What are Citizens’ Assemblies?

If democracy as a system is to survive, we will have to accept that it cannot be reduced to voting alone. Yes, the main strengths of elections are accountability and competency. However, their main weakness is that they are the source of political inequality and a systemic partisanship, which undermine an objective and impartial dialogue for the benefit of all, and not for a specific class represented by a particular party. Such a situation has gradually created the current crisis of democracy best exemplified by the spreading wave of populism. Citizens are becoming deeply disillusioned by being systematically manipulated by politicians of various provenance, using the power of the latest socio-psychological techniques applied by the mainstream and social media. That’s why elections and referenda must be invigorated with new ways in which citizens can participate. We have to think ‘out of the box’ and see that elections are only one of the tools of democracy.

One of the best examples was a Constitutional Assembly in Ireland. It was set up to review several articles of the Constitution of Ireland. In October 2012, the Irish government appointed the chairman of the convention, an economist Tom Arnold. An independent research bureau selected a random group of 66 citizens, drafted by a lot, taking account of age, sex and place of birth from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Among the members of the convention were also 33 elected politicians who were selected proportionally from each party. This group met one weekend per month for more than a year. The diversity that process produced was helpful when it came to discussing such subjects as same-sex marriage, the rights of women or the ban on blasphemy in the current constitution. However, they did not do all this alone. Participants listened to experts and received input from other citizens (more than a thousand contributions came in about gay marriage). In January 2014 the chairman of the Constitutional Convention addressed the Seanad on the Convention’s work, listing the principles under which it operated as openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency, and collegiality.

The decisions made by the Convention did not have the force of law; the recommendations first had to be passed by the two chambers of the Irish parliament. Only then were the recommendations put to a vote in a referendum. The referendum approved the proposed changes, resulting in important modification of the Irish Constitution.

One variant of such a random selection of delegates has been applied by the Kurds in their referendum on independence carried out in September 2017. It is called Democratic Confederalism, and its key proponent is Abdullah Ocalan – the Kurd leader who has spent the last 20 years in a Turkish jail. Under democratic confederalism, the power is devolved not from top down but from bottom up. The basic, lowest level of a political unit is a local assembly representing a village or an urban district. These assemblies then elect people to represent their interests in wider confederations, which in turn choose members to provide a voice in the region as a whole (Ocalan rejects the idea of a nation state). The federal government is purely administrative: it does not make policies but implements the proposals passed to it by the assemblies.

There are hundreds of examples worldwide of various political topics debated by Citizens Assemblies, such as:

  • Danish Consensus conferences give ordinary citizens a chance to make their voices heard in debates on public policy. The selection of citizens is not perfectly random, but still aims to be representative.[1]
  • Half of the delegates to the South Australian Constitutional Convention 1998 were randomly selected citizens (the other half included parliamentarians), to consider changes to the state constitution.[2]
  • In 2004, a randomly selected group of citizens in British Columbia[3] convened to propose a new electoral system. This Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was repeated three years later in Ontario[4].
  • ‘Democracy in Practice’, an international organization dedicated to democratic innovation, experimentation, and capacity-building, has implemented sortition within schools, randomly selecting members of student governments in Bolivia. [5]

The most current global list of places worldwide where Citizens’ Assemblies have been used can be found on the Sortition Foundation site, which also provides a further justification for using this type of direct democracy. By August 2021, Citizens Assemblies have been used in about 250 cases worldwide.[6]

Advantages of Citizens’ Assemblies

So, what is the advantage of such a direct democracy in the form of a Citizens’ Assembly instead of holding a referendum? It is a direct democracy in a sense, that all citizens have the same chance of participating in a decision making process. But instead of all of millions of people making such a decision themselves, a person is selected randomly by using selection criteria, such as age, gender, financial position, education, family situation etc. In that way a randomly selected person is statistically almost identical to tens of thousands of citizens. Splitting a society in such statistically identical groups allows to randomly select just a dozen or so people from each group, to achieve the voting preferences of a whole nation.

