A Movement That’s Quietly Reshaping Democracy For The Better

Citizens’ assemblies can help us better address societal challenges, overcome polarization and strengthen trust.

Asako Masunouchi for Noema Magazine
Claudia Chwalisz has been leading the OECD’s work on innovative citizen participation and the future of democracy since 2018. She was part of the small group of experts who designed the permanent Paris Citizens’ Assembly as well as the Ostbelgien Citizens’ Council.

Imagine you receive an invitation one day from your mayor, inviting you to serve as a member of your city’s newly established permanent Citizens’ Assembly. You will be one of 100 others like you — people who are not politicians or even necessarily party members. All of you were drawn by lot through a fair and random process called a civic lottery. Together, you are broadly representative of the community — a mix of bakers, doctors, students, accountants, shopkeepers and more. You are young and old and from many backgrounds — everybody living in the city over age 16 is eligible, and anyone can take part regardless of citizenship status. Essentially, this group of 100 people is a microcosm of the wider public. Your mandate lasts for one year, after which a new group of people will be drawn by lot.

This is not just a thought experiment. Since the 1980s, a wave of such citizens’ assemblies has been building, and it has been gaining momentum since 2010. Over the past four decades, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have received invitations from heads of state, ministers, mayors and other public authorities to serve as members of over 500 citizens’ assemblies and other deliberative processes to inform policy making. Important decisions have been shaped by everyday people about 10-year, $5 billion strategic plans, 30-year infrastructure investment strategies, tackling online hate speech and harassment, taking preventative action against increased flood risks, improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and many other issues.

As governance systems are failing to address some of society’s most pressing issues and trust between citizens and government is faltering, these new institutions embody the potential of democratic renewal. They create the democratic spaces for everyday people to grapple with the complexity of policy issues, listen to one another and find common ground. In doing so, they create the conditions to overcome polarization and strengthen societal cohesion. They bring out the collective intelligence of society — the principle that many diverse people will come to better decisions than more homogeneous groups.

Research also shows that being a member of a deliberative body strengthens people’s agency. It creates a collective consciousness and allows us to harness our collective capacity. Moreover, deliberative institutions strengthen democracy by extending the privilege of representation to a much larger and more diverse group of people, allowing them to play an important role in shaping decisions affecting people’s lives.

The Permanent Citizens’ Assembly Is A Reality In Paris

In 2018, the populist yellow vest protests hit the streets of France. Initially in response to an oil and gas tax that burdened working class drivers, the protests eventually prompted President Macron to launch the “Great Debate,” a wide-ranging set of public consultations all across France. As part of that process, a group of 30 Parisians chosen by civic lottery was tasked with developing recommendations for how Paris could improve citizen participation. One of their suggestions was to create a permanent assembly representing everyday people in policy making.

The Paris City Council voted to accept this citizen proposal in September 2019. Delayed by COVID to establish it immediately, in 2021 the vice mayor responsible for citizen participation, Anouch Toranian, and her team worked together with experts (including the author of this piece) to develop the design of the permanent Paris Citizens’ Assembly. We drew on global evidence and standards of good practice. The City Council voted to institutionalize it in October 2021, along with a dedicated secretariat and an independent oversight body, expanding and enriching the city’s ecosystem of democratic institutions.  

If you were to be selected as a member of the Paris Citizens’ Assembly, you would have four responsibilities. First, you would shape investment priorities by deciding on the theme of the following year’s city-wide participatory budget of 100 million euros.

Second, you would have an agenda-setting role, deciding on which issue should be put to a citizens’ jury — a smaller group of people from across the city chosen by civic lottery, who will have the time and resources over numerous months to hear from experts and stakeholders to develop proposals for ways to address this issue. These proposals will take the form of a local bill that the Citizens’ Assembly will submit to the Paris City Council to be debated and voted upon.

“As trust between citizens and government is faltering, these new institutions embody the potential of democratic renewal.”

Third, you would be able to launch an evaluation mission to evaluate an existing policy in the city. Finally, you can also submit current affairs questions to the City Council in the same way that elected councillors can.

The City Council, according to the internal regulation that was passed to establish this Citizens’ Assembly, must respond to every recommendation of the Citizens’ Assembly and the Citizens’ Jury.

Your role as an Assembly Member is not to give your personal opinion, or to represent a political party, interest group, company or any other group or organisation. You and the other Assembly Members are asked to put yourselves in the shoes of the broader community and think about the public good, to weigh the evidence you receive, to listen to others in the room, to come to an informed public judgement and to find common ground.

Since it was established, the Assembly Members have met for one plenary session in January 2022 and have been working in smaller, self-selected working groups. Their second plenary will take place in May 2022. While this new institution arguably deserves more media attention than it has thus far garnered, it is quietly reshaping Parisian democracy.

The Paris Model Is One Of Many

While the Parisian Citizens’ Assembly stands out for the extent of its competencies, it is not the only example of citizen representation and deliberation being institutionalized. In my recent OECD policy paper, I have outlined eight models of institutionalization, with examples spanning the globe and levels of government, from Bogotá to Toronto, Oregon to Brussels, Vorarlberg to New South Wales, Victoria, and more. Reflections in more places are taking place.

