Threats to our democracy are two-fold: a growth of support for authoritarianism by some and the withdrawal from and lack of engagement in political activity by others. Both trends stem from people’s loss of trust in their government and belief that officials don’t represent and serve them. Neither escalating partisan conflict nor escapism are solutions. However one fresh tactic is increasingly being used to establish broad dialogue, actively engage citizens in policy decisions and thereby revitalize democracy.
Citizens’ assemblies have a long history, from ancient Athens and Rome to Rousseau’s Geneva and Vermont’s annual town halls. Rather than bringing all residents of a particular jurisdiction together, recently leaders have turned to selecting representative demographic samples of the population using the technique of “sortition.” People identified in the sample are invited to join the assembly, which functions like a jury. The participants gather either in person or virtually, are paid, receive information from experts and then deliberate together to make policy recommendations to government officials. The success of these exercises in participatory democracy depends on initial support from officials, accurate sortition, reliable and balanced expert information, transparency, extensive communication with the public and, finally, adoption and implementation of the recommendations by the officials.
In Ireland, citizens’ assemblies now regularly advise its government. The last one that considered gender equality was completed in April 2021, and its recommendations — which addressed numerous issues, including parental leave, early childhood education and care — are presently advancing in the legislature.
Ireland’s first assembly was established in 2016 by its parliament in response to a proposal put forth by We the Citizens, a research project involving several Irish university political science departments that designed and conducted a pilot citizens’ assembly. That action followed seven years of major demonstrations against austerity policies in the post-2008 Irish economic downturn.
In the initial assembly, 99 professionally-sortition-selected members were asked to consider several issues, including abortion, climate change and the country’s aging population. They met for five weekends over a five-month period and heard from an array of experts with varied positions, as well as individuals providing personal testimonies. Many of these presentations were streamed online, while written submissions by experts and interested individuals were made publicly available. As the members deliberated on the information and questions, they also shared views that reflected their diverse perspectives.
The assembly’s report, which recommended legalizing abortion, an ambitious set of measures to combat climate change, and reforms for referenda and parliamentary terms, was presented to Ireland’s parliament at the end of 2017. That body debated it in early 2018 and promptly held the national referendum in which two-thirds of voters supported giving parliament the authority to regulate abortion. Without delay, the legislature then acted to legalize the procedure. On the climate issue it established a Joint Committee on Climate Action, which published its own report in early 2019. The lower chamber endorsed this, declaring a “climate and biodiversity emergency,” and these actions were followed by a government action plan on climate change.
A much smaller scale citizens’ assembly or citizens’ jury was formed in 2017 in Saillans, France to update its urban plan. With a population of about 1,500, this village created a 16-member citizens’ panel of which one third were elected officials and the rest randomly selected individuals. After holding around 25 public meetings to obtain the community’s input and deliberating together for two years, the citizens made the final decision on the plan, which was then ratified by the officials.
Saillans resident and filmmaker Emmanuel Cappellin, who was actively involved in the process, remarked in an Earth Day 2022 webinar that the panel’s labor, extensive public outreach and communication established “a culture of participation [that] changes expectations for people.” Public meetings were conducted as “cafés where people could learn about these issues and think about the common good together with elected officials.” He added, “We’ve changed the culture in terms of transparency and in terms of letting people have their say,” concluding that “this culture of conversation and of dealing with issues, this is really what I think is the more hopeful part of that experiment.”
Leeds is one of several U.K. cities now embarking on bold climate action. In 2019, the Leeds Climate Commission, an independent advisory group, formed a citizens’ climate change jury composed of 25 randomly selected citizens who reflected the city’s demographic diversity. The sessions, in which members met for nearly 30 hours over an eight-week period, began with a review of the science and tactics for addressing carbon emissions. Participants then selected topics they wished to further explore, calling speakers to give presentations, which were all filmed and made available to the public on the internet.
As they deliberated under the guidance of independent facilitators, the members shared their individual experiences and opinions, finally voting to approve an ambitious set of recommendations that included a progress report on their implementation. The whole process was overseen by a panel consisting of a dozen principal local stakeholders, and it took place while the city council separately held the Big Leeds Climate Conversation. That consisted of 80 events across the city in which council officers engaged with citizens as well as focus groups, workshops and an online questionnaire.
