Citizens’ Assemblies: Democracy is in decline. Here’s how we can revive it

In a citizens’ assembly, members of the public convene to look for solutions to the toughest political challenges, like climate change. Why would a citizens’ assembly succeed where politicians fail?

Illustrations by Elise Vandeplancke (for The Correspondent)

The coronavirus pandemic broke out at a moment when democracy was already in intensive care. According to Freedom House, a US think tank, democracies around the world have been in retreat for a decade and a half; and when the virus struck, governments around the world began rolling back democratic freedoms in their attempts to fight it. A steady stream of books and articles warns us of an oncoming autocratic winter, with titles ranging from How Democracies Die to Surviving Autocracy

At the same time, we are seeing the seeds of a counter-movement: look around the world and you will find experiments in the opposite direction, designed to strengthen existing democratic structures and give rise to innovative new ones. The best-known democratic innovation is the citizens’ assembly. What is it, why is it a good idea and what are its drawbacks? We, proponents and advocates of this concept,  lay it out for you in this article.

  1. What exactly is a citizens’ assembly?
  2. Why do we need citizens’ assemblies?
  3. How does a citizens’ assembly work?
  4. Any other potential drawbacks
  5. What are the best resources if I want to find out more?

1: What exactly is a citizens’ assembly?

Let’s hear it!

A citizens’ assembly is a way to “crowdsource” political decision-making, putting the decision-making in the society’s hands. First you put together a representative group of members of the public, selected by lot, then they make policy recommendations on the basis of detailed information and extensive deliberation.

It’s a form of what’s known as “deliberative democracy”, This video explains in three minutes what ‘deliberative democracy’ isdemocracy based on consultation among the public and decision-making based on the outcome. The participants in a citizens’ assembly are a cross-section of society,  so women and men will be represented approximately as they are in the society in question, the group’s composition will be a reflection of the age demographics and cultural diversity of the society, there will be a high proportion of people with a vocational background and comparatively fewer with a university education, and they will come from both urban and rural environments.

The result of a citizens’ assembly is a joint resolution or set of recommendations that the initiator of the assembly (ideally  the government or other political body) uses to make decisions.

Ah, so this isn’t the same thing as a “town hall meeting” or a referendum?

No, it isn’t. A referendum usually reduces a complex subject to a yes-or-no question. This can have a very polarising effect (for an example, look no further than Brexit).Read my colleague Nesrine Malik’s article ‘Brexit by a thousand cuts: after 47 years, the UK leaves the EU with a whimper’

A town hall meeting is generally about a local issue, and intended to present plans that are already in an advanced stage to local residents. This often leads to frustration or disappointment because though you get to express an opinion, the plans are already there. A well-designed citizens’ assembly is set up much earlier in the process, and the participants are given the opportunity to have a serious input in the solutions.

Why would you organise a citizens’ assembly?

Because it helps politicians make faster and better decisions about divisive subjects. An example from Ireland: the discussion on relaxing laws on abortion was long an explosive topic in this strongly Catholic country. The largely conservative rural population and the increasingly progressive urban population continued to move apart on the issue. Parliament was in deadlock.

Finally, in 2016, the government organised a citizens’ assembly made up of 99 participants from all corners of the country. This assembly gathered information from experts, from people with personal experience on the subject, and from each other. The whole country was able to follow the deliberations via livestream. The outcome surprised everyone: the assembly’s consensus, by no small margin, was that Ireland’s long-standing restrictions on abortion should be relaxed. 

Changing the law still required a referendum,  but thanks to the outcome of the citizens’ assembly that happened without aggravating divisions within the country and without any members of parliament paying a political price.

OK, so it works for abortion legislation. But what about all the other issues facing society? Can a citizens’ assembly handle anything?

A citizens’ assembly can certainly be used to address a huge range of issues,  from local (should our town allow fireworks?) to national (should we build a new nuclear power plant?). Citizens’ assemblies work particularly well …

  • … when people’s opinions are divided (but they share underlying values). For example, tackling discrimination in the workplace or implementing the energy transition. These are subjects in regard to which people’s opinions seem to be divided, at least on the surface. But nearly everyone values being treated fairly and with respect, and wants their children to be able to grow up in a liveable environment; starting from these shared values, people can then work towards solutions.
  • … when a problem is complicated. Nearly every social problem has legal, social and financial aspects: if you tweak one, you likely ramp up the tension on another. In a citizens’ assembly, people experience how complicated making political decisions is. The way they arrive at a solution is by looking for a shared perspective, comparing various options and making choices.
  • … with issues that go further than the next election. Issues like building a new hydrogen plant or tackling water pollution. Here, you need to incur high costs or implement drastic measures now, in the short term, that will only produce benefits much later in the long term. Because the public has no next election to win, they can put the public interest and the long term first, and can be guided by the collective, rather than the individual, interest.