Paris was inspired by the world’s first permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien, Belgium’s German-speaking community. This region of some 80,000 inhabitants has become an international inspiration for democratic innovation. Its parliament was the first to pass a decree in 2019 embedding a permanent body of citizen representation with agenda-setting power to initiate one-off citizens’ juries to work alongside the elected parliament. So far they have addressed improving the working conditions of health care workers (a topic that was chosen pre-COVID), inclusive education and creating sustainable and affordable housing for all.

Beyond the approach of combining a permanent citizens’ assembly with one-off citizens’ juries, like in Paris and Ostbelgien, institutionalization has taken many forms. For example, in Brussels, Belgium, the regional Parliaments have connected representative citizen deliberation to parliamentary committees in the form of mixed deliberative committees, where parliamentarians and citizens work directly together to address an issue across party lines. These committees are comprised of 15 members of the corresponding thematic permanent committee and 45 Brussels residents chosen by civic lottery. Thus far, they have addressed the issues of rolling out 5G, homelessness, citizen participation in times of crisis and protecting biodiversity in the city. The New South Wales Parliament in Australia is considering similar proposals.

Other models including standing citizens’ advisory panels, such as the two-year Toronto Planning Review Panel, where residents are chosen by lot to provide input on planning issues after an initial series of learning sessions. In Brussels, the Austrian state of Vorarlberg and in numerous Polish cities, regulations give citizens the right to trigger the establishment of a citizens’ assembly if a petition collects enough signatures. The Australian state of Victoria has taken yet another path by embedding representative deliberative processes in local strategic planning through its Local Government Act 2020.

These many examples have provided abundant evidence that deliberative democracy “works” when these processes are designed well, meaning that they can help us solve societal challenges better, overcome polarization and strengthen trust. Just as with elections and other democratic processes, we know that certain conditions and design criteria need to be in place for these processes to be truly effective, democratic and legitimate.

For instance, there needs to be a commitment from decision-makers to respond to and implement the citizens’ recommendations. The civic lottery needs to ensure that everybody has an equal chance of being selected. Sufficient time — usually at least four to five days — is required for people to be able to understand the complexity of an issue and collaborate on developing solutions. It also matters for ensuring legitimacy — people not part of the process need to be able to trust in the citizens’ recommendations. Access to a wide breadth and depth of information is therefore crucial as well. Independent organisation and skilled facilitation help ensure the process is fair. The OECD Good Practice Principles and Evaluation Guidelines for Representative Deliberative Processes and the United Nations Democracy Fund and new Democracy Foundation handbook outline these standards and provide guidance on achieving them.

“Many of the criticisms against deliberative democracy are similar to those that were first levelled against universal suffrage in another age.”

Many of the criticisms against deliberative democracy are similar to those that were first levelled against universal suffrage in another age. Many common objections to sortition and deliberation stem from fears that ordinary citizens are not competent enough to handle complex political decisions.

However, there is a wealth of evidence against these claims. Just as politicians are not competent on every issue and ministers jump from portfolio to portfolio — armed with researchers and assistants to help them — the expectation is not that the everyday person is an expert on everything. However, with sufficient time and access to expertise, people have shown time and time again to be capable of deliberating on incredibly complex policy issues. Members of citizens’ assemblies have the additional benefit of not needing to be elected or re-elected; they have the freedom to put the common good first. Hundreds of past citizens’ assemblies show that people take their roles seriously. They also bring to light that each and every one of us is equally worthy and capable of being involved in shaping the decisions that affect our lives.

Pointing The Way For Democratic Transformation

The current democratic system for taking public decisions — anchored in the short-termism of elections and the inward-looking logic of political parties — has perverse incentives that are preventing action, exacerbating polarization and fueling distrust.

As Yale Professor Hélène Landemore argues, the idea of “representing and being represented in turn” supports a new, non-electoral understanding of democratic representation. The principle idea of deliberative democracy — a political theory largely inspired by Jürgen Habermas — is that political decisions should be the result of fair and reasonable discussion and debate among citizens who form a collective judgement.

While citizens’ assemblies today are largely advisory and complementary to our existing electoral institutions, it is not impossible to imagine a future where binding powers shift to these institutions— or where they perhaps even replace established governing bodies in the longer term. Recent polling in France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. suggests we are getting there. While only around a third of people in these countries currently think that deliberative democracy should be institutionalized, around two-thirds are supportive of making it mandatory for the government to implement citizens’ assemblies’ recommendations. As public awareness of deliberative democracy grows and evidence that it is working proliferates, arguments for genuine shifts in power could be more compelling.  

Recent trends show that more and more public authorities are moving beyond the one-off use of citizens’ assemblies that rely on political will. We need more politicians to have the courage to experiment and push for institutional change. And we need more citizens to demand this change as well, to imagine and fight for another kind of democratic future. If they do, another democratic system is possible.