Upon receipt of the jury’s recommendations, the Leeds city government began working on implementing most of them with a goal of halving carbon emissions by 2025. The next year a few dozen local organizations applied for and obtained climate action funds from the national lottery and launched Climate Action Leeds. This is a broad program that aims to achieve a zero carbon, nature friendly and socially just Leeds by the 2030s through mobilizing communities, campaign groups and different sectors to plan and act together. In 2021 climate progress in Leeds included opening a solar-powered park-and-ride, funding energy efficiency improvements for low-income homeowners and creating dozens of skilled green jobs.
Like the one in Saillans, the Leeds citizens’ jury served a critical function in educating the participants, government decision makers and the public, as well as providing a mandate and motivation to act. The same effect is seen in the Irish experience. Prior to the citizen’s assembly, a May 2017 poll found just 23 percent of the public was in favor of legalizing abortion in all circumstances. Yet, when the referendum was held, over 66 percent of voters supported it, closely mirroring the 64 percent approval vote by members of the assembly.
The use of citizens’ assemblies is rapidly increasing, especially for politically-contentious issues. Both the U.K. and France conducted them on the topic of climate change, and the state of Washington held one as well.
However, not all citizens’ assemblies are successful in terms of how they are conducted and their outcomes. French activists charged that the expert information provided in their climate assembly was skewed, and Extinction Rebellion criticized the limited budget and publicity for Britain’s. In addition, there has been little progress by leaders of either nation to implement the recommendations, perhaps because their leaders believe they still lack a mandate.
The assemblies in Ireland, Saillans and Leeds succeeded because they were sponsored by — or at least blessed by — the governing body. They also involved oversight, transparency, broad public outreach and, finally, prompt official action to fulfill the recommendations.
They also built upon solid groundwork, such as that laid by We the Citizens in Ireland. The residents of Saillans had reformed their government to maximize citizen participation following their mayor’s unilateral and deeply unpopular attempt to allow a supermarket development in the town. Their municipal team therefore decided to create the citizens’ jury primarily to include the people in their urban planning process. Leeds’ climate commission was established in 2017 by a team at the University of Leeds that worked with the city council as it also brought in two dozen civil society partner organizations. Additionally, the council had declared a climate emergency shortly before the jury convened.
As they now multiply around the world, citizens’ assemblies, juries and some other participatory policymaking processes are supported by numerous organizations and online resources. Democracy Beyond Elections offers guidance, case studies and a toolkit, and peoplepowered.org provides a manual, training and mentors. These resources give detailed advice on techniques like organizing coalitions to persuade elected officials to consent to convening citizens’ assemblies for particular purposes. Shared Future has instructions specifically for organizing and conducting climate assemblies.
Citizens’ assemblies and juries can be formed at any level of government for important, yet divisive issues — and by putting everyday folks at the center of public decision-making they bolster people’s trust in their government. They also perform an invaluable service in educating the public, especially insofar as information is disseminated in face-to-face interactive gatherings, as it was in Saillans, where it spawned a culture of conversation. Leeds’ jury prompted the formation of a broad citizens’ program to improve the environment and the lives of city residents. Both exercises got people conceiving visions for their communities and thinking about action that is needed beyond their boundaries.
Electoral activity is clearly needed to accomplish many of the goals identified by citizens’ assemblies. So although they are nonpartisan, their impact must extend to energizing prospective candidates and voters to fully achieve their objectives. Especially now in America we are faced with a chicken-and-egg dilemma: to become more engaged, many people will need to regain trust in the government, yet they must become engaged in order to establish a government they can trust.
Holding citizens’ assemblies is a means of resolving the quandary. They are ambitious and require considerable investment of time, labor and resources. However, the present extreme crisis of our democracy demands bold action that can also break the barriers to communication between polarized factions. Leaders exhort us to “talk to our neighbors” about public matters, but for the most part we are not on speaking terms with those with whom such conversations would be useful. Citizens’ assemblies are vehicles for creating this urgently needed culture of conversation and engagement.
The final benefit of citizens’ assemblies is that they identify citizens as the fixers of problems. People have lapsed into regarding themselves as consumers of government services and the electoral campaign spectacle, heaping criticism or adoration on the players or turning away from politics altogether. Our leaders are not meeting the extreme challenges of our time, whether that means climate change, extreme wealth inequality or burgeoning authoritarianism. By forming citizens’ assemblies people can proceed to develop a vision of how they want their world to be, at the center of which are people actively engaged as citizens. From there they can move forward together to realize their vision.
Teaser photo credit: By Matt Hrkac from Geelong / Melbourne, Australia – Extinction Rebellion: Solidarity with the French Citizens Assembly on Climate, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106974432