A citizens' assembly is a body formed from the citizens of a modern state to deliberate on an issue or issues of national importance. Typically, 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. In many cases, the state will require these proposals to be accepted by the general public through a referendum before becoming law.
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. Citizens' assemblies have been used in Canada and the Netherlands to deliberate on reform of the system used to elect politicians in those countries. In Iceland, citizens' assemblies have been used to inform broader constitutional reform. Similar initiatives have been proposed in the UK and Ireland.
Ordinarily, citizens' assemblies are state initiatives. However, there are also examples of independent citizens' assemblies, such as the on-going Le G1000 in Belgium or the 2011 We the Citizens initiative in Ireland.
Citizens' assemblies have been used in British Columbia (2004) and Ontario (2006) in Canada, in the Netherlands (2006) and in Iceland (2009 and 2010). The citizens' assemblies in Canada and the Netherlands dealt with the question of electoral system reform. In 2010, the citizens' assembly in Iceland was tasked with overseeing the creation of a new constitution. It followed a 2009 grass-roots' citizens' assembly that look at broader questions of Icelandic civic values.
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. 142 people participated in the Dutch citizens' assembly, 160 in the British Columbia citizens' assembly and 103 took part in the Ontario citizen's assembly. The 2010 Icelandic Constitutional Assembly composed of 25 elected participants, and followed a National Forum of 950 people. Participants in the Constitutional Council were full-time and entitled to a leave of absence from work for the duration of the Assembly, which lasted four months. Participants in the Canadian and Dutch citizens' assemblies were part-time. These assemblies lasted much longer.
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. The recommendations from the Canadian citizens' assemblies went direct to a referendum.
The recommendations of the Ontario citizens' assembly were rejected in the ensuing referendum by 63% of voters, meaning the status quo remained. The recommendations from the British Columbia citizens' 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, and the recommendations were rejected by 60.9% of voters in a follow-up referendum after a public education campaign.
The recommendations from the Netherlands' Citizens' Assembly (Burgerforum) went to the Dutch national parliament, where they were adopted as law.
The Icelandic Constitutional Council has finished its work and has presented its proposed new constitution to the Icelandic parliament. In reality the Althing can make changes to the new document and could even reject it outright — although that seems unlikely.
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 Ireland, political reform has become a popular topic since 2008 due to the Irish financial crisis and also due to accumulating revelations of political corruption. As a means to decide on political reforms, the idea of citizens' assemblies — and other similar processes — are gaining in popularity. During the 2011 general election, most of the smaller parties and all of the major political parties that were then represented in parliament included commitments to supporting a process of this kind. Subsequently, the new government has proposed a "Constitutional Convention", 67 of whose 100 members would be ordinary citizens chosen randomly from the electoral register.
Several lobby groups are also campaigning for a citizens' assembly in Ireland. These include We the Citizens, who hosted a citizens' assembly in order to demonstrate the merit of citizens' assemblies in practice, and Second Republic, a grass-roots group who produced a Proposal for an Citizens' Assembly on Political Reform in Ireland. The topic has also been extensively discussed on the academic blog, politicalreform.ie.
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.
- British Columbia electoral reform referendum, 2009
- Ice News (30 July 2011). "New Icelandic constitution handed to Althingi". Retrieved 2 January 2012.
- Haroon Siddique (9 June 2011). "Mob rule: Iceland crowdsources its next constitution". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 January 2012.
- "The Constitutional Council - General Information". Retrieved 2 January 2012.
- "G100". Retrieved 2 January 2012.
- "Et si on avait essayé le G1000?". Le Soir. 29 November 2011. Retrieved 2 January 2012.
- We the Citizens (19 June 2011). "The Citizens’ Assembly – June 25th / 26th". Retrieved 16 August 2011.
- Second Republic (2011), Proposal for a Citizens' Assembly on Political Reform (PDF)
- Lawson, Neal; Simms, Andrew (31 July 2010), A People's Jury of a Thousand Angry Citizens, Guardian