Rich Wilson and Claire Mellier explain how citizens’ assemblies have the potential to restart the beating heart of democracy.

‘In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity,’

wrote Yuval Noah Harari as the first wave of Covid-19 lockdowns struck.

We’re guessing Yuval wasn’t thinking about citizens’ assemblies as he wrote that, but we believe these often under-the-radar democratic innovations provide a practical way for us to choose ‘citizen empowerment’ and ‘solidarity’. Here’s how.

In case you’ve not come across citizens’ assemblies, they are gatherings of people (usually 100-150), selected to be a true snapshot of the place in question (say, a country or city) based on demographic criteria such as gender, age, income and education level.

The citizens are selected by lot, as you would for jury service; and great efforts are made to ensure anyone can participate, such as paying for attendance, providing childcare and improving accessibility for people with disabilities. They usually meet over a number of weekends to discuss a controversial issue of public importance and come up with a set of recommendations for the way forward.

What’s remarkable about citizens’ assemblies is they tend to generate policies far more ambitious than those politicians come up with alone. For instance, the 2020 French climate assembly voted to make ‘ecocide’ crime a law, ban the rent of energy-inefficient housing and ensure all buildings meet strict new environmental standards. People also tend to trust citizens’ assemblies much more than they do politicians to act in the public interest.

 

Teaser photo credit: Justin Kenrick, Scottish Climate Assembly