Citizens’ Assemblies

There are a lot of ways to transform cities, and people often focus on new technologies, changing streets, adding parks, building differently, and all of these can work. However, there’s a way that might sound simpler but can actually have a huge impact and change how all the other ones are implemented: governance. How are governments run, by whom and for whom? A growing number of cities and nations are hoping to repair dysfunctional democracies with citizens’ assemblies.

A citizen assembly is a group of people picked at random to represent the wider public and make recommendations to the governments in place. The idea is not new, it’s inspired in part by sortition, invented by Athenians in the 6th century BC, has been rekindled since the 1980s, and now a wave of “citizens’ assemblies has been building, and has been gaining momentum since 2010.”

Over the past four decades, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have received invitations from heads of state, ministers, mayors and other public authorities to serve as members of over 500 citizens’ assemblies and other deliberative processes to inform policy making. […]

Important decisions have been shaped by everyday people about 10-year, $5 billion strategic plans, 30-year infrastructure investment strategies, tackling online hate speech and harassment, taking preventative action against increased flood risks, improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and many other issues.

It is, of course, a bit more complicated than just picking people out of a hat, the goal is to provide “democratic spaces for everyday people to grapple with the complexity of policy issues, listen to one another and find common ground.” To do so in an informed manner, the group is usually accompanied by domain experts, they have time to learn about the topic at hand, ask questions, discuss amongst themselves and with the experts, and let solutions and agreements emerge.

They bring out the collective intelligence of society — the principle that many diverse people will come to better decisions than more homogeneous groups. […]

Research also shows that being a member of a deliberative body strengthens people’s agency. It creates a collective consciousness and allows us to harness our collective capacity.

One recent and inspiring example just recently started work in Paris. Although the process was slowed by the pandemic—it stemmed originally from the “gilets jaunes”—there is now, in place and working, a citizen’s assembly.

If you were to be selected as a member of the Paris Citizens’ Assembly, you would have four responsibilities. First, you would shape investment priorities by deciding on the theme of the following year’s city-wide participatory budget of 100 million euros.

The group’s proposals take the form of a local bill and are submitted to the Paris council to be debated and voted upon.

You and the other Assembly Members are asked to put yourselves in the shoes of the broader community and think about the public good, to weigh the evidence you receive, to listen to others in the room, to come to an informed public judgement and to find common ground.

The article provides more details on how the assembly functions, and includes other examples, such as in the Belgian cities of Ostbelgien and Brussels.

Brussels, Belgium, the regional Parliaments have connected representative citizen deliberation to parliamentary committees in the form of mixed deliberative committees, where parliamentarians and citizens work directly together to address an issue across party lines.

There are now many examples around the world, and enough experience already to provide abundant evidence that this kind of deliberative democracy works, that when properly structured and supported, they can help solve challenges and, importantly in these times, overcome polarization and strengthen trust.

More: Also at Noema magazine, an article arguing that the same type of assemblies could be used to make finance more democratic and equitable.

Image: Antenna on Unsplash.