Democracy’s Missing Link

The “preferendum” — a method for citizens to rate and rank policy ideas — would turn citizen concerns into government action.

Jorge Cuadal Calle for Noema Magazine

David Van Reybrouck is a cultural historian, archaeologist and author. He is the author of “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy.”

Here is what it might look like: At the polling station during the next general election, you get not one but two ballot papers. The first is your usual list of candidates and their political parties. The second is something new — a document with 30 different proposals that you are invited to analyze, one after the other. 

Underneath each idea it says “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “agree,” “strongly agree,” etc. It feels like one of those online questionnaires you’ve seen many times before. 

At the bottom of the form, you are invited to highlight the five proposals you care about most. Every citizen in your country on voting day would be looking at the same list and doing what you are doing in the voting booth: rating and ranking proposals. The goal is to establish a list of shared priorities.

The process looks like a referendum, a process you might’ve participated in before. But where a referendum asks you for a straight yes or no answer to a certain question, this new process — this preferendum — has a much richer interface for indicating your policy preferences. You get to translate your individual preferences into the collective priorities of your community. 

Of course, you would’ve been able to see the list of proposals before. You would know it had not been defined by government officials or competing political parties, but by a random sample of citizens who had been working on it for months. You would know, too, that this random group of citizens had been given a mandate by the government to draft proposals as they saw fit. 

As the American political scientist Benjamin Barber defined it in his classic 1984 book, “Strong Democracy”: “A strong democratic referendum process would utilize a multichoice format in place of the conventional yea/nay option. Rather than being asked merely to veto or affirm a proposal, citizens would be offered a more varied and searching set of choices capable of eliciting more nuanced and thoughtful responses.” 

The preferendum is a highly promising instrument for public decision-making, especially when it is preceded by a well-designed, deliberative group of citizens representative of the public at large and succeeded by clear government action. It can be integrated within existing structures of public participation and might help bridge the gap between deliberative and representative processes.

Though the looming challenge of climate change is a compelling reason to discover the potential of the preferendum, to my knowledge, no real-life examples of it currently exist. Given the relative slowness with which democratic innovation is being institutionalized and the extreme urgency of robust climate action, the preferendum could serve as a critical instrument for instituting climate policy in classical representative democracies during the next decade.

“‘A strong democratic referendum process would utilize a multichoice format in place of the conventional yea/nay option.’”
—Benjamin Barber

Catching The Deliberative Wave

In June 2020, the OECD published a report that analyzed almost 300 examples of deliberative processes, including mini-publics, civic lotteries and citizens’ assemblies, that had taken place worldwide between 1986 and 2019. It was the first large-scale, comparative study by a major transnational organization of ordinary citizens “doing” politics. 

The report combined retrospective empirical research with useful guidelines for future action and made it clear that “across the globe, public authorities are increasingly using representative deliberative processes to involve citizens more directly in solving some of the most pressing policy challenges.” Time and again, random samples of ordinary citizens with sufficient time and information turned out to be perfectly capable of formulating relevant, coherent and sound policy recommendations, often faster and bolder than elected politicians. “We should make our parliamentary democracy futureproof,” Wolfgang Schäuble, the former president of the German Parliament, said a few months later, before the launch of Germany’s second government-led citizens’ assembly. He insisted that citizens’ panels “could be an important step” toward preventing Parliament from becoming “a caste of its own.”

The most spectacular example of a citizens’ assembly to date is undoubtedly the Citizens’ Convention on Climate, organized by French President Emmanuel Macron in the aftermath of the yellow-jacket movement. “How can France reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in 2030, in a spirit of social justice?” he asked a random sample of 150 French citizens. Those citizens worked together between October 2019 and June 2020, shifting to online sessions during the first COVID lockdown and eventually coming up with a package of 149 highly ambitious ideas for tackling climate change. If anyone still doubted whether citizens were competent, here was proof that they were.

Implementing the convention’s recommendations, however, turned out to be quite another pair of sleeves. Despite Macron’s initial promise to submit all its ideas “without filter” to the relevant authorities, he vetoed three that he did not like, including a corporate tax raise. The remaining proposals received a very lukewarm reception at best. 

By the end of March 2021, Sansfiltre had determined that no fewer than 66 proposals had been abandoned or were endangered, while only 70 were still under consideration. A meager 13 ideas had been effectively implemented “without filter.” An analysis by the magazine Reporterre found that the fate of the convention’s proposals was even more dire: Only 10% (15) had been turned into actual policy, 37% (55) had been modified or watered down and a staggering 53% (79) had been downright rejected. 

Was this because of a lack of public support? Far from it. A broad majority of French citizens strongly supported the convention’s ideas, with the exception of a proposed speed limit. Clearly, implementation was the problem, not deliberation.

The French convention is far from an exception. There is a reason why the OECD urges politicians to “publicly commit to responding to or acting on [participants’] recommendations in a timely manner”: Because in practice, once convention participants go home, their excellent ideas frequently get tossed in a drawer to gather dust. 

Deliberative democracy, therefore, often seems like a human muscle — without tendons (prior government commitment and guaranteed follow-up), it is detached from the skeleton of the state, unable to function. 

“Less divisive than a classical binary referendum, the preferendum would be far more difficult to manipulate by political or societal factions.”

All Hopes On Institutionalization

One way to increase the chances that citizens’ recommendations actually lead to something is to institutionalize deliberative procedures. This integration can take two forms: ad hoc and permanent. 

Ad hoc citizens’ assemblies would take place under certain short-term conditions, like parliamentary research commissions. Permanent institutionalized assemblies, on the other hand, would form part of a newly established body, parallel to existing political institutions. 