So, let’s gather some evidence and draw some conclusions on how a Citizens’ Assembly could be used to improve democracy. There are some publications, which can help answer some questions related to the effectiveness of using Citizens’ Assembly, such as Oliver Dowlen book ‘Sortition: Theory and Practice’, the research paper by David Owen and Graham Smith on ‘The circumstances of sortition’, Brett Hennig’s, book “The End of Politicians”, David Van Reybrouck book “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy” or Tom Malleson’s research paper: “Should Democracy Work Through Elections or Sortition?” This is how these authors see the advantages of a Citizens’ Assembly:

  • Equality of representation. Citizens’ Assembly is much more representative than electoral systems, since it is a random sample, which would produce in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. More importantly, since today’s elections are so often centred on image, media influence and personality, politicians can easily be accused of acting in a manner that will earn them votes, rather than upon their principles and beliefs. If representatives are selected by a random sample, promoted participants are forced to put aside tribal agendas and concentrate on common affairs in a cohesive manner. In a representative democracy, equality of representation is probably the weakest point, whether it is First Past the Post, Alternative Voting System or Two Rounds System. By their very nature, elections have inbuilt ‘unrepresentativeness’, because those who have the time, money, and connections, are likely to be on average wealthy, educated, and from dominant social positions. The democratic aspect that everyone can choose, co-exists with an undemocratic aspect, where invariably it is the elites who tend to be chosen[7]. That argument by Tom Malleson is much weaker for countries where voting is mandatory because voting should not be considered as a right, it is also a responsibility.
  • Cognitive diversity. This is not the same as gender, ethnicity, value-set or age diversity, although they are often positively correlated. According to numerous scholars’ cognitive diversity is more important to creating successful ideas than an average ability level of a group. Simply put, random selection of persons of average intelligence performs better than a collection of the best individual problem solvers (e.g. elected MPs)[8]. One might agree with that providing that to select people with average intelligence, would require setting up a certain minimum education.
  • The risk of corruption is reduced and attention to the common good increases. Elected representatives to be re-elected must create, what Tom Malleson calls, ‘networks of power, influence, lobbying, and patronage’. Members are keen to accumulate money and contacts that will be needed to win the next term if they want to be re-elected. Critics of electoral politics argue that electing representatives by vote is subject to manipulation by money, media, and other powerful means[9]. That would be a lesser problem if only two electoral terms can be served by politicians, since in the second term they would not have to gather capital and support for the next term, enabling them to say what they believe rather than appease their supporters.
  • Empowering ordinary people instead the representatives of the elites. An inherent problem with electoral politics is the over-representativeness of the politically active groups in society who tend to be those who join political parties. For example, in 2000 less than 2% of the UK population belonged to a political party whilst in 2005 there were at best only 3 independent MPs so that 99.5% of all UK MPs belonged to a political party. As a result, political members of the UK population were represented by one MP per 1800 of those belonging to a party[10].
  • Rational decision making. Voting on the basis of gut feeling is replaced by sensible deliberation, as those who have been drafted are exposed to expert opinion, objective information, and public debate.
  • Randomly selected members’ loyalty is to their conscience rather than to a political party because being appointed by a random selection they do not owe anything to anyone for their position. Contrary, elected representatives typically rely on political parties in order to gain and retain office. This means they often feel a primary loyalty to the party and will often vote against their conscience to support a party position[11].
  • Freedom to make own decision. Citizens chosen by lot may not have the expertise of professional politicians, but they add something vital to the process: freedom. After all, they don’t need to be elected or re-elected.
  • Limiting the negative effects of intra-elite competition e.g. during the exchanges in the Parliament when MPs may support not a decision that would be best for the nation but such that the public likes most (populism).
  • Rotation – no selected member will serve more than one session
  • Fairness and equality. Random selection is inherently egalitarian in that it ensures all citizens have an equal chance of entering office irrespective of any bias in a society. Compared to a voting system, even one that is open to all citizens, a citizen-wide random selection scheme for public office, or for a citizen’s assembly, lowers the threshold to an office[12].
  • Representing those with opposing views and minorities. Selected members represent the cross-section of the whole of the society and thus ideally fulfil this requirement, whilst elected representatives have little or no incentive to respond to constituents from other parties.
  • Impartiality. Selected members of a Citizens’ Assembly are selected, rather than elected precisely for the reason that their decisions will in principle be impartial. An elected representative on the other hand, could in theory be impartial as an individual, subject to a party whip (discipline). However, as a member of a party, he will have to support decisions and solutions, which quite often are not impartial because they are made on behalf of the winning part of the electorate. Unless a government is set upon a Scandinavian model, where decisions are made through consensus with the opposition, i.e. are to a large degree impartial and taken in the best interest of the whole nation, there is little scope for impartiality in current Western democracies.