So you’re saying that randomly selected people are better at solving complex problems than the politicians elected to solve those problems?

In any event, at least as good. Want proof? Just take a look at the results achieved on issues like the storage of nuclear waste (Australia),  democratic innovation (Germany),  revision of the electoral system (the Netherlands)  and climate policy (Ireland,  the United Kingdom  and France).  It turns out the public is entirely capable of producing appropriate and well-thought-out recommendations. To be fair, whether these recommendations become public policy is another question, and not always a given. 

Of course, it’s important for everyone to have access to understandable information and to get to hear a variety of perspectives (more on this below). But even more important than information is the joint deliberation. This is what helps people arrive at a balanced conclusion, and to take a critical look at the frames and political agenda of the experts and stakeholders that are supplying the citizens’ assembly with information. 

2: Why do we need citizens’ assemblies?

Don’t we already have democratically elected representatives? Are you saying we need to get rid of them?

Absolutely not! A citizens’ assembly is not intended to replace a parliament or a municipal council; it is an extension to the current political system. We’re not saying that citizens should suddenly be able to adopt, abolish or change laws. But the result of a citizens’ assembly is not something plucked out of thin air, either. It is the political sector – whether the parliament, the municipal council, a government ministry, or the prime minister – that makes clear in advance what mandate  the citizens’ assembly is given: are the recommendations purely advisory, or will they (for example) be presented to parliament?

The political mandate ensures that the recommendations are taken seriously. For members of parliament and local officials, it’s a huge benefit to be able to discuss measures that they know are supported in the community. That makes the process a lot easier.

Tell me more about the advantages that a citizens’ assembly can offer. Why would politicians accept the outcome?

A citizens’ assembly makes very clear how much support there is in society for a change. In the current system, politicians usually get their ideas about support (or lack thereof) from town halls, social media and opinion polls. With town halls and social media, politicians don’t get to hear a true cross-section of society, but mainly the “angry man on the street”, people with a vested interest in the issue, and political junkies. Polls tend to be conducted among a more or less representative group, but without the respondents having an opportunity to properly inform themselves about the subject or exchange ideas about it with others. Consequently, the poll will be little more than a snapshot of uninformed opinions.

A citizens’ assembly gives a much more reliable picture of public opinion because participants not only have the opportunity to inform themselves but can deliberate with each other. The result: workable, well-considered recommendations that are supported in society.

Because dialogue is a critical feature of a citizens’ assembly, it is also very effective at fighting polarisation.  The more sensitive the issue, the smarter it is to convene a citizens’ assembly on it.

For politicians, another major advantage is that by giving citizens some responsibility in decision-making, they are showing that they trust the public. That, in turn, engenders more trust on the part of the public for the politicians. If used in good faith by politicians, citizens’ assemblies can foster mutual trust between politics and the people.

More trust between politics and the people, you say. Why do we need that?

Because more and more people are feeling increasingly alienated from politics and not represented by the political class. Many people, when they look at their elected representatives, see primarily college-educated white men from the big cities. It goes without saying that a population is made up of a lot more than that. Even though a parliament doesn’t necessarily have to be a perfectly proportionate reflection of the population, if the difference is too great, you inevitably have a gap between the elected representatives and the people they represent.

In a poll  conducted in 28 countries in late 2019, 66% of those surveyed said they did “not have confidence that our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges”. Indeed, “public disenchantment and distrust have reached historic highs”, as one recent report noted. 

A citizens’ assembly is not a panacea for every administrative and political problem, but can help with many. If we truly want government of, by and for the people, we need to update our democracies.

3: How does a citizens’ assembly work?

OK, so let’s talk about the practical side. What really happens in a citizens’ assembly? How does it work?

The first step is for the initiator of the assembly to formulate a question. Usually this initiative comes from a political body, but it might also be a question arising from society at large. The initiator then has to take a step back; the setup, composition and management of the process all have to be in the hands of an independent organisation.

After the participants have been decided by lot (this will be described in more detail below), the citizens’ assembly generally goes through three phases: learning, deliberating, deciding:

Learning. In the first phase, the participants are given information about the topic, from as many different perspectives as possible, in the most comprehensible format possible. They receive this information partially in the form of text, and partly in the form of presentations from academics and researchers, people with direct experience, stakeholders, etc. The participants can also request additional documents and speakers. All the information is placed online and all presentations can be heard via livestream, so everyone, not just those in the assembly, can access the information that the participants are working with. 

