Citizens' assembly

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Not to be confused with popular assembly.

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 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.[1]

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.

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.

Defining Features of Citizens' Assemblies[edit]


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.[2] Unlike elections, which many claim elects elite, selection by lot permits true representation of any respective community.[3] Random lotteries have become an alternative to elections on the grounds of equality, cost efficiency, and representativeness.[4] 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.[5] 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.[5] Though this makes the selection process only quasi-random, some posit that it is a better option.[3] 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.[1][3][4][6]

Term Limits[edit]

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 representative 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.[1]


The size of a citizens’ assembly is very deliberate and designed to capture a representative cross-section of a the population in question.[5] 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.[1]


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 vs. Decision-Making Power[edit]

Shimer College Assembly deliberation.

Though citizens’ assemblies could be used as a paradigm for a for governing, citizens’ assemblies have exclusively been given proposal power rather than decision-making power. Considered a type of experiment, Citizens’ assemblies oftentimes 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.



The city council of The Hague deliberating in 1636.

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 benefits.

Examples of Citizens' Assemblies[edit]

Citizens' assemblies have been used in British Columbia (2004) and Ontario (2006) in Canada, in the Netherlands (2006). 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.

British Columbia[edit]

See Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform (British Columbia) for more details.

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.[7] 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 were 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.[8]


The Assembly first went through a 12-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 1603 written submissions.[9] The Assembly members held over 50 public hearings and received a total of 1603 written submissions. The members deliberated over which electoral system to recommend, and then the Assembly voted on different options in three separate votes.[10]


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. The recommendations from the Canadian citizens' assemblies went direct to a referendum.


See Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform (Ontario) for more information.

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. 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[1] after a public education campaign.


142 people participated in the Dutch citizens’ assembly. The recommendations from the Netherlands' Citizens' Assembly (Burgerforum) went to the Dutch national parliament, where they were indeed adopted as law.

Independent initiatives[edit]

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.[11][12]

Proposed citizens' assemblies[edit]

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,[13] and Second Republic, a grass-roots group who produced a Proposal for an Citizens' Assembly on Political Reform in Ireland.[14] The topic has also been extensively discussed on the academic blog,

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.[15]

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.

Advantages of Citizens’ Assemblies[edit]

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[edit]

Random lotteries have been explored as alternative to elections on many grounds, namely that it allows for more accurate representation and inclusivity.[6] 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.[3] 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[4]

Cognitive Diversity[16][edit]

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.[16] In a cognitively diverse setting, the people present are not the best-performing or most skilled agents, which citizens’ assemblies are often criticized for.[2][16] 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.[3][16] Deliberation amongst a diverse group can produce better results since unique perspectives and interpretations generally enhance analysis of an issue.[16][17] 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.[16] 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.” [18]


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.[19][20] Citizens’ assemblies are intended to be a genuine public forum for deliberation, in which the participants cannot be easily captured by special interest.[6][21] Scholars like James Fishkin, who spearheaded deliberative polling, claim that deliberation promotes better problem-solving by educating and actively engaging participants.[22][23] It is believed the deliberation additionally removes faction by emphasizing resolution over partisanship.[2][22]

Common Interest[edit]

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.[4] 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.[2][3] 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.[24] This view has been prominently held by Carlos Nino.[25]



Major Criticisms[edit]

Lack of Order[edit]

Some critics contest that representative government is necessary for order, and that expanding the scope of decision making. For example, John Zaller argues that the mass public has almost no attitudes about the public issues and policies.

Incompetence of the Common Individual[edit]

A central criticism of the Citizen 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.[3] 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.

Briefing materials[edit]

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.[26] 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 the funding the venue, the experts, and compensating the participants.

Are Citizen Assemblies Legitimate Decision Makers in a Democracy?[edit]

Are they Representative?[edit]

"An important issue is the status of a citizens' assembly as a representative institution. It is not representative in the traditional electoral sense; citizens of British Columbia did not elect them as their representatives in this process. Instead, the quasi-random process of selection that was used ensured a different kind of representativeness in the resulting body. It was representative of the gender composition of the province, and it was modestly representative of the range of income, age, and education that was present in the province. It was necessary to add several slots to provide representation for indigenous groups. And, most important, it was a process that essentially excluded 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."

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.[22] 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.[21] Data supports such concern as only 300 out of 869 respondents took up the invitation to participate in actual deliberative meetings.[27] What is more important is that those who attended and those who did not differed significantly,[28] and some groups in society are found to be significantly more likely to attend public meetings than others.[29] In general, those who participate tend to be those highly motivated and opinionated.[21] In contrast, research papers from Stanford show that in general the samples are representative.[citation needed]

As both group dynamics and personalities of participants can play an important role in producing different outcomes of discussions,[28] deliberations can inhibit the types of results Fishkin envisions.[30]

Are Mini-Publics killing mass-representation?[edit]

Wide range discussion

Christina Lafont, 014 Should Deliberative Mini-Publics Shape Public Policy

How Citizen Assemblies Compare to Other Mini-Publics

Gooden (2006) and Dryzek definition. Defined differently by two different people. Deliberative Impacts: the macro-Political Update of Mini-Publics." Politics and Society.

