A citizens' assembly is a body formed from the citizens of a state to deliberate on an issue or issues of local or national importance. The membership of a citizens' assembly is randomly selected, as in other forms of sortition.
The purpose is to employ a cross-section of the public to study the options available to the state on certain questions and to propose answers to these questions through rational and reasoned discussion and the use of various methods of inquiry such as directly questioning experts. In many cases, the state will require these proposals to be accepted by the general public through a referendum before becoming law.
The citizens’ assembly aims to reinstall trust in the political process by taking direct ownership of decision-making. To that end, citizens' assemblies intend to remedy the "divergence of interests" that arises between elected representatives and the electorate, as well as "a lack in deliberation in legislatures."
The use of citizens' assemblies to reach decisions in this way is related to the traditions of deliberative democracy and popular sovereignty in political theory. While these traditions stretch back to origins in ancient Athenian democracy, they have become newly relevant both to theorists and politicians as part of a deliberative turn in democratic theory. From the 1980s to the early 1990s, this deliberative turn began, shifting from the predominant theoretical framework of participatory democracy toward deliberative democracy, initially in the work of Jane Mansbridge and Joseph M. Bessette. Since, citizens' assemblies have been used in countries such as Canada and the Netherlands to deliberate on reform of the system used to elect politicians in those countries.
Ordinarily, citizens' assemblies are state initiatives. However, there are also examples of independent citizens' assemblies, such as the ongoing Le G1000 in Belgium or the 2011 We the Citizens initiative in Ireland.
In recent years citizen's assemblies have been proposed as a potential solution to dealing with divisive and highly-politicised issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and decarbonisation measures.
The global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion has called for citizen's assemblies on climate change to be used by governments to make decisions on climate and environmental justice. In the UK, Extinction Rebellion's 3rd demand is: 'government must create and be led by the decisions of a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice.'
Membership of a citizens’ assembly is deliberate, specific and integral to fulfilling the assembly’s goal. Some of the components of membership for the assemblies are described below.
A crucial component of citizens’ assemblies, quasi-random selection or sortition is used to promote political equality and inclusiveness in the assembly. Unlike elections, which many claim elects elite, selection by lot permits true representation of any respective community. Random lotteries have become an alternative to elections on the grounds of equality, cost efficiency, and representativeness. The selection of participants in citizens’ assemblies aspires to be completely random but is actually only nearly random, therefore quasi-random, due to the additional variable of self-selection and contrived over-representation of minorities. The issue with pure random selection is that people cannot be forced to participate, and those who opt out of participation make the citizens’ assembly less than representative. Due to this variable, pure randomness must be abandoned and certain quotas on a basis of gender, ethnicity, or various other categories considered, which has been applied in citizens’ assemblies in the past. Though this makes the selection process only quasi-random, some posit that it is a better option. The use of lot in governance has historic significance and was actually famously implemented in the Athenian democracy and various European communities to allow for more fair governance.
Regular turnover of representatives is a requisite component of citizens’ assemblies: The participants of citizens’ Assemblies are subject to a limited amount of time to serve. This standard is instituted to preserve the representative nature of the assembly and to discourage any bias. The regular turnover of representatives is critical to maintaining cognitive diversity in the long term and avoiding the creation of an elite class or oligarchy. When there are no term limits, there is a serious threat that the assembly will become homogenous or turn to private interest, losing sight of the common good.
The size of a citizens’ assembly is very deliberate and designed to capture a representative cross-section of the population in question. The size will depend on the purpose, demographics, and population of the community the assembly aims to represent in order to capture statistical soundness. The citizens’ assembly is relatively small in order to make it more manageable and to enhance the deliberative process. Therefore, most Citizens' Assemblies consist of between 50 - 200 citizens. In Ireland, the 2016 Citizens' Assembly was composed of 66 citizens, 33 representatives chosen by political parties, and a chairperson. The 2019-20 Citizens' Assembly of Scotland consists of 100 citizens. The 2020 Citizens' Climate Assembly UK consists of 110 members of the public.