Deliberating. Next, the group breaks into smaller groups of approximately eight people each to deliberate. Together each small group tries to find solutions for a certain subtopic and drafts a number of recommendations.

Deciding. In this last phase, the whole group reconvenes to make decisions. The group votes on the recommendations resulting from the small group discussions. The results are set out in a final report drafted by the chairperson or a number of designated participants.

Does every proposal need to be approved unanimously by all participants?

No, there can be some dissenting votes among the participants. For each recommendation, the participants must indicate whether there were any objections in the group that could not be overcome. What is important is not whether everyone was fully in agreement with the recommendation, but the degree to which it was accepted in the group. This results in a percentage that expresses the degree of consensus. 

So people don’t get into fights the whole time?

No. Of course, some spirited discussions do arise during a citizens’ assembly, and these are very useful when they do: they point straight to the sensitive topics. Disagreement can be the start of the search for the best solutions.  

Participants would fight all the time if the citizens’ assembly was in the format of a debate, because that is a format framed around “winning” and “losing”. But the goal of a citizens’ assembly is something very different: to jointly arrive at a set of recommendations.

That’s why the deliberation within a citizens’ assembly is set up to encourage people to actively listen to each other, think critically and disagree respectfully. This is partly facilitated by independent discussion leaders who help to ensure that people try to understand each other and that everyone gets a chance to speak, especially those who are not used to public speaking. This way the participants exchange perspectives, creating the openings for the individual members to change their perspective. 

The participants learn to look beyond ideological, cultural and religious differences. Experience with citizens’ assemblies has shown that people with very different ideas about an issue can come to an agreement on solutions. In fact, it is the diversity in a group that increases the chances of generating new, original ideas  – this is the strength of a citizens’ assembly.

It sounds like this takes a lot of time! Are the participants compensated in any way?

Yes, because this approach to democracy is hard work. And one thing that a citizens’ assembly absolutely needs is time: time to learn about the subject, time to deliberate and time to formulate decisions. That’s why many citizens’ assemblies are set up with a time frame of six to nine months; in that time, the participants meet approximately once a month, over a weekend (on average, seven times).

Everyone has to be enabled to participate, which means that all practical obstacles (travel expenses, accommodation, childcare, leave from work or replacement, relief from family care duties) have to be taken care of by the organiser of the assembly.

While there may be some financial compensation, the most important takeaway for participants is more valuable than pay: more confidence in their own To get a sense of this, watch this short impression of the participants in the ‘More Democracy’ citizens’ assembly in Germanycapabilities Or see this documentary by Patrick Chalmers about the Irish citizens’ assemblyand in the political process. What it also generates is more co-determination and a stronger democracy in which citizens and politicians can look at each other as equal partners.

Is a citizens’ assembly expensive?

That depends on what you mean by “expensive”. The recent French citizens’ assembly on climate change cost a total of €5.4m (including accommodation, logistics, per diems for the participants and supervision).  That’s not much for a country with a GDP of over €2,350bn. 

You certainly sound very enthusiastic, but is this something people really want to get involved in? Right now, at a time when many people are getting turned off by politics, it seems to me there would be very little impetus to spend time sitting on a citizens’ assembly.

You might think so, but it turns out the opposite is the case. Research  in  the United Kingdom has shown that it is precisely those people who have been turned off by the current state of politics that want to participate in these types of initiatives. Generally, they’ve turned their backs on politics out of disappointment or frustration in not being heard, rather than out of a lack of interest; these people experience an invitation to participate in a citizens’ assembly as a sign that they are going to be taken seriously. 

OK, you’ve convinced me. How do I get selected to participate on one?

Well, bad news: you can’t register yourself for participation in a citizens’ assembly. Neither can we. If that was how it worked, we would run into the same problem that town hall meetings have: the discussion would be between the people with a direct interest (Nimbys) and people who have an above-average interest in politics.

The participants in a citizens’ assembly are selected by lot because this produces a better reflection of society, and also gives a voice to the people who generally do not have the chance to be heard, for example, because they belong to a minority or to the “silent majority”.

So how does this lottery work?

The objective of the selection by lottery is to make sure that every citizen of a country (or every inhabitant of a municipality or province) has the same chance of being selected. The group ultimately selected – usually made up of 100 to 150 participants  – is then a representative sample of the society. There are a number of ways to make sure this happens.

