What are Citizens’ Assemblies

Citizens’ assemblies are part of participatory democracy, while constituting its most advanced form, that of deliberative democracy. It is a process by which citizens make political decisions on issues of public interest, such as climate and social justice. Its members, sitting in this temporary decision-making body alongside the Parliament and the Government, are drawn at random to form a representative panel of society. During this mission, participants learn in depth about the issues to be addressed, listen to experts and various stakeholders. They then deliberate collectively to finally issue recommendations and take (legally binding) decisions that will then be implemented by the authorities.


Basic standards

Random selection of participants

All members of a citizens’ assembly are selected by lot. Ideally, every member of the population eligible to take part in a citizens’ assembly should be able to potentially receive an invitation to participate.

Demographic representation

The composition of a citizens’ assembly should broadly match the demographic profile of the community participating in the process. A set of criteria may be used to ensure demographic representativeness of the group, like age, gender, geographic area, or others. The aim is to create a community in a small scale that ‘feels like us’. The size of the group should allow for inclusion of a wide diversity of views. A stipend should be provided to all participants to the amount that would at least cover the costs of attending the citizens’ assembly.

Independent coordination

The citizens’ assembly is run by an independent team of coordinators, which is responsible especially for preparing the process of random selection, developing the agenda, and inviting experts and facilitators. If the citizens’ assembly is organised by local authorities or the parliament, it is important that all members of the coordination team are not part of the civil service. The coordinators should be impartial, e.g. not active politicians or direct stakeholders.

Citizens’ assembly can invite experts

Despite the programme being prepared by the team of coordinators, the citizens’ assembly can invite additional experts of their own choice. This may be in the form of a speech in person, a video streaming, a recording, a written note or other.

Inclusion of a wide practical range of perspectives

If there are diverse solutions and perspectives on a subject, ideally all of them should be presented during the educational phase of the citizens’ assembly (by expert speakers). A method of combining perspectives due to a limited time or other practical considerations may be applied. Presentations may have the form of a speech in person, a video streaming, a recording, a written note or other.

Inviting all stakeholders

Any organisation, informal group or an institution whose area of work and expertise is related to the topic of the citizens’ assembly has the right to present its opinion to the citizens’ assembly in person. The role of the team of coordinators is only to identify the stakeholders – they don’t make a selection. Due to limited time and a large number of stakeholders, a method of choosing their representatives may be used. In this case, a diversity of perspectives should be taken into account.

Deliberation

Discussions which include listening to others mindfully and weighing options are the key elements of a citizens’ assembly. The programme should involve discussions in small groups as well as in the plenary in order to maximise opportunities to speak and to be heard. The deliberation phase should be run by skilled facilitators.

Openness

All members of society should be able to provide input to the citizens’ assembly in the form of comments, proposals or suggestions.

Sufficient time for reflection

Providing a sufficient amount of time for reflection is necessary to achieve well-thought-out decisions. If the matter is not urgent, it is best not to rush. The citizens’ assembly should be able to prolong its meetings – their length and number – if it chooses to do so (subject to budgetary limits).

Impact

The follow-up to the citizens’ assembly’s recommendations should be clear from the outset. Ideally, recommendations that receive the support of the citizens’ assembly at an agreed threshold should be treated as binding (to such an extent that is legally permissible in the given situation).

Transparency

All presentations during the educational, plenary phase should be transmitted live and recorded. All materials presented to the citizens’ assembly should be made available online. Clear information about how the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly will be implemented should be provided online and updated as actions occur. A report presenting details of methodology used for organising a citizens’ assembly should be provided by the coordination team.

Visibility

Each citizens’ assembly is an important event in the life of a community and citizens should be informed that it is happening and information on how they can get involved and follow it should be provided. The citizens’ assembly should be publicly announced before it is formed.