The function and goals of a citizen’s assembly have no apriori limits. Though examples of assemblies have been historically limited to proposals concerning electoral reform, the purpose of the citizen’s assembly could potentially be anything as it relates to governing.
Proposal power versus decision-making power
Though citizens’ assemblies were used as a method of governing in Greek democracy, modern citizens’ assemblies have been given merely the power to propose rather than the power to enact. Considered a type of experiment, Citizens’ assemblies sometimes function as a sort of referendum, in which the decisions made during the assembly are communicated to or put to vote in Parliament or another elected governing body. Sometimes a proposal from a citizens’ assembly is sent to the general electorate as a referendum.
A key component of citizens’ assemblies is its deliberative nature. Deliberation allows for the education of participants, who formerly may be uninformed on the specific issue of interest. Citizens’ assemblies typically provide access to experts on the matter, ranging from politicians to analysts to scientists. By incorporating the views, information and arguments of experts and then asking the participants to engage in collaborative discussion, citizens’ assemblies aim to educate the people selected, and ultimately, produce a vote or result representative the educated public interest. Deliberation allows for representation of the common person while attempting to remove the issue of ignorance or apathy, which typically goes hand in hand. Similar initiatives like Deliberative polling attempt to utilize this benefit.
Additionally, John Parkinson argues that the intent of deliberation in democratic systems is to "replace power plays and political tantrums with 'the mild voice of reason.'" Deliberation is a process concerned not only with procedural effectiveness but also with substantive epistemic outcomes. Parkinson continues that the process reframes "political legitimacy" as involving "not just doing things right, but doing the right things." This view contrasts with the purely procedural account of legitimacy, of which John Rawls says "there is a correct or fair procedure such that the outcome is likewise correct or fair, whatever it is, provided the procedure has been followed properly." While deliberation is itself a procedure, it is also epistemically driven, and thus broadens the consideration of legitimacy.
Agenda-setting refers to establishing a plan for the substantive issues on which to deliberate in a citizens' assembly. In major examples of citizens' assemblies, such as those in British Columbia and Ontario, the legislature set the agenda before the assemblies were convened (in both these examples, the agenda was electoral reform). Robert Dahl states, however, that final control over agenda-setting is an essential component of an ideal democracy: "the body of citizens...should have the exclusive control to determine what matters are or are not to be decided." This problem remains long unresolved, as both agendas imposed from outside the citizens or from a small body within them both limit the people's ultimate control of the agenda. While the petition process theoretically extends the possibility to set the agenda to all citizens, the gathering of signatures is a difficult process for citizens or even groups without the necessary resources. James Fishkin writes "The equal opportunity is formal and symbolic, while effective final control is exercised by those who can finance the signature gatherers."
Citizens' assemblies have been used in British Columbia and Ontario (2006) in Canada, in the Netherlands (2006), in the Republic of Ireland (2016), Poland (2016) and the United Kingdom (2019 onwards). The citizens' assemblies in Canada and the Netherlands dealt with the question of electoral system reform. In each of these examples, citizens were selected through a semi-random process that ensured an even geographic and demographic spread of participants. Participation was voluntary, invitations were sent out randomly to people listed on the electoral register inviting interested people to respond. The final participants were selected from those who responded in a manner that ensured a fair representation of people from different places and backgrounds. As part of participating in the assembly, members in the Canadian and Dutch assemblies were given introductory courses to electoral politics before receiving presentation on alternative proposals for electoral reform and deliberating on their recommendations.
160 people and one chair participated in the British Columbia citizens’ assembly to specifically discuss and issue guidance on electoral reform in British Columbia.
The selection process of this assembly was quasi-random. One man and one woman was randomly selected from each of the British Columbia’s 79 electoral districts in addition to two aboriginal members and the chair. These members were selected by a civic lottery that ensured a gender balance and fair representation by age group and the geographical distribution of the population. There were three stages to the selection process: First, 15,800 invitations were mailed to random British Columbians with 200 in each constituency, which asked if they were willing to put their names into a draw for future candidacy. The names then went through two more pools of selection.
