Citizens’ assemblies worldwide
In Germany, the concept of citizens’ assemblies drawn by lot has recently gained considerable momentum. On the initiative of the group “Nur Mut!”, for example, so-called “citizens’ councils” have been formed in Berlin Friedenau, which are carried out with financial support from the district and city and in direct connection with the political decision-makers. Another current example is the student initiative “Mehr als wählen” (More than Vote), which worked out a concept for more citizen participation in their city with 50 randomly selected Frankfurt citizens. The state of Baden-Württemberg has also carried out a citizens’ assembly with the project of the European Dialogue, which has received widespread attention. In September 2019, a nationwide citizens’ assembly was held in a pilot project under the title “Bürgerrat Demokratie”. The Bürgerrat Demokratie contains all the ideal elements of a citizens’ assembly. However, this citizens’ assembly was not convened by the government and therefore does not have the political role that is necessary. Methodologically, the implementation of citizens’ assemblies has therefore not been a problem in Germany for a long time. Civil society pressure is now needed to ensure that the many positive experiences serve as a blueprint for future governmental citizen assemblies.
Since 2012, two Irish citizens’ assemblies, deliberating several issues each, have been held to break political deadlock on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change. The second, simply known as The Citizens’ Assembly, was comprised of a chairperson (previously a supreme court judge) and 99 citizens who were randomly selected in order to reflect the population in terms of age, gender, location and social class. Legislation was passed so that the lectoral register could be used to select assembly participants. The assembly was overseen by a steering group on planning and operational issues and by an expert advisory group, which prepared information and advice. Meetings were live streamed. For the citizens’ assembly on climate change, the assembly met over two weekends in 2017 and made 13 recommendations by majority vote. In one recommendation, 80% of participants expressed a willingness to pay higher taxes on carbon-intensive activities.
The assembly was a key factor in emboldening politicians to step up their response to climate disruption. In 2018, an all-party parliamentary committee was established to consider the assembly’s recommendations. The committee’s report then directly influenced the Irish Government’s Climate Action Plan, published in June 2019, which incorporated many of the assembly’s recommendations and undertook to quadruple carbon tax and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles.
Citizens’ juries (i.e. a smaller version of a citizens’ assembly) were undertaken in the US in the 1980s and arrived in the UK in 19943. They became prominent in the 2000s, particularly in the government-sponsored consultation on the issue of whether the UK should grow GM crops. Following a series of such processes, the Government agreed to halt the growing of GM crops in the UK, which was later followed by an EU-wide ban that continues to this day.
Citizens’ assemblies were developed as versions of citizens’ juries that had already taken place in Canada, the first in British Colombia in 2004. One of the first citizens’ assemblies in the UK focussed on how to fund social care for older and working-age adults in England. It was commissioned by the Health and Social Care Select Committee and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee. These committees considered recommendations made by the assembly members as part of a wider inquiry on funding reforms. They described the assembly as vital to their work and in helping them to identify solutions which would command broad consensus. However, there was no commitment from government to abide by its conclusions. There are currently three citizens’ assemblies being run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government as part of the Innovations in Democracy programme.
Following a fragmented election result in June 2010, Belgium spent 18 months without a government. Faced with this unprecedented political impasse, public intellectuals organised a mass exercise in deliberative democracy, the G1000. The project comprised three stages: an online consultation to identify topics – open to all citizens, a one-day citizens’ summit of 704 people to discuss the three most popular issues (social security, wealth distribution and immigration), and a smaller 32-person citizens’ panel which met over three weekends to refine the propositions of the summit. Both the summit and the panel reflected the population in terms of age, gender, education level, location and first language. The G1000 was characterised by its grassroots organisation and the fact it was not commissioned by a political institution. This—along with the fact that the political crisis came to an end during the course of the initiative—limited the impact of the G1000 on public policy. However, it gave rise to a renewed interest in deliberative democracy at political level and served as a blueprint for local initiatives across Belgium. One such initiative is the new permanent institution for citizens’ assemblies in the German-speaking region of Eastern Belgium.
The new body is set to convene its first assembly in early 2020 and is run by a citizens’ council. Like the members of the citizens’ assemblies themselves, the members of the council are randomly selected from the general population. They serve for a term of 18 months and are responsible for selecting the topics for discussion and monitoring the implementation of recommendations by parliament. Each citizens’ assembly meets with members of parliament to discuss its proposals. Parliament must provide an explicit justification for any recommendations it chooses not to implement.
In 2016, the Polish city of Gdansk was struck by major flooding, killing two people and causing millions of euros in damage. Experts warned that climate change would only increase the frequency of such extreme rainfall events. In response to the disaster, the mayor agreed to organise a citizens’ assembly, bringing together about 60 residents to hear expert testimony and design their own solutions. To promote transparency, the final stage of the random selection process was carried out by a die-roll that was live streamed. The mayor attended the start of the assembly and informed participants that decisions with at least 80% support among its members would be enacted in law. In 2017, the city flooded again, however, the municipality was able to respond effectively, thanks in part to the resolutions passed by the assembly. Further citizens’ assemblies followed which addressed pollution, civic engagement and LGBT rights. The 350,000 adults living in Gdansk are able to request a citizens’ assembly by collecting 1,000 signatures. If the number of signatures reaches 5,000, the mayor is obliged to run a citizens’ assembly on the proposed topic.