Agenda

1. Learning phase

Assembly members will learn about critical thinking and bias detection before hearing balanced and comprehensive information on the issue, including key terms and background science (e.g. about the rate and implications of the climate crisis). Then they’ll be presented with a range of opinions and evidence on policy options. Assembly members can invite and ‘cross-examine’ additional experts. In addition to the experts and stakeholders who appear in person, any group or individual in society can make a written submission to the citizens’ assembly. This evidence will be publicly available online, but also summarised and presented to the assembly members. Members will also have the right to request to hear in person from any of these groups. A wide range of perspectives should be present, including contrary perspectives.

2. Deliberation phase

Assembly members discuss the evidence and opinions they have heard. This is an opportunity for members to reflect on and discuss the issues. The facilitator’s job is to ensure that assembly members actively listen to each other and critically assess the different options. This phase takes place through a combination of plenary sessions and facilitated small groups to maximise opportunities to speak and to be heard.

3. Decision phase

Assembly members are taken through a step-by-step process in order to draft a report on their recommendations. They may wish to undertake deliberations in private, without facilitators present, similar to a legal jury deciding its verdict. Their report will include key recommendations and the degree of support for each, along with more nuanced descriptions of the points raised during the assembly. The coordinating group considers how much time will be needed for assembly members to reflect, deliberate and achieve thorough decisions.

To ensure transparency, all presentations during the learning phases should be live-streamed and recorded, and all materials should be made available online. In addition, the coordinating group should produce a report explaining the methodology used in the citizens’ assembly to ensure procedural transparency.


Composition

Oversight panel

The oversight panel can be made up of citizens, representatives of government, right holders (representatives of those whose rights are under threat, such as grassroots campaigns), technical experts in deliberative processes and other stakeholders such as NGOs and corporations. The role of this body is to monitor the whole process of ensuring its compliance with standards.

Experts/stakeholders

These are a mixture of experts, stakeholders and rights holders who brief the assembly on their perspective. They are invited by the coordinating group based on criteria set by the advisory board to ensure fair and broad representation of opinion. Assembly members have also input and are asked whether there are specific questions they would like to be answered or particular groups or individuals they would like to hear from. They also have the chance to cross-question panel members at the assembly itself. Contributions from experts, stakeholders and rights-holders can be made in the form of a talk in person, a recording, a written briefing, or they can be live-streamed.

Advisory board

The advisory board develops key criteria for the selection of the experts and stakeholders panel. It also ensures, with the help of the oversight panel, that the background material and evidence presented to a citizens’ assembly are balanced. The advisory board may be composed in different ways, for example, in the Irish Citizens’ Assembly the board comprised academics and practitioners across a number of specific fields of interest.

Facilitators team

A team of facilitators is appointed by the coordinators. In every session during the citizens’ assembly, a facilitator sits at each table with assembly members. The role of the facilitation team is to ensure that the deliberation is not dominated by a vocal few and that everyone has a chance to speak. This role should be carried out by experienced practitioners who can ensure that the deliberation environment is respectful. The team should be impartial and sufficiently large to adequately support the number of assembly members. The facilitators will not have the opportunity to voice their own opinion.

Citizens

Citizens are the heart of deliberative democracy. Citizens’ assemblies must represent all social groups directly affected by the decisions taken in them. In this case, the Swiss population. The members are therefore drawn by lot to represent a representative panel of citizens from this population. Today, a large part of the population is still too often excluded from political decisions.

For example, several authors have shown that – based solely on the age factor (one of the few sociological variables, along with education level and social class – or income – , that influence voting inequalities) – young people (18–25 years old) vote less than other age groups (although they participate in a different way), while the 65-74-year-old people vote the most (Maye, 2019; Boughaba, 2014).

Therefore, organisers of citizens’ assemblies need to pay attention to the range of factors that would deprive certain groups of people from participating in the democratic process or discourage them from participating in collective discussions in citizens’ assemblies.

Coordinating group

A Citizens’ assembly is run by a team of coordinators whose impartiality is essential. Their independence from those funding the process is safeguarded by a series of checks and balances, such as the oversight panel. These coordinators are responsible for conducting the process of random selection and inviting experts, stakeholders and facilitators. This role is normally taken by a professional organisation or a group of such organisations.

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