The selection process resulted in an assembly that was not very representative of the larger public insofar as the members were widely dissatisfied with BC's current electoral system from the very start, while surveys of the public indicated it to be relatively satisfied.
Amy Lang noted two similarities across those who were finally selected amongst the 160 citizens: an interest in learning, especially about the political process, and a commitment to process once it has started. She writes that "this is likely to have contributed to the excellent working dynamic within the Assembly."
Emphasizing the importance of representativeness in the selection process, Michael Pal wrote of the Citizens' assemblies in British Columbia and Ontario that "the requirement of an equal number of members from each electoral district resulted in Assemblies that did not reflect the actual population and may have skewed the outcome toward proposals that prioritized geographic representation." Therefore, a factor like geography limited the representativeness of the final assemblies, despite the fact that it allowed for a systematized process of selection. The overall intention is to ensure that the structure of selection does not have a skewing influence on the actual deliberation in the assembly.
The assembly first went through a twelve-week "learning phase" involving presentations by experts, group discussions and access to a range of source materials. Work included a review of different electoral systems in usage around the world and their various effects on the political process. This was followed by a public consultation phase lasting from May to June. Assembly members held over 50 public hearings and received a total of 1,603 written submissions. The members deliberated over which electoral system to recommend, and then the assembly voted on different options in three separate votes.
On December 10, the assembly's final report, titled "Making Every Vote Count: The Case for Electoral Reform in British Columbia" was presented to the B.C. legislature by the assembly. In May 2005, the recommendations from the assembly were accepted by 57.7% of voters in a referendum and were supported by a majority in 77 of the 79 electoral districts. However, the referendum required approval by 60% of votes and simple majorities in 60% of the 79 districts in order to pass. Consequently, no change ensued. The recommendations were rejected by 60.9% of voters in a follow-up referendum.
A total of 103 people took part in the Ontario citizen's assembly. The recommendations of the Ontario citizens' assembly were rejected in the ensuing referendum by 63% of voters, meaning the status quo remained.
Held in 2006 and composed of 143 randomly-selected Dutch citizens, the Burgerforum Kiesstelsel was tasked with examining options for electoral reform in the Netherlands. On December 14, 2006, the Burgerforum presented its final report to a minister of the outgoing People's Party (VVD), recommending changes to the electoral system. A response to the report was not delivered until April 2008, when it was rejected by the government of the then ruling coalition.
After the Irish financial crisis beginning in 2008, a citizen's assembly was among various proposals for political reform. In the 2011 general election, party manifestos included citizens' assemblies or conventions, for electoral reform (Fine Gael) or constitutional reform (Fianna Fáil, Labour Party, Sinn Féin, and the Green Party). The ensuing Fine Gael–Labour government's programme included a "Constitutional Convention" comprising a chairperson nominated by the Taoiseach, 33 legislators nominated by political parties, and 67 citizens selected to be demographically representative. It met from 2012 to 2014, discussing six issues specified by the government and then two issues chosen by itself. It issued nine reports, recommending numerous constitutional amendments and other changes to statute law and legislative practice. The government's response was criticised as lukewarm: it implemented a few recommendations, rejected others, and referred more to committees and the civil service for review.
The Fine Gael–independent minority government formed after the 2016 general election has committed to establishing "a Citizens’ Assembly, within six months, and without participation by politicians, and with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period." The Citizens' Assembly was formally established in July 2016.
Beginning in July 2016 after the municipal response to flooding was deemed inadequate by many citizens, in Gdansk, Poland citizen's assemblies comprising approximately 60 randomly-selected residents have made binding decisions to address major problems. The meetings of the citizen's assembly are calm and even described as enjoyable. Names from the city’s voter rolls are selected randomly by a computer but the membership is balanced according to demographic and geographic factors, such as education-level completed, sex and district, to represent a cross-section of the population. In this way, for example, the citizen's assembly has the same percentage of senior citizens as the city has. The citizen's assembly meets for several days, hears testimony from experts, asks questions and deliberates in small groups before rendering its binding policy decision.
