Ed. note: This post is excerpted from Marcin’s publication, Deliberative Democracy: The Waldenia Model. The entire .pdf can be downloaded here.
A few words of introduction
The purpose of this text is to give a brief and accessible overview of how deliberative democracy can work at its full potential. This requires a specific formula, a way of designing a democratic system, which in this case is the Waldenia Model. At the heart of this model are citizens’ assemblies.
Full-scale deliberative democracy means that there are no general elections at all. This is the big step to be taken: imagining that democracy can exist without general elections. And that it can function well. This is what I would like to start with. Following this, I will outline the key elements of the Waldenia Model that ensure its smooth functioning: its institutions and procedures. Waldenia Model could be described in more detail, however, the aim here is primarily to show that deliberative democracy on a full scale is possible and how this model can work in practice.
Why consider introducing a full version of deliberative democracy at all? What could it actually accomplish? Waldenia Model is democracy in earnest, which means that people have the opportunity to make important decisions about the issues that affect their lives, and also that they maintain control over what happens in the country at all times. The Waldenia Model enables informed decision making, taking into account a broader, long-term perspective. This model enables making decisions that are not burdened by the logic of political rivalry. This latter benefit alone translates into quite a significant change in how the decisions are made. The Waldenia Model also means a real possibility for the public to oversee the government’s activities and make corrections of its actions, should the need arise. It is an opportunity to improve the way the country functions, and this in turn allows achieving a better quality of life.
Let’s start at the beginning, though.
Beyond the general elections
I was a few years too young to take part in the first partially free elections in Poland after World War II, which took place in June 1989. Nevertheless, if I had been able to vote in them, I would have gladly done so. I also appreciate their importance: they opened the way to democratic, social and economic changes in Poland. They are an example of how people can change the course of history and the political system of their country for the better, using elections. There are, of course, more such positive examples of change through democratic elections, not only in Europe but also in Asia and in North and South America.
The great advantage of elections is that they are universal: everyone who wants to participate in them can do so. This gives people a sense of empowerment. There may, of course, be certain restrictions, such as a minimum age, nevertheless the vast majority of the citizens are able to take part in elections. This, in turn, ensures that their outcome is respected by the public: there is a general consensus that the results of elections give elected persons a mandate to make decisions on their behalf. So why, in my view, should we move away from general elections?
First of all, because it is possible to design a democratic system that will be able to deliver better quality decisions and solutions than representative democracy. Take for example issues such as climate change or biodiversity conservation. The current form of democracy was not able to address them properly. There are also many other social issues, such as poverty or access to education that remain to be solved. Of course, there are countries in the world that are doing better and there are others that are doing not so well. It’s not the same everywhere. Nevertheless, in every representative democracy there is an element that is potentially toxic. And that is elections.
Elections basically mean that there is a competition for power, and with this comes an atmosphere of conflict that is fuelled by political parties seeking to crush their political competitors. This conflict is propagated by the press, television and the internet, and it spills over to the public, who are also involved in it. The theoretical assumptions of representative democracy look good on paper, but they have far-reaching side effects that, in my view, do not serve society well. It is enough to see how the debate in the parliament looks, how politicians talk to each other during election campaigns, as exemplified by Joe Biden’s debate with Donald Trump during the 2020 campaign. One of the strong divisions in American society is related to the support of political parties, and this means who is voting for whom. With this kind of setup, it’s a long way to go to a harmoniously functioning society.
On the other hand, there is a new form of democracy becoming more and more popular, which is citizens’ assemblies with a randomly selected group of people. The composition of this group reflects selected demographic criteria such as gender, age, education level, and place of residence. I had an opportunity to support the first citizens’ assembly in Bosnia, which took place in Mostar. The task for a randomly selected group of residents was relatively simple: to work out recommendations for improving cleanliness in the city. When I arrived in Mostar with a presentation about citizens’ assemblies at the end of 2019, some buildings still had no windows, and in some places the walls showed traces of rifle bullets – these were the remnants of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. On top of that, there still had been no local elections for about 10 years, and the mayor, taking advantage of a loophole in the law, persisted in his position. In December 2020, local elections were finally held and a legal city council was elected. Outlining this background is important to understand the political context in which the citizens’ assembly in 2021 was held. Since ethnicity was taken into account as one of the demographic criteria for the assembly, in one group there were Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs, who were to talk together about the issues of their city.
