Citizens’ Assemblies: Democracy that Works

Written by Marcin Gerwin. The following post is Chapter 1 of his new publication Citizen Assemblies: Guide to Democracy that Works.

Imagine a group of people of different ages who meet in order to settle some matter important for a city, a country or for the European Union. This group was not selected through elections but by lot. It was done in such a way that its structure reflects basic demographic characteristics of a given city or country. People’s age, gender, place of residence and education level were taken into consideration. In the country-level citizens’ assembly it is worthwhile to consider the division into the city and the village. Thus one obtains a city or a country in miniature.

Such a group does not have to be big. It may include 50 or 100 persons. It can be larger when the topic of the assembly is, e.g., changes in the constitution. Its size depends on the size of the city or the country, as well as on the organizational capabilities. It is crucial that the group be considered representative; it should inspire trust and take into consideration a variety of perspectives and life experiences. That group will for the following days listen to presentations by experts, representatives of authorities, NGOs and other groups with an interest or expertise in the topic. They will read expert analyses and comments sent by other residents who were not selected to the assembly by lot. Their role is to study a given topic in depth and consider which solutions will be most favourable from the perspective of the common good.

The best name for this group in English, in my opinion, is a citizens’ assembly. In Poland we use the name “panel obywatelski” – a citizens’ panel, which is also fine. Citizens’ assemblies, in different forms and under different names, were organized, among other places, in Australia, Canada, Ireland and USA. They can be organized on almost any topic. The principal limitation here is the time which is needed for the learning phase and for familiarizing oneself with the information necessary to make an informed decision. A short citizens’ assembly can be spread over four Saturdays – two days for the learning phase and two days for deliberation – if the matter is simple, however, if need be, there can be a dozen meetings and the entire assembly may be spread over even two years. It all depends on a topic. This method is, by principle, defined as a long-term deliberation.

What good does it do? First of all, it provides an opportunity for a high quality of decisions. Members of the citizens’ assembly are selected by lot instead of being selected in elections or indicated by someone, thanks to which they can be independent in their judgements. In Poland both the group who will receive the invitations as well as the final group are selected by lot. Only the persons who received the invitation may join the assembly. Due to the fact that there are no elections, there is no political competition among the members of the citizens’ assembly – thinking of running the election campaign is completely redundant. One can then focus on the issue the assembly is dealing with and there is no need to worry that if someone changes their mind, then they will not be selected for the assembly again, they will lose their position in their party or in the eyes of their voters. Psychological mechanisms regarding elections do not occur during the assembly at all – there exists nothing here which could cause them. Deliberative democracy simply works in a different way.

Before making a decision, the members of the citizens’ assembly familiarise themselves in detail with a given topic. They gain knowledge they might not have had before the commencement of the assembly. The premise is that during the learning phase experts present the possibly broadest spectrum of perspectives and solutions in a given matter. Next, in the part of stakeholders’ presentations, the representatives of NGOs or institutions are invited to present their positions under the same principles – they enjoy the same time slot for a presentation and their order is selected by lot. The aim is to provide equal opportunities to present different options. Every organization may also send any number of additional educational materials. One councillor from the city of Łódź noted after observing the citizens’ assembly in Gdańsk, as a councillor she did not receive such an extensive range of information before making a decision.

The mere fact that the fullest possible spectrum of potential solutions is presented enables the quality of decisions made by the assembly to be potentially higher than if there was no assembly. When a citizens’ assembly is organised, experts can be invited who would be disregarded during the standard procedure of decision-making by the municipal office or the government. And it is their proposals which could gain the greatest support of the members of the citizens’ assembly and become the most favourable from the perspective of the common good.

Members of the citizens’ assembly think of what will be the most beneficial for them as residents, not from the perspective of the next elections but their entire lives, as well as lives of their children and grandchildren. Such was the attitude of the members of the citizens’ assembly in Gdańsk when they were making a decision regarding what to do to improve the air quality in the city. They were thinking in the long-term perspective, not only about themselves, but also about their children. Hence, they decided to adopt very definitive solutions regarding the improvement of air quality, i.e. a total ban on burning coal in household furnaces. They did not have to wonder what would the director of the department or the mayor would say, whether they would gain or lose in the voters’ eyes. They are the voters and they are the ones who employ the director of the department or the mayor. They make decisions from the position of supreme authority which in democracy are ordinary people. In Poland, this supreme authority of the society (the people) is guaranteed to us in the constitution in article 4.

What is equally crucial when organising a citizens’ assembly is to create a positive atmosphere which is conducive to favourable conditions for a conversation and an in-depth consideration of which solutions are the best. At the same time, the transparency of the process is guaranteed – the presentations of experts and stakeholders in the learning phase are transmitted live online and recorded, so it is known who proposes what. In turn, the aspect of universality is guaranteed in such a way that all interested residents may send their comments and remarks to the members of the citizens’ assembly.

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