There is already a semi-direct democracy in switzerland. Why do we need citizens’ assemblies (CAs)?
It is true that our political system is among the most democratic in the world. Nevertheless, a certain number of dysfunctions can be noted.
Firstly, the political participation and representation of the population. First of all, the political participation rate hardly passes the 40% mark and it is often the same categories of people who participate. Secondly, due to the elective nature of our system of representative democracy, some social groups are less represented in parliament than others. Thus, the interests of the various categories of the population are unequally defended. On the other hand, a CA whose members are drawn by lot from among the population is representative of the whole society and of all the interests involved.
Second, decisions made by the population in votes, initiatives and referenda are often influenced by the communication of competing parties. This influence is made possible by the fact that few citizens are fully informed about the issues to be voted on. This is why direct participation in the political decision-making process, including a learning and deliberation phase, is crucial for making an informed opinion on the objects in question.
Why do you not try to push your request through an inititive as the common way?
History has shown, that initiatives take up to 10 years until a decision is made because of different factors such as lacking will to take hard decisions or referendums. We don’t have the time to wait 10 years until we are able to tackle pressing issues such as climate change.
Why do the assembly members need to be randomly drawn by lot?
Let’s explain the method in more detail, as the sortition process isn’t a just simple lottery. First, a number of people are drawn randomly from the population concerned by the problem on which the assembly has been mandated to work: this step gives a chance to every citizen to get engaged, not just to people with prior interest or knowledge. Secondly, the ones who agree to go further in the process pass through another random sortition, this time designed to create a representative sample that will make up the assembly. This semi-selection is based on demographic criterias such as age, gender, origins, education, etc. Objective: create an assembly that mirrors the society in all its proportions and, in this way, should better speak for it. This avoids the formation of decision-making elites, which would falsely represent the population, since not everyone benefits from their status.
CAs can ensure reprensentativity, but aren’t parliaments and councils already representative enough?
They are only representative to a limited extent. Parliamentarians and councillors don’t represent society in all its diversity. Amongst them, men, professionals from higher education, people from a high social background or aged over 50 are in many cases over-represented in comparison to the real size of these categories in society. Despite all good intentions, they may thus not speak for everyone.
Can individuals who have never heard about a certain issue before really take reliable decisions?
Before deliberation, all CA members are gathered together for a learning phase. A series of experts about the topic (who can also be chosen by the assembly members) and also stakeholders give them all the information, also written and online if needed, from different perspectives. Of course, enough time should be allowed for this crucial step. Learning also happens through the different discussion phases. Experts remain available for the participants. For example, in Scotland’s Climate Assembly, the mini-public was provided with many resources to consult as preparation throughout six weekends.
Are CAs really independant and neutral? Can’t the experts or other stakeholders involved influence the panel?
Firstly, all CAs should be supervised by an oversight panel that ensures compliance with the standards defined, including independence and impartiallity. Transparency measures should also guarantee these two core principles: the CA and its preparation has to be monitored, and all pieces of information, i.e evidence material, recordings of learning sessions and plenary phases, reports about the CA’s organisation and complete sets of recommendations are made available to all online. Neutral observers should be involved. The stakeholders from the advisory panel and coordination panel should be balanced, independent and impartial, as verified by the oversight panel. Regarding the experts, in each learning session it should be ensured that different, even opposite points of view on issues are presented to the citizens.
Are CAs about to replace our current system?
That is not the idea. But they can be further integrated into our current political system to reinforce it, by developing more and more local and national initiatives. In a progressive way, they would eventually be institutionalised as another state authority, adding a third permanent chamber, made of randomly chosen citizens, alongside the Parliamentary chambers and the government. At a local level, this innovative concept has already been implemented in the Belgian region of Ostbelgien, where CAs have become a permanent political institution, and where participants regularly take turns as members.
How binding are the decisions taken in a CA?
Ideally, the decisions should be as binding as possible and the follow-up to the CA’s recommendations should be clear from the outset. Ideally, recommendations that receive the support of the CA at an agreed threshold should be treated as binding (if legally permissible in the given situation).
What is the difference between a citizens’ assembly and a popular assembly?
CAs are meant to last a few months (4 to 9) with the aim of working on a specific problem for which it has received a mandate from the political institutions in place. Since they would have a status similar to that of the parliament and the government (communal, cantonal or federal), their recommendations and decisions would be implemented by the political authorities.
Popular or people’s assemblies take the form of a discussion forum open to any local resident who wishes to participate, in order to propose ideas, deliberate and take decisions together on issues that concern their daily lives and that have not been taken into account by the political authorities. People’s assemblies generally last a few hours, the time of an afternoon, or in some cases a few days. They can have anywhere from 10 participants to 50 or more. They often lead to the launching of an action, a project, a petition, a referendum, an initiative, or the setting up of a participatory political programme, etc.
See further explanations in the last chapter of Martina’s journey who questions our current democratic system.