assistance or culture. The Citizens' Forum met monthly online from December 2020 to December 2021.

Citizens' Forum in Thuringia

In Thuringia, the state government had decided on 2 February 2021 to convene the randomly selected "Thuringian Citizens' Forum - Common Ways to Address COVlD-19 and Future Pandemics". The forum consisted of 51 people from all over Thuringia. It advised the state government on its Covid-19 measures.

A citizens' report published on 26 November 2021 included 55 recommendations. The core demands include avoiding school closures and improving the situation in care.  The consultations focused on questions of motivation of learners and teachers, hybrid teaching for pupils in quarantine or learning arrears. In addition, the forum was concerned about a split in society due to the introduction of the 2G rule in everyday life. An evaluation is planned for mid-2022, which will be published on a digital platform for citizen participation and also discussed.

"Forum Covid-19" in Saxony

In Saxony, a representative cross-section of citizens debated experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic and measures against it in a citizens' forum. For this, 50 people from all over Saxony came together in seven online sessions from July 2021 to January 2022.The participants represented a cross-section of the population in terms of age, gender, level of education, regional origin and migration background.

The report of the forum participants contains 43 recommendations and around 190 ideas in a total of four fields of action: Health, Education, Economy, and Politics and Administration. The Citizens' Assembly considers goals such as better pay for skilled workers in the care and health sector, equipping schools with modern digital infrastructure and sufficient staff, unbureaucratic and rapid financial support for all eligible persons, and open communication by politicians to be particularly important. The results were sent to the Saxon state parliament and the state government and incorporated as recommendations into the decision-making processes.

Covid-19 Assembly in Oregon

For the "Oregon Citizens' Assembly on Covid-19 Recovery", too, there was a random selection from the total population. In July and August 2020, 36 randomly drawn people from across Oregon worked together to develop recommendations "for a fair and equitable way forward beyond the Covid-19 pandemic".

From a variety of questions submitted by several state senators, Citizens' Assembly members had selected this question: "What connections do you see between the pandemic and inequalities in social/economic structures - what lessons have been learned? Given the increasing interest in Racial Justice - how important is this issue? How much do we need change now? How important is it to seek fundamental changes in the system after a pandemic?"

Recommendations on housing and education

The randomly selected participants formulated recommendations on housing and education, both of which were adopted by broad majorities. For example, it was recommended to help the homeless and those threatened with homelessness. A moratorium is to be introduced to prevent forced evictions. Those affected by the consequences of the pandemic should receive financial support and food. Employees in important sectors should receive a bonus for their efforts.

In the area of education, the Civic Council members recommended that pupils and parents be trained in how to obtain information from the internet. Counties and districts should make their infrastructure available to church and other support groups that provide lunch for students. Pupils should be offered support groups, and children with special needs should be given special support.

Health control and safety measures

Online meetings should be used to monitor the mental health of children and young people, and school rooms should be used for joint activities such as dance or art. Further, it was recommended that school districts and local governments join together to develop metrics and safety measures to maintain social distancing distances and regulate the wearing of masks and safety precautions.

The Covid-19 Assembly had been organised by Healthy Democracy and Oregon's Kitchen Table, organisations with long experience of sortition. The deliberations of the randomly selected members took place online. From 9 July to 20 August 2020, there were seven small group sessions, each lasting two hours. Throughout the process, those drawn were advised by business and education experts. Participants received an expense allowance of 700 US dollars. All joint meetings of the Citizens' Assembly members were broadcast live on the internet. The entire process was observed and evaluated by independent experts.

Broad citizen participation in Bristol

A broad citizen participation on the Covid-19 pandemic took place under the title "Your City Our Future" in Bristol, England. An online survey of residents was conducted from 5 August to 28 September 2020. They were allowed to comment on what they liked and disliked about living in Bristol before the Covid-19 measures. They could describe their experiences during the lockdown and explain how they would like to see Bristol in the future.

After the survey was completed, the city published a summary of the results. The next stage was an online discussion forum in late September/early October to gather ideas for Bristol's future. The survey and discussion forum were intended to help find out what citizens agree on and where there might be disagreement. On 16 January 2021, a citizens' assembly had begun its work to build consensus on contentious issues.

Recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly

This citizens' assembly published its recommendations to politicians in March 2021. In it, the city council is called upon to support local companies in such a way that necessary measures for carbon neutrality are possible in the area of housing within five years. To this end, the council is to present an implementation programme. Innovative financing offers are to be developed for homeowners and landlords. The various sustainability programmes and initiatives should be bundled into one offer.

The Council should also introduce a set of tiered Bristol Standards (from minimum requirements to best practice aspiration standards) relating to energy use and efficiency for all domestic and commercial refurbishments, building upgrades, developments and new builds. Corresponding planning regulations are to be formulated. A pilot project for a street or a neighbourhood is to be used to show what could be achieved if the city strives for the goal of carbon neutrality.

Climate-friendly mobility for all

To make mobility easier, healthier and more environmentally friendly for everyone in the city, the city council should work with citizens, businesses and stakeholders in an inclusive and transparent process to meet climate commitments through a sustainable transport system. Air pollution from vehicles should be reduced to acceptable levels.

By 2030, Bristol should become the best city internationally for mobility by providing sustainable, safe, healthy and accessible alternatives to the car for all residents. The city should be fundamentally redesigned to be people-centred by creating liveable neighbourhoods. As a matter of principle, citizens should be involved in transport policy planning and its implementation. "Make the process accessible, responsive and fun!" says one of the recommendations.