Disadvantages of Citizens’ Assembly system

  • Random selection does not discriminate for competence. The most common argument against pure random selection (that is, with no prior selection of an eligible group) is that it does not discriminate among those selected and takes no account of particular skills or experience that might be needed to effectively discharge the particular offices to be filled. By contrast, systems of election or appointment ideally limit this problem by encouraging the matching of skilled individuals to jobs to which they are suited[13].
  • Chance misrepresentation. If selection or decision is made based on randomness, there is always a statistical possibility that it may put into power an individual or a group that do not represent the views of the population, from which they were drawn. This argument may apply to juries. However, the modern process of jury selection and the rights to exclude particular jurors by both the plaintiff and defence, lessen the possibilities of a jury not being representative of the community or being prejudicial towards one side or the other. Today, therefore, even juries in most jurisdictions are not ultimately chosen through pure random selection. Regarding larger groups, the probability of selecting of a very one-sided view group is statistically insignificant[14].
  • Lack of commitment by the selected members. In an elected system, the representatives are to a degree self-selecting for their enthusiasm for the job. Under a system of pure, universal random selection, individuals are not chosen for their enthusiasm for their role and therefore may not make good advocates for a constituency.
  • Lack of feedback or accountability. Unlike elections, where members of the elected body may stand for re-election, a Citizens’ Assembly does not offer a mechanism by which the population expresses satisfaction or dissatisfaction with individual members of that Assembly. Thus, there is no formal feedback, or accountability mechanism for the performance of officials, other than the law[15].
  • Legislation agenda and scope. As David Owen and Graham Smith indicate in their paper ‘The circumstances of sortition’ ‘A Citizens’ Assembly embedded within a bicameral system, will also be subject to pressures from the elected chamber, especially when there is disagreement between them… The small number of members, length of term, and specialization of roles also invites more insidious forms of influence – namely, corruption and bribery” [16]. To overcome that deficiency, they propose, as do other researchers in this area, that for a permanent Citizens’ Assembly it should be given an agenda and scope but not develop it further.
  • Public influence and ‘control’ over representatives. Random selection gives the public a kind of control but only over the selection process. Once the representatives to a Citizens’ Assembly have been selected, voters have no influence on them at all. The only way this can be rectified is to have a process of recalling such members and substituting them with others from the waiting pool of the Citizens’ Assembly members. On the other hand, elected representatives to a Parliament are by the very nature of elections totally under the control of the voters but only during the elections. During the election term, the only influence the voters have, is a threat that next time they may not be voted in, if they do not keep their promises, or stick to their party manifesto. This deficiency could, however, be fairly easily rectified if there had been a fast process of recalling representatives should their voting pattern and/or behaviour been unacceptable to his constituents. There is such a process in several countries already, like in the UK, but it is used very seldom, or the threshold needed to recall a representative is too high.
  • Citizens’ Assembly members’ competency. Incompetence of the selected members is one of the most common arguments against using it as an additional tool to improve democracy. D. v. Reybrouck asks: “How could randomly selected members of the public be capable of understanding and making sound decisions on complex policy problems? It would be just a sheer luck. However, similar arguments were once put forward against allowing peasants, workers, or women to vote. Then, the opponents also claimed it would mark the end of democracy. A body of elected representatives undoubtedly has more technical competencies than a body chosen by a lot. But the elected do not know everything either. They need staff and researchers to fill the gaps in their expertise. In much the same way, a representative body chosen by lot would not stand alone. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens.”[17].

Citizens’ Assemblies are a relatively new addition to making political decisions. Its shape and form evolve as more experience has been gained eliminating some of the disadvantages listed above. Perhaps the best testing ground is the most recent Conference on the Future of Europe, which started in May 2021, and which is to deliver its recommendation in spring 2022. It is potentially the most significant role ever played by Citizens’ Assemblies. Throughout the entire period of 8-10 months of the Conference, ordinary, randomly selected citizens will join these debates and have a say/vote over any decision taken by the Conference. It will ignite a debate on the way in which citizens can co-govern their country throughout the term of the whole parliament, rather than just on the election day, in a new style of democracy.

The decision-making body is the Conference Plenary. The Conference is to discuss 10 subject areas (called Topics). Each of these Topics is to be deliberated in one of the 12 chosen EU countries in a series of debates at National Citizens Assemblies. Each such a National Assembly will select delegates to the European Citizens’ Assembly, which is part of the Conference Plenary. If the final result of the Conference broadly follows the proposals coming from the European Citizens’ Assembly, then it may create an unexpected opportunity to convert the Conference into a de facto Constitutional Convention. This may then lead to a tighter EU integration, possibly creating the European Federation.