Main article: Citizens' Assembly of Scotland
In 2019 the UK government announced the Climate Assembly UK, with 110 citizens due to meet over 4 weekends in January to March 2020, in order to deliberate over how the UK will reach its current net-zero emissions by 2050 target.
In 2019 the government of Scotland announced the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland with 6 meetings consisting of 100 citizens taking place between October 2019 and April 2020 to address 3 questions:
- What kind of country are we seeking to build?
- How best can we overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit?
- What further work should be carried out to give us the information we need to make informed choices about the future of the country?
In Belgium, the G1000 is a citizens initiative funded entirely by voluntary donations. It was launched during the Summer of 2011 with an online survey to identify issues citizens really cared about. More than 5,000 suggestions were put forward and ranked by thousands of citizens. After clustering of similar themes, 25 themes were put forward for a second round of voting. Next, a full day of deliberation bringing one thousand randomly selected people together took place on November 11, 2011, at Tour & Taxis in Brussels. The 1,000 target was not reached but over 700 of those who responded to invitations attended. Spread over tables with 10 people per table and after having been briefed by experts, the participants drew on proposals around the themes that emanated from the online process.
A smaller group of citizens, the G32, will gather regularly over the coming months to refine these proposals and transform them into concrete recommendations. These recommendations will be put to the rest of the country in April 2012.
Proposed citizens' assemblies
In the United Kingdom, following a series of public scandals in 2001, a petition campaign has begun to form a people's jury of 1,000 people to investigate issues around media ownership, the financial sector, MP selections and accountability and other matters.
Some political reformers have proposed establishing citizens' assemblies as permanent, elected bodies. Typically, these assemblies are proposed to consist of up to several thousand members elected at the same time as the traditional legislature. Due to the proposed size it is typically envisioned that such an assembly would conduct most of its business online, with their main power being the ability to approve or veto bills passed by the legislature.
In 2019, the ongoing Brexit crisis in the United Kingdom renewed propositions for citizens' assemblies. As a method by which to break parliamentary deadlock on the issue, citizens' assembles present a new forum in which to take on the situation. Neal Lawson, chair of pressure group Compass, has proposed citizens' assemblies made up of 500 randomly selected citizens that would deliberate on withdrawal from the European Union for several months.
While a citizens assembly is based on similar principles to those of ancient Athenian democracy, there is still difficulty in convincing the entire electorate that a deliberative body established through sortition is representative. There is a powerful and habitual conceptual connection between elections and democracy. Indeed, in a 2019 survey conducted of UK citizens by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, 57% of those surveyed thought that a citizens assembly would not be sufficiently democratic because it was not large enough. Where support was highest for a citizens assembly on Brexit in this survey was Northern Ireland. According to the RSA, this is perhaps due to greater awareness of the process thanks to the use of citizens assemblies in the Irish Republic.
Main proponents of citizens’ assemblies believe that the assemblies successfully breach the border of direct democracy by accomplishing two of the three general requirements for direct democracy, which are mass representation, deliberation, and equity. It permits open and public deliberation about future legislation, albeit among a small but genuinely representative body of citizens; and it permits ratification or endorsement of legislation by the whole electorate. Democratic values and superior results are also additional potential advantages of these institutions.
Representative and inclusive
Random lotteries have been explored as alternative to elections on many grounds, namely that it allows for more accurate representation and inclusivity. It is thought that a randomly selected group of people comes to embody the “median voter.” In tandem with the deliberative process, which involves the education of the participants, the citizens in assemblies are supposed to be a sample of the educated common person. Selection by lot undermines the elitist aspect of elections. In order to be elected, one typically requires certain privileges, like access to education, money, etc. Elections are intended to create a skilled class of people best apt to govern. Though elected legislators generally have more experience or governing competence, they also tend to represent a small cross-section of the population. Representative democracies have been criticized for not actually being representative at all. The lack of female and minority representation in Congress despite their demographic makeup is often cited as an example. Money in particular is argued to have a tremendous role in the outcome of elections. Scholars like Lawrence Lessig have argued that elections are dominated by money and wealth, citing examples like Citizens United v. FEC. When random selection is used alongside statistical analysis, an accurate representation of the public can be attained regardless of wealth, privilege, sexuality, gender, or race. Since the selection process of citizens’ assemblies is only quasi-random, due to self-selection and minority quotas, the lack of minority representation is additionally corrected, which proponents claim accounts for the potential exclusion of marginalized communities.