For a healthy Bristol

In the area of health policy, the participants of the citizens' assembly call for prioritising a healthy environment for all citizens. Businesses should be required to act with social responsibility. Local communities should be involved in decision-making processes to provide the services and actions they want to promote healthy lifestyles. Awareness of and access to health information, education and services based on local needs should be improved.

The whole administration should be dedicated to reducing health inequalities and improving the health of citizens. The focus should be on accountability, partnership and transparency in measuring and using public health data. The city should invest in an equitable start in life from pre-birth to young adults (up to 25 years).

"Citizens' Liaison Committee" in Grenoble

In the French city of Grenoble, a committee of 120 residents of the six city districts, randomly selected from telephone lists, has been meeting monthly since November 2020 until April 2021.  The "Comité de liaison citoyen COVID-19" was made up of half men and half women, and one third of the participants were younger than 25. Those drawn by lot form a joint committee with representatives of local associations, trade unions, groups, etc.

The members of the committee were informed about measures taken by the city to deal with the health crisis. They informed the elected officials and city services about the current concerns of the residents. They have also been asked to identify future risks from the residents' perspective. Under professional facilitation, participants were invited to engage in dialogue to express their views on planned measures and to voice their concerns.

Citizens' council and mirror group in Nantes

A mixture of a citizens' assembly working on long-term solutions and an advisory board reacting to the Covid-19 situation in the short term existed in the French city of Nantes. From 13 November 2020 to 13 February 2021, 80 randomly selected citizens dealt with the consequences of the pandemic. Part of this was a mirror group of 20 citizens' assembly members who discussed current measures against Covid-19 with elected local politicians. It was also planned that the Citizens' Assembly should decide on three questions to be addressed to all citizens of the city.

The members of the Citizens' Assembly were completely free to choose the issues they want to discuss. Their mandate was to prepare a citizens' report to identify the threats, vulnerabilities, opportunities and resources of the municipality in the context of the Covid-19 crisis, and prioritises the needs and expectations of the residents of the city and the neighbouring areas. The citizens' report, published on 11 March 2021, contains proposals for a more solidary city, new forms of living together, for informing and protecting residents and for supporting change. These proposals will serve as recommendations for action by the elected officials of the city. During the process, not only the randomly selected members of the Citizens' Assembly, but also all citizens were able to contribute their ideas and suggestions in November and December.

Citizens' committee in France

In France, a "citizens' committee" consisting of 30 randomly selected people was convened on 10 January 2021.  This "collectif de citoyens" is accompaning and monitoring the government's Covid-19 vaccination strategy and should build confidence for the vaccination measures. Among those drawn, participants are selected according to age, gender, region, level of education, occupation and type of housing. In addition, all invitees had to answer the following question: "Do you intend to get vaccinated against Covid-19 in 2021?". The answers were ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, which should make it possible to better visualise all the opinions of French society.

The citizens' committee started its work on 16 January 2021, which will last throughout the vaccination campaign. Members are also tasked with addressing "fears, resistance and ethical issues that vaccination can raise". According to a survey, every second respondent in France did not not want to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Citizens' Assembly in North Macedonia

A UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) project in North Macedonia used the citizen assembly model to address high rates of vaccine hesitancy and mistrust of government - illustrating the need for such mechanisms when public trust is under strain in emergencies.

It used a random selection of citizens from all age groups and demographics - and an equal mix of those planning and not planning to take the vaccine.  In the Citizens' Assembly, the participants met for 10 full-day online sessions from February to July 2021. They were asked to find common ground for recommendations that would answer the question: What can we do to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 cases? After the discussions the assembly has produced a final report with 15 concrete policy recommendations to be presented to Government officials in public hearings.

Citizens' assembly on COVID-19 policy

According to a report published in the Tagesspiegel on 19 April 2024, the German government is considering setting up a citizens' assembly to review COVID-19 policy. "As a first step, we are proposing a citizens' assembly in which randomly selected people can describe their experiences and make recommendations for the future," Katja Mast, First Parliamentary Secretary of the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag, told the Tagesspiegel.

According to the report, the Greens and FDP are also open to the idea. "For us Greens, it is crucial that we clarify quickly and, if possible, in consensus with the other democratic parliamentary groups how we can come to terms with the COVID-19 period," Irene Mihalic, First Parliamentary Secretary of the Greens, told the newspaper. Several instruments are conceivable for this, in addition to a commission of enquiry in parliament, this also includes the idea of a citizens' assembly.

FDP also in favour of a commission of enquiry

The Liberals were also in favour of the idea of a Citizens' Assembly, but they maintained their wish for the establishment of a commission of enquiry. This would be the "gold standard for having highly complex legal and scientific issues analysed by independent experts", said Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus, Parliamentary Secretary and health expert for the FDP parliamentary group in the Bundestag. However, her party is open to "further bodies such as a citizens' assembly".

"A citizens' assembly and a newly created commission offer the opportunity to hold these debates without foaming at the mouth," SPD parliamentary group leader Mast told the Tagesspiegel newspaper. In this way, the rifts caused by the pandemic could be overcome. According to the report, the parliamentary group leaders want to agree on a common approach in the coming week. According to the "Tagesspiegel", the CDU/CSU is sceptical about a reappraisal.

Open letter

Back in August 2020, BUND, Bund der Steuerzahler (Taxpayers' Association), Foodwatch and Mehr Demokratie (More Democracy) wrote an open letter to the leaders of the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag calling for the decisions of the federal government and the Bundestag in the COVID-19 crisis to be scrutinised by a parliamentary commission of the Bundestag. The results should be presented to a sortition-based citizens' assembly, which will evaluate them and develop recommendations for the future.

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