Fig. 1 The role of a Citizens’ Assembly in the Conference on the Future of Europe[18]

Although Citizens’ Assemblies are not a silver bullet solution, they could help correct some deep fault lines in the current democratic system. Citizens’ Assemblies bring to democracy two very important elements: neutrality and diversity. Most electoral systems in representative democracy still split societies into political classes. A Citizens’ Assembly would normally limit the period served by the delegates to one specific session, discussing one issue only, thus continually bringing people with fresh ideas and different perspectives on life and societal cohesion. As can be seen, the major advantage of a Citizens’ Assembly is that it is quite literally the rule by the people. It is completely non-discriminatory, more diverse, and less corruptible than a typical electoral system in a representative democracy.

Citizens’ Assemblies can help by practically eliminating the class-driven policy and decision-making system. We should also remember that both for the developed as well as for the developing democracies, a Citizens’ Assembly can be used effectively to weed out, or at least minimize, corruption and bring about more cohesive consensual politics.

Advocates of Citizens’ Assemblies insist that a legislature consisting of randomly selected citizens would perform significantly better than an elected chamber in terms of deliberation and impartiality. Without party discipline or the need to refer to any constituency, members would be free to listen to each other, learn and change their minds. Evidence gathered with so called mini-publics, shows that, under the right conditions, citizens can engage in a high-quality impartial deliberation.

Those who may suggest not to hurry and first test the concept as an independent auxiliary political body, which would stay outside national or regional parliaments, are reminded that we now live at the time when change happens at an almost exponential, rather than linear pace. What once took a decade, now takes less than a year. Neither Europe, nor the world have decades to tinker with new democratic ideas. We have just several more years left to implement a deep reform of democracy.

In summary, Citizens’ Assemblies seem to be a significant improvement over referenda enabling citizens to express their preferences in political decisions, a typical feature in a direct democracy system. However, to have a real and continuous impact on politics, Citizens’ Assemblies should not be called just every few years to debate an important legislation. Rather they must become a permanent part of a legislative system at every level within a new democracy, linking representative democracy with direct democracy and giving citizens a continuous real influence in political decision-making.

Therefore, a Citizens’ Assembly should be converted into a Citizens’ Senate.

[1] Wikipedia, Citizens’ Assemblies – Denmark, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens%27_assembly#Denmark

[2] Wikipedia, Australian Constitutional Convention 1998, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutional_Convention_(Australia)

[3] Wikipedia, British Columbia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Columbia

[4] Wikipedia, Ontario, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontario

[5] Wikipedia, Bolivia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolivia

[6] Sortition Foundation, ‘Citizens’ Assemblies and sortition around the world’, https://www.sortitionfoundation.org/where

[7] T. Malleson, “Should Democracy Work Through Elections or Sortition?” 01 2018, https://ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/929-utopias-2018/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Malleson-PS-special-issue-on-sortition.pdf.

[8] G. D. a. O. Dowlen, Sortition: Theory and Practice, Amazon books, 2010.

[9] T. Malleson, “Should Democracy Work Through Elections or Sortition?” 01 2018, https://ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/929-utopias-2018/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Malleson-PS-special-issue-on-sortition.pdf.

[10] D. O. a. G. Smith, “The circumstances of sortition,” 2017, https://ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/929-utopias-2018/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Owen-and-Smith-PS-special-issue-on-Sortition.pdf#page=1&zoom=auto,-169,368.

[11] David van Reybrouck, ‘Britain does not need a second referendum, it needs a preferendum’ in ‘The Guardian’, 17/12/2018

[12] B. Henning, “End of Politicians,” 2018, https://unbound.com/books/the-end-of-politicians/

[13] Xenophon, “Xenophon – Memorabilia,” Wikipedia, 10 08 2017. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorabilia_(Xenophon)

[14] Wikipedia, “Sortition,” Wikipedia, 26 1 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sortition.

[15] [15] Wikipedia, “Sortition,” Wikipedia, 26 1 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sortition.

[16] D. O. a. G. Smith, “The circumstances of sortition,” 2017, https://ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/929-utopias-2018/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Owen-and-Smith-PS-special-issue-on-Sortition.pdf#page=1&zoom=auto,-169,368.

[17] D. v. Reybrouck, “Why elections are bad for democracy?,” 29 06 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/29/why-elections-are-bad-for-democracy .

[18] Tony Czarnecki, Sustensis, ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’, June 2021, https://consensus.sustensis.co.uk/the-future-of-europe-conference/