By virtue of employing random selection, citizens’ assemblies allow for increased cognitive diversity, otherwise understood as a diversity of problem-solving methods or ways of seeing and interpreting the world. The random selection of citizens’ assemblies allows for extensive and statistically representative cognitive diversity unlike elected representatives, who are typically characterized by uniform problem-solving methods. In a cognitively diverse setting, the people present are not the best-performing or most skilled agents, which citizens’ assemblies are often criticized for. Despite this concern, studies have been published, which contend that cognitively diverse groups produce better results than cognitively homogenous groups. A study conducted by Lu Hong and Scott Page posits that cognitive diversity is an important element of effective problem solving. They find in their research that when they selected two problem-solving teams from a diverse population of intelligent agents, the team of randomly selected agents outperformed the team of the "best-performing" agents. Deliberation amongst a diverse group can produce better results since unique perspectives and interpretations generally enhance analysis of an issue. These results demonstrate that when selecting problem-solving groups, it may be more important to maximize cognitive diversity over individual competence. For example, scholar Helene Landemore argues that the random selection of representatives rather than election results in increased efficacy, diversity and inclusivity. In fact, John Stuart Mill famously argued that governing assemblies should be a “fair sample of every grade of intellect among the people” over “a selection of the greatest political minds.” 
The benefits of deliberation have been explored as a superior form of democracy. Initiatives like Deliberative polling or more broadly Deliberative democracy aim to harness the benefits of deliberation to produce better understanding and resolution of important issues. Citizens’ assemblies are intended to be a genuine public forum for deliberation, in which the participants cannot be easily captured by special interest. Scholars like James Fishkin, who spearheaded deliberative polling, claim that deliberation promotes better problem-solving by educating and actively engaging participants. It is believed the deliberation additionally removes faction by emphasizing resolution over partisanship. Additionally, other citizens who were not selected as members of these assemblies have tended to perceive those chosen as both technical experts in the field and as a group of "ordinary" citizens like themselves. As happened in British Columbia, these features encouraged voter familiarity with the actions and objectives of the Citizen's assembly itself.
Citizens’ Assemblies exclude elected politicians from making certain kinds of decisions. Electoral reform, redistricting, campaign finance law, and the regulation of political speech are not well managed by self-interested politicians. The assemblies permit the people to decide what to do on a specific issue where politicians had self-serving interests and could not be trusted to decide dispassionately: the choice of the electoral rules by which they themselves would compete for office. According to proponents such as James Fearon, another strength of deliberative democratic models is that they tend, more than any other model, to generate ideal conditions of impartiality, rationality and knowledge of the relevant facts. The more these conditions are fulfilled, the greater the likelihood that the decisions reached are morally correct. Deliberative democracy has thus an epistemic value: it allows participants to deduce what is morally correct. This view has been prominently held by Carlos Nino.
Several experts posit that selection by sortition excludes the likelihood of over-representation of "special interests", whether business, labor, or social issues. It was credible to expect, therefore, that this group would be able to consider the specific issues presented to it in a reasonably neutral and representative way. Due to term limits and the unpredictable nature of participants, corruption becomes less likely.
Lack of order
Some critics contest that representative government is necessary for order, and that expanding the scope of decision making reduces this effect. For example, John Zaller argues that the mass public has almost no attitudes about the public issues and policies.
Incompetence of the common individual
A central criticism of the citizens’ assembly model and random selection more generally is that the members of the assembly are incompetent when it comes to governing. The "average citizen" in a country, some argue, is unequipped to lead, especially since the person would be of average intelligence and competence. Though cognitive diversity and deliberation may make for better problem-solving, some argue problem solving is not all there is to politics and that is where the citizens’ assembly fails. Arbitrating and compromising between competing interests and incommensurable values is certainly also a part of representatives’ tasks.