The most popular method  is a two-step process. In the first step, a randomly selected large group of people is approached with the question of whether they would like to participate in a citizens’ assembly. They receive a brief invitation in the post, by email, or by phone. Whether you are or are not invited is decided by lot. You can then choose to either respond to the invitation or not.

After this, a representative group accurately reflecting society is selected, once again by lottery, from the group of people who expressed interest. The technical term for this method is a stratified random sampling. This produces a microcosm of society.

This is how the selection for the recent climate citizens’ assembly in France was conducted: First, a computer was used to generate 255,000 random phone numbers. All these numbers were called with the question of whether the person would consider participating in a citizens’ climate summit. Next, of the people who said “yes” a representative sample of French society was selected: 49% male, 51% female; 62% living in a city, 15% from small municipalities; one-fourth with an educational level of secondary school or lower, one-fifth with a university diploma, and so on. 

That sounds like a pretty broad mix. So what came out of this citizens’ assembly in France?

President Emmanuel Macron had tasked a group of 150 members of the public selected by lot to make socially responsible recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in 2020. The participants produced a total of 149 proposals, such as: reducing the VAT on train tickets, a ban on fossil fuel advertisements, and a moratorium on building new airports and expanding existing ones. 

Macron rejected two of the proposals immediately (after having initially stipulated “trump cards” to allow this),  and two others had to be put to a referendum  because they would have required a constitutional amendment. The remaining 145 were sent, with “no filter”, to either the relevant government ministries (for immediate implementation) or to parliament (for voting and/or drafting into new legislation). 

Macron stated:  “Deliberative democracy is not a threat to parliamentary democracy, but complements and enriches it.” Not all members of parliament agree, however; some of the citizens’ proposals have been struck down in French parliament.  It remains to be seen how many of the citizens’ assembly’s recommendations will be implemented in a way that matches their ambition.

And who oversees the process of a citizens’ assembly? How do you make sure that organisation is independent?

The setup and supervision of a citizens’ assembly is handled by an independent organisation that does not have an interest in the issue. In the case of the recent citizens’ assembly on climate change  held in the United Kingdom, the process was set up and supervised by Involve and the Sortition Foundation, both organisations with a great deal of experience in deliberative processes. The Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat in France was organised by the Social, Economic and Ecological Council  under the supervision of a commission tasked with guaranteeing independence and transparency. Many organisations that have been known to supervise deliberative processes are members of the network DemocracyR&D.

Does that independent organisation then decide what information is discussed?

No. The organisation will generally ask a team of experts to catalogue relevant documents and speakers. And, as we already noted, the participants themselves can also request additional information and propose additional speakers. That means that if you are participating in a citizens’ assembly about climate change and want to invite a person who rejects mainstream climate science to speak to the assembly, you can. 

And what about the corporate lobbyists, do they get a chance to have their say too?

No, unless the participants in the assembly invite them to. Or, it may happen that someone who is a lobbyist is selected by lot as a participant. But keep in mind that everyone who is selected as a participant has their own interests. One might be a homeowner, another might be on disability – whatever a person’s situation is can colour their considerations. But a homeowner is also probably something else – a mother, a doctor, a caregiver – as a result of which she will not be concerned with a single interest alone (unlike a lobbyist).

The fact that lobbyists do not have a grip on the outcome is one of the citizens’ assembly’s greatest advantages. There are thousands of professional lobbyists working full-time to steer political decisions to the advantage of their clients. Multinationals have many more lobbyists in the halls of government than the healthcare sector or environmental groups do. This creates an undemocratic, skewed playing field: no one knows which lobbyists are talking to which politicians about what subjects and what arrangements they are making.

This is one reason why the activists of Extinction Rebellion  are doing everything they can to establish a citizens’ assembly on climate change. Right now, fossil fuel companies are spending tens of millions of euros  to influence climate policy, which is why Extinction Rebellion strives to get lobbyists out of politics and get the public in. This would go a long way towards levelling the playing field. 

The idea of randomly selected citizens making a fair judgment is the same concept as jury trials. Is there comparison to be made here?

Yes and no. Yes, because in a jury trial, randomly selected people are called to participate and use dialogue to arrive at a verdict (guilty or not). But there the similarity ends. Civilian juries consist of participants selected at random, but they do not necessarily make up a representative group: it is simply a lottery,  without stratification (breakdown by sex, age, etc). This means you could theoretically end up with the jury consisting of, say, only men. The membership of a citizens’ assembly will be a genuine reflection of society. 

