Assembly required

Article by Claudia Chwalsiz: “What is the role of political leadership in a new democratic paradigm defined by citizen participation, representation by lot and deliberation? What is or should be the role and relationship of politicians and political parties with citizens? What does a new approach to activating citizenship (in its broad sense) through practice and education entail? These are some questions that I am grappling with, having worked on democratic innovation and citizens’ assemblies for over a decade, with my views evolving greatly over time.

First, a definition. A citizens’ assembly is a bit like jury duty for policy. It is a broadly representative group of people selected by lottery (sortition) who meet for at least four to six days over a few months to learn about an issue, weigh trade-offs, listen to one another and find common ground on shared recommendations.

To take a recent example, the French Citizens’ Assembly on End of Life comprised 184 members, selected by lot, who deliberated for 27 days over the course of four months. Their mandate was to recommend whether, and if so how, existing legislation about assisted dying, euthanasia and related end-of-life matters should be amended. The assembly heard from more than 60 experts, deliberated with one another, and found 92% consensus on 67 recommendations, which they formulated and delivered to President Emmanuel Macron on 3 April 2023. As of November 2021, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has counted almost 600 citizens’ assemblies for public decision-making around the world, addressing complex issues from drug policy reform to biodiversity loss, urban planning decisions, climate change, infrastructure investment, constitutional issues such as abortion and more.

I believe citizens’ assemblies are a key part of the way forward. I believe the lack of agency people feel to be shaping their lives and their communities is at the root of the democratic crisis – leading to ever-growing numbers of people exiting the formal political system entirely, or else turning to extremes (they often have legitimate analysis of the problems we face, but are not offering genuine solutions, and are often dangerous in their perpetuation of divisiveness and sometimes even violence). This is also related to a feeling of a lack of dignity and belonging, perpetuated in a culture where people look down on others with moral superiority, and humiliation abounds, as Amanda Ripley explains in her work on ‘high conflict’. She distinguishes ‘high conflict’ from ‘good conflict’, which is respectful, necessary, and generative, and occurs in settings where there is openness and curiosity. In this context, our current democratic institutions are fuelling divisions, their legitimacy is weakened, and trust is faltering in all directions (of people in government, of government in people and of people in one another)…(More)”.