Citizens’ assemblies: a democratic answer to partisan deadlocks

By Carl Sjölin Fagerlind

Imagine if we could reach consensus on polarised issues like abortion or climate change, which for years politicians have largely failed to adddress, by randomly picking ordinary people to discuss them together – sounds like a naïve utopia, right? Yet this very real method, the citizens’ assembly, has lately found quite the success in breaking deadlocked cases. And as you’ll soon read, it holds great promise of improving the democratic process.

Ancient roots, contemporary strengths

Like democracy itself, the citizens’ assembly traces its roots back to the ancient Athenians. The highest governing offices of the city-state were not selected through popular elections: as popularity could be bought, voting was not considered as the fairest method of choice. Instead, these statesmen were randomly chosen, providing everyone with the same chances. Emphasising chance was a cornerstone of fair rule in Athens. Recently, this concept has surged to popularity again.

They allow progress on issues too controversial for politicians to tackle.

Let me introduce you to it. What I here generalise as citizens’ assemblies have many variations, and are today quite different from ancient times, though the core point still lies in selecting participants by chance. Usually, roughly 100 people are chosen at random, mirroring a community or country by age, gender, income, education, geographic distribution, etc.

To ensure no one is unable to partake, all members are compensated for lost income and expenses. They are then assigned political questions on which headway has been scarce. After being briefed by experts they will, over several occasions, discuss, compromise and possibly agree on solutions. Their position will then be forwarded to – and ideally acted upon by – authorities. 

In the last years, citizens’ assemblies have been employed in various forms both locally and nationally in countries such as France, the UK, Belgium and, perhaps most successfully, the Republic of Ireland. After the Irish elections of 2011 and 2016, two citizens’ assemblies were set up to, mainly, discuss same-sex marriage and abortion. The groups agreed for both to be legalised. The Irish public later resoundingly agreed, in two referendums (2015 and 2018).

For a long time, these questions were considered far too divisive for politicians to approach in the deeply Catholic country of Ireland, but the citizens’ assemblies sent a clear message. And while far from all of the suggestions were followed, the Irish example shows the main benefits of citizens’ assemblies: they allow progress on issues too controversial for politicians to tackle, and by their nature, lead to well-thought-out solutions able to reach a wide consensus.

A meeting of an Irish citizens’ assembly.

But why?

By now, you are probably wondering why a group of randomly selected citizens would make better decisions for society than politicians? One of the key tenets of the citizens’ assembly is deliberation, participants are given several opportunities to discuss and think about an issue together to find the best way forward. Experts and interested parties are given time to thoroughly brief the assembly and make their cases. Then the participants discuss together, weigh the options, debate and try and find a middle ground that they can agree on. While elected representatives are often set in their own politics from the start; that’s how they get into office after all.

If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work — Prof. James Fishkin

The members of a citizens’ assembly can also bring the perspectives of their own varied lives. Making it a place to cross the thoughts and opinions of all the people who make up a community. It can also allow inputs and testimonies from the public; allowing those not selected to still be heard. All of this combined is what makes the magic of a good citizens’ assembly. All factors are considered, and everyone is represented and heard. Whatever decision is finally reached will not be made on a whim but well thought out and something a stable majority agrees upon.

This is not only how it ideally works. Studies and experiments with this type of decision-making have shown how the involved participants tend to change their initial positions and coalesce together around a common consensus. This makes it crucially different from a poll or referendum, people have to take in information and think before they give their opinion.

Naturally, some will argue that a cross-section of the people cannot be trusted with important policies and decisions, given their lack of experience. Stanford professor James Fishkin, who has pioneered experiments with citizens’ assemblies poignantly argued against this notion in Time Magazine 2010

“If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study their briefing books, ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions. When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves. About 70% change their minds in the process.”

A German-speaking region of Belgium recently instituted a permanent citizens’ council. Here seen at work discussing nursing in 2020.

Trust the process

Another interesting function of how citizens’ assemblies are set up is that they can easily work to legitimise themselves. 

It’s nothing new that our elected representatives often come under heavy criticism for being out of touch with ‘common’ people. While a debatable opinion, it undeniably gains a lot of traction because many don’t feel heard or see themselves represented in government. 

Citizens’ assemblies visibly address this concern, as pure chance, adjusted to mirror the population on key factors, will include and give a voice to all groups within society. This could do wonders for public trust in the conclusions reached when decided and presented by a representative group of ordinary citizens. Many of whom probably would not have actively engaged in politics had they not been selected.

Given some time to think, that is. 

Selection by lot will also eliminate the risk of nepotism, careerism or vested interests getting a grip of the participants, ensuring that the conclusions cannot simply be dismissed as corrupt, as often happens in polarised discourses. 

Citizens’ assemblies do not have to act in secrecy. The assemblies in Ireland were open to public viewing, both online and in-person, allowing the entire country to attend the debate and deliberation. No backroom deals, closed negotiations or horse-trading: all is out in the open serving to further validate the process. 

What’s the takeaway?

All of this adds up to the fact that citizens’ assemblies can be very useful tools for constructive dialogue and genuine results, giving those in charge a much more nuanced view of what the electorate strives for. Given some time to think, that is. In systems like that of the US, where bipartisanship is politically detrimental, democracy is doomed without some forum for compromise. 

Also, the conclusions drawn by a citizens’ assembly and the process that proceeds them can, as I have argued, be more representative and transparent than the legislative process is today. This could directly tackle the issue of distrust many countries face.

I’m not arguing to replace representative democracy, merely to add an input. The public debate today is usually dominated by parties, NGOs, think tanks and other selective cliques. Citizens’ assemblies, on the other hand, give space to everyone in society to come together in a constructive and open discussion about the issues we all face. Surely, that is democracy at its finest.

Thumbnail photo: “Extinction Rebellion Solidarity with the French Citizens Assembly on Climate” by Matt Hrkac is licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Common

Photo 1: “Citizens Assembly BIO MX13” by Maxwell Photography

Photo 2: “BR1_Sitzung_alle” by PDG/CK

Carl Sjölin Fagerlind works as a mailman in Uppsala. He spends most of his free time rewatching sitcoms, playing curling or studying an eclectic cocktail of languages, history, philosophy and politics. Going down Wikipedia rabbit holes on any trivial topic catching his interest has claimed many hours of his life.

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