After a month filled with meetings that passed in a good atmosphere, the citizens’ assembly in Mostar adopted 32 recommendations, most with a level of support above 90 percent (support of at least 80 percent of the assembly members was required to adopt a recommendation). In Polish cities, the recommendations of the citizens’ assemblies are also accepted at a level of at least 80 percent support and there are dozens of them. The fact that this succeeds sometimes surprises even the assembly members themselves.
Now, imagine the parliaments in Poland, the United Kingdom, Germany or the United States were to make decisions in this way, with the support of at least 80 percent of the voters. It wouldn’t be easy, would it? Sometimes even achieving a simple majority in the parliament is a challenge.
How is it possible that what succeeds for ordinary citizens would be so difficult for parliamentarians? This is partially because the assembly members have different motivations and they are completely independent in their opinions. They are not bound by the discipline of their political party, commitments to campaign sponsors or thinking in terms of their own political careers. This independence of assembly members is possible thanks to random selection. In other words: their independence is assured by the fact that there are no elections to the citizens’ assembly. This allows them to focus on solutions and to consider which ones will be most beneficial and how to fine-tune them. And they can be completely in alignment with themselves in doing so.
Several decades of experience with various forms of deliberative processes with a randomly selected group of participants, including citizens’ assemblies, show that this form of democracy works well and, above all, that it works as democracy should: it ensures a meaningful deliberation and informed decision-making. The potential of citizens’ assemblies, however, is far greater than just resolving single issues once in a while. They can be at the core of the entire political system.
Democracy is like an operating system on a computer, it’s like Windows or macOS, depending on the hardware you use. In order to be able to use the internet on a computer, receive emails, or print even a single page of text on a printer, you need a well-functioning operating system. And it is the same with countries: you need an effective system of decision making, thanks to which issues concerning food, education, health, agriculture, economy or environment can be resolved. Moreover, it is not about making any decisions. It’s about a democratic system that will allow people to live happy lives. And this is exactly the main purpose of the Waldenia Model of deliberative democracy.
Basic premises of the model
The Waldenia Model was developed for practical use – its aim is to enable well-thought-out, high-quality decisions and to allow for effective management of the country. However, it is not a model of democracy in which citizens deal directly with everything. This would neither be necessary nor practical. For effective management, delegating tasks to employed individuals is a very good solution. On the other hand, what is needed to ensure its democratic character is that through citizens’ assemblies, the public should have the opportunity to indicate the direction of the country’s development, effectively oversee the actions of the government and, if necessary, take almost any decision that is related to the functioning of the state.
In other words, the premise of the Waldenia Model is not that regular people should deal directly with all the details of a country’s policy, because there is simply too much of it. In this model, lay citizens indicate the direction in which the ship should sail, and the role of the experts is to get the ship to its port. And if citizens notice that the ship is going in a different direction than they wished, they can correct its course at any time.
This model is also based on the premise that through the use of citizens’ assemblies, people are able to make sensible and well-considered decisions that will contribute to the improved quality of their lives.
The meaning of democracy is understood here as making collective decisions to ensure a good quality of life in the society. What is taken into consideration here is that making informed decisions is time-consuming, as one usually has to become familiar with many aspects of an issue, and that modern countries are so large that meetings of all citizens in one place are impractical. That is why people are invited to participate in a citizens’ assembly, with a randomly selected group that constitutes the country in miniature.
The guiding principle behind organising citizens’ assemblies is that democracy is for everyone. This means not only that any person can be potentially randomly selected to become an assembly member, but also that anyone can send their comments, suggestions, and feedback to the assembly. It means that the learning phase is broadcast live, that it can be observed, and that the written educational materials that are provided to the assembly members are posted on the assembly’s website and available to all. The idea here is that people who are not selected to the assembly also have the opportunity to contribute.
There is another assumption worth mentioning here, which concerns the very foundations of democracy: that every person is inherently valuable, or that they have their own inner dignity. It is related to the fact that everyone is free, that they can determine their own lives, and thus have a say in what happens in the community in which they live. This is the starting point for democracy.
Teaser photo credit: by ucouldguess, Flickr, (CC BY-NC 2.0), https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexanderkagan/14585933337/