Some critics would say it is hard to ensure that briefing materials provided to participants are balanced and accurate. It is suggested that an advisory committee with a wide range of people are to be constituted; however, it can be challenging to obtain a balanced advisory committee at the first place. In this sense, it gives room for a biased and/or incomplete presentation of information.
Citizens’ assemblies require a lot of time, energy and fiscal support to occur. Between the three or more steps of the selection process, the actual deliberative sequence, and then decision-making, citizens’ assemblies can take years of preparation to come to fruition. In addition, to the extensive time necessary to hold a citizens’ assembly, there are also excessive pecuniary costs that must go into funding the venue, finding willing experts, and compensating the participants.
Lack of accountability
Scholars have emphasized the lack of accountability of citizens' assembly, as they do not provide the classical mechanisms of accountability of the electoral system that are "re-election or removal for office."
According to Mark E. Warren and John Gastil, in the British Columbia case of a citizens' assembly, other British Columbia citizens should have been able to "treat it as a facilitative trustee (a trusted information and decision proxy)." The participating citizens essentially become informal experts in the topics discussed in the assembly, allowing them to act as an extension of the larger public. However, the insertion of the citizens' assembly drew away much of the previous deliberative importance political parties such as the Green Party had once held.
The introduction of new deliberative models such as in this case had the effect of undermining the deliberative trust that parties and advocacy groups in the British Columbia system had invested in significantly to earn. While Jane Mansbridge acknowledges such a destabilization could be a necessary shock for a democratic system, it could also "undermine the epistemic, ethical, and democratic functions of the whole."
Another concern that is more broadly related to deliberation and has thus been applied to deliberative democratic institutions such as citizens' assemblies is that of group polarization. The concept is attributed to Cass Sunstein, who wrote "In a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments." James Fishkin has responded that the issue is one of structure for deliberative democratic institutions. Resources such as briefing materials and expert testimony are meant to provide balanced views of the issue(s) up for deliberation, and small group deliberation, particularly with final voting on secret ballots, are intended to control against social comparison.
Citizens’ assemblies requires those randomly sampled to gather at a single place to discuss the targeted issue(s). Those events are typically one to three days while online deliberations can take up to four to five weeks. Even though scientific random sampling are used and each person has an equal chance of being selected, not every selected individual will have the time and interest to join those events.
In real-world settings, attendance is low and highly selective, and there can be self-selection biases. In the case of Fishkin’s “Europe in one room project,” Data supports such concern as only 300 out of 869 respondents took up the invitation to participate in actual deliberative meetings. What is more important is that those who attended and those who did not differed significantly, and some groups in society are found to be significantly more likely to attend public meetings than others. In general, those who participate tend to be those highly motivated and opinionated. This could be problematic because both group dynamics and personalities of participants can play an important role in producing different outcomes of discussions.
There has been wide-ranging discussion about whether Mini-publics undermine democracy by removing mass-representation. The chance of being selected for an assembly is very small. When people are called to vote, they are given the opportunity to interact with the government and with the law, which is interesting and engaging. Elections and voting are an important moment of exercising sovereignty, even if the vote makes little difference. Eliminating elections undermines the consultation process that allows everyone to feel like an involved citizen in a representative democracy.
James Fishkin furthers the concern of mass-deliberation being neglected by mini-publics in his identification of a trilemma between the ideas of political equality, deliberation, and participation. In a body such as a mini-public, political equality is achieved through a random and ideally representative selection process, and deliberation is also achieved in the actions of the mini-public. However, since the body is only made up of a randomly-selected subset of the population, it does not achieve the goal of participation on a broad scale.
Fishkin's attempt to solve the trilemma so posed is to think beyond mini-publics, which are deliberative microcosms, to consider an entire deliberative society, which would constitute a deliberative macrocosm. He sees mini-publics as experiments by which to conceptualize the implementation of deliberation on a macro-scale later on down the line.
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