Deliberative Polls[edit]


Decision Producing[edit]

produce decisions

Citizen’s Jury[edit]




How Citizen Assemblies Compare to Other Mini-Publics

Gooden (2006) and Dryzek definition. Defined differently by two different people. Deliberative Impacts: the macro-Political Update of Mini-Publics." Politics and Society.

Deliberative Polls[edit]


Decision Producing[edit]

produce decisions

Citizen’s Jury[edit]



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Manin, Bernard (1997). The principles of representative government. Cambridge University Press. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Stone, Peter (2011). Lotteries in Public Life. Imprint Academics. ISBN 978-1845402082. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Delannoi, Gil and Oliver Dowlen (2010). Sortition: Theory and Practice. Imprint Academic. ISBN 978-1845401993. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Dowlen, Oliver (2009). The Political Potential of Sortition: A study of the random selection of citizens for public office. Imprint Academic. ISBN 978-1845401795. 
  5. ^ a b c Warren and Pearse (2008). Designing Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge University Press. p. 10. 
  6. ^ a b c d Barnett, Anthony and Peter Carty (2008). The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords. 
  7. ^ Elections BC (May 17, 2005). Report of the Chief Election Officer: 38th Provincial Election/2005 Referendum on Electoral Reform (PDF). p. 34. 
  8. ^ Blais, André; Kenneth Carty; Patrick Fournier (2005)
  9. ^ Elections BC (May 17, 2005). Report of the Chief Election Officer: 38th Provincial Election/2005 Referendum on Electoral Reform (PDF). p. 34. 
  10. ^ Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform of British Columbia, Final Report (December 2004). Making Every Vote Count: The Case for Electoral Reform in British Columbia (PDF). p. 10. 
  11. ^ "G100". Retrieved 2 January 2012. 
  12. ^ "Et si on avait essayé le G1000?". Le Soir. 29 November 2011. Retrieved 2 January 2012. 
  13. ^ We the Citizens (19 June 2011). "The Citizens’ Assembly – June 25th / 26th". Retrieved 16 August 2011. 
  14. ^ Second Republic (2011), Proposal for a Citizens' Assembly on Political Reform (PDF) 
  15. ^ Lawson, Neal; Simms, Andrew (31 July 2010), A People's Jury of a Thousand Angry Citizens, Guardian 
  16. ^ a b c d e f Landemore, Hélène (May 2013). "Deliberation, cognitive diversity, and democratic inclusiveness: an epistemic argument for the random selection of representatives". Synthese. doi:10.1007/s11229-012-0062-6. 
  17. ^ Hong, Lu; Page, Scott E. (2004-11-16). "Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101 (46): 16385–16389. doi:10.1073/pnas.0403723101. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 528939. PMID 15534225. 
  18. ^ Mills, John Stuart (1875). Considerations on Representative Government. Henry Holt and Company. 
  19. ^ Fishkin, James (2009). When the People Speak. Oxford UP. 
  20. ^ Fishkin, James S. "Deliberative Polling: Executive Summary". CDD. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  21. ^ a b c Scheufele, Dietram A. (January 2011). "Modern Citizenship or Policy Dead End? Evaluating the need for public participation in science policy making, and why public meetings may not be the answer". Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy Research Paper Series. 
  22. ^ a b c Fishkin, J.S.; Luskin, R.C.; Jowell, R. (2000). "Deliberative polling and public consultation". Parliamentary Affairs 53 (4): 657–666. doi:10.1093/pa/53.4.657. 
  23. ^ "Deliberative Polling: Toward a Better-Informed Democracy" Stanford University, Center for Deliberative Democracy
  24. ^ Elster, Jon (1998). Chapter 2 (essay by Fearon).  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^ Nino, Carlos (1996).  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. ^ Siu, Alice. "Deliberative polling". CIVICUS. Retrieved 12 November 2012. 
  27. ^ Fishkin, J. S. (1995). The voice of the people. New Haven: Yale University Press. 
  28. ^ a b Merkle, D. M. (1996). "The polls - Review - The National Issues Convention Deliberative Poll". Public Opinion Quarterly 60 (4): 588–619. doi:10.1086/297775. 
  29. ^ McLeod, J. M. D.; Scheufele, D. A.; Moy, P. (1999). "Community, communication, and participation: The role of mass media and interpersonal discussion in local political participation". Political Communication 16 (3): 315–336. doi:10.1080/105846099198659. 
  30. ^ Admir, J. G. (1996). "The Hawthorne effet is a common artifact in social research". Public Perspective 7: 14–16.