Another significant difference is that jury members must base their determination on the arguments of only two parties, the defence and the prosecution. In a citizens’ assembly, participants are informed by a broad spectrum of sources. This means they are able to consider the subject matter from a great many more perspectives, which reduces not only the risk of polarisation within the group but also the risk of arriving at a deadlock.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Belgium already have experience working with citizens’ assemblies. These are all countries that have jury trials, and so have a history of involving randomly selected citizens in complex decisions.

4: Any other potential drawbacks?

Isn’t it a bit absurd to allow a small group of randomly selected individuals to determine policy for everyone else?

The citizens’ assembly doesn’t determine the policy; the parliament or municipal council still does that. The assembly only makes recommendations, which still have to be approved in government.

Experience has shown that the people who do not themselves participate in a citizens’ assembly nonetheless have confidence in the outcome, as long as the selection of the participants was truly random. 

Everyone had just as much chance to be selected, and there will definitely be someone matching your profile among the participants. So you may not have had a direct input, butsomeone like you did.  This increases the basis of support for the measures proposed by the participants.

I’m getting the impression that you are very enthusiastic proponents of citizens’ assemblies. But suppose you get a citizens’ assembly about climate change and the participants say: “Get rid of all this climate policy, we don’t see the point of an energy transition.” Would you still feel that a citizens’ assembly is such a good idea?

Yes – painful though it may be, if that is the outcome then that’s the way it is. But also take note: in the case of a citizens’ assembly about climate change, the instruction would most likely be to propose measures to reduce (or further reduce) CO2 emissions.

Even if the participants were given the mandate to reject the energy transition as a whole, it would be extremely unlikely that they would do so. In the spring of 2018, a 26-nation survey showed that about seven in 10 people believe that  “climate change is a major threat to their country”. Over 90% of Europeans polled in April 2019 think climate change is a serious problem; almost eight in 10 think it’s a very serious problem.  When given the chance to come up with solutions, people rise to the challenge. 

And what if there’s a diehard climate change denier or conspiracy theorist among the participants?

That person would have just as much right to speak as the others; within a citizens’ assembly there is no taboo against non-mainstream ideas. Having said that, good, independent discussion leaders can prevent a single person or small group of people from hijacking the entire process.

If politicians give a serious mandate to citizens, aren’t they abdicating their own duties?

No. Parliament remains responsible for legislation; the cabinet remains responsible for the implementation of that legislation. But elected and unelected officials can leverage the knowledge and creativity of the public to make their own jobs easier. They don’t need to solve every problem themselves, but should be able to call on the help of the public at large when they need to. Doing so is good for the confidence in the democratic system: in this country, the people genuinely govern themselves. 

This is why we call for holding citizens’ assemblies not just occasionally, but making them a fixed element of our democratic systems. In the German-speaking region of Belgium, they are already there; since last year, there has been a permanent Bürgerrat, Read this piece in Politico ‘Belgium’s democratic experiment’serving alongside parliament. It is a council of 24 citizens, selected by lot, who serve for eighteen-month terms. In those 18 months, they can initiate three assemblies of 50 participants each on a subject that they feel the Belgian parliament has not adequately addressed.

Doesn’t more public participation mean more delays?

You might think so, but the opposite has been shown to be true with citizens’ assemblies, which tend to be organised around complicated and politically charged issues that the political sector has long been unable to move forward on. Like the abortion legislation in Ireland, or climate legislation in France: in both cases, after many years of political impasse the citizens’ assembly succeeded in forcing a breakthrough relatively quickly.

The extensive research showing that a serious change of course will be necessary to stave off climate breakdown has been available to politicians for at least 30 years now. But nonetheless, the political sector in most countries has continued to fail to pass effective climate policy in all that time. In France, nine months after the first meeting of the citizens’ assembly the government had a set of recommendations in hand which, if implemented, would substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Compared to three decades, nine months is not a delay – it’s a virtually instantaneous tremendous step forward.

5: What are the best resources if I want to find out more?

Our viewing tips:

  •  “When Citizens Assemble”, Watch it heredocumentary by Patrick Chalmers.
  •  “Citizens, Assemble! Deliberative Democracy in 3 Minutes”, Watch it hereexplainer video Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Washington, DC.
  •  “What if we replaced politicians with randomly selected people?” Watch it hereTEDx Talk, Brett Hennig.

And reading tips, like these reports …

Articles …

… and finally books

  • Manuel Arriaga, Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics (2014).
  • Brett Hennig, The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy (2017).
  • David Van Reybrouck, Against elections (2013).

Do you still have any questions about citizens’ assemblies? Ask them in the conversation section below!

This article first appeared on De Correspondent.  It was translated from Dutch by Kyle Wohlmut. With thanks to Patrick Chalmers.