I myself have been involved with designing the Ostbelgien Model in the German-speaking part of Belgium, a blueprint for what has been called “the world’s first permanent citizens’ council.” The model combines a citizens’ council with 24 members who sit for 18 months and oversee a number of citizens’ assemblies. The assemblies each have 25 to 50 participants and typically gather for three to four months. The council has agenda-setting power for the assemblies and is entrusted with following up on their recommendations. This combination of short-term panels that generate ideas with a long-term body that reminds the government about citizens’ desires and ideas structurally enhances the impact of what citizens decide.

Even though the Ostbelgien Model has garnered a lot of international attention — The Economist called it “a Belgian experiment that Aristotle would have approved of” — other polities have proven slow to replicate it. How could a system designed for the world’s smallest federal entity — a tiny and obscure part of Belgium with less than 80,000 inhabitants — be scaled up to anything more substantial? 

So far, few have dared to go as far as the mayor of Paris. In the fall of 2021, Anne Hidalgo announced a new method of public political participation — an institutionalization of deliberative democracy — based on the Ostbelgien Model. As part of the team preparing the way, I saw genuine ambition from the Parisian city council. The Paris Citizens’ Assembly was given the power to initiate one-off citizens’ juries, to determine the scope of the annual participatory budget and to question existing public policies and initiate evaluations. It will take some time before all these functions take effect, but the direct link to the city council makes for a very promising transmission.

If one of the most iconic cities in the world, a national capital with more than two million inhabitants, can accomplish this, we have a reason to celebrate. But it is also sobering to remember that it will take years, if not decades, to build these institutions at the national or transnational levels, and we have no time to lose. Climate change requires immediate and drastic action.

“Consider Brexit — many Brits used the decision to evaluate government performance rather than consider the consequences of leaving the eurozone.”

A Faster Impact

The preferendum is a form of voting that is a faster route to tangible political impact, giving new life to the idea of democracy as self-government. All voters of a particular polity could rate and rank proposals online or offline. Their votes, tallied into a list of shared priorities, would establish an agenda for concrete political action. 

So far, however, the idea of a preferendum has not been connected to citizens’ assemblies. What would happen if citizens vote on what citizens proposed? Would there have been different outcomes for the proposals of the French climate convention, which were mostly watered down or ignored once they were in the government’s hands, if all French citizens could have indicated their support and priorities in a national preferendum?

Of course, 149 proposals make a long list, but a randomized selection of them could ensure the whole thing is digestible for most citizens while generating statistically representative results. There might even be a short paragraph for each proposal written by the citizens’ assembly, something similar to what the Swiss city of Sion asked a random sample of 20 citizens to do for their fellow voters during a referendum on affordable housing.

When a preferendum is the outcome of an earlier citizens’ assembly commissioned by a public authority, a number of clear advantages emerge. The recommendations from the deliberative process would become more visible and get more traction, making it harder to ignore them. The preferendum would also increase the legitimacy of the assembly’s output by building on the thoughtful work of the few and lend it the power of the many. 

The preferendum would solicit members of the wider public to reflect on the work of a small group and give considered responses, rather than just expressing their gut feelings. “It is thus a form of civic education, even as it is a form of balloting,” Barber wrote. “It strengthens democracy not simply by allowing citizens to choose alternative futures but by compelling them to think like public beings.’ 

Less divisive than a classical binary referendum, the preferendum would also be far more difficult to manipulate by political or societal factions. Complex issues would be treated as complex issues and voters would get the right to express their views in a richer way than usual. Governments would get a clear list of shared priorities, a better understanding of what people want and a concrete agenda for future action.

“The preferendum adds a layer of large-scale public response to a question asked by the government and answered by small groups of informed citizens.”

The preferendum also has some drawbacks. There is the obvious risk that the careful work of a citizens’ assembly will be corrupted or skewed when presented to the populace and implemented by relevant authorities. What was learned and desired among the few may be lost in the passions of the many. If deliberative democracy strives to inject reason and nuance back into the public arena, some of it may be lost in the structure of preferendum, which by necessity leaves less room for detail. 

However, preferendums allow for much more detail than the classical referendum does. In Chile, last year, a traditional binary referendum rejected the work of a constitutional convention that had drafted a new political constitution for the country. The convention, however, was not a deliberative citizens’ assembly drafted by lot, and the outcome of the referendum — 62 % of Chileans voted against the draft — was hard to decipher. Did people vote against the convention or the constitution? Did they disagree with the full text or only certain of its articles? A preferendum and a citizens’ assembly would have allowed for a much more fine-grained feedback from the people to the constituent body.

Likewise, with a preferendum, the positive legacy of the French climate convention would have been much stronger. It would have given Macron a tool to move forward with his climate policy. The preferendum may not be ideal, but it is better than what we have. When it comes to democratic innovation in times of increasing authoritarianism, we should not strive to reach heaven, but only try to avoid hell.

“If liberal democracies do not succeed in empowering more people, other regimes will — or at least will create that illusion.”

The Way Citizens Speak

Democracies typically have three instruments to let their citizens speak: elections, referendums and citizens’ assemblies. They are the respective tools of representative, direct and deliberative democracy. Each of them has its advantages and disadvantages. 

Elections have the undeniable advantage that everyone with the right to vote is given the chance to choose who represents them in government. The drawback to this, of course, is that complex political preferences are reduced to indicating people who may speak on your behalf. By choosing a representative, you basically relinquish your power to someone else — the day you have power is the day you give it away. 

Referendums have often been portrayed as a superior form of public consultation, as voters keep their power to make substantial decisions. But here, complex issues are reduced to simple binary options, voters are not always familiar with the question they face nor the consequences of their choice, and they may be answering a question that is different from the one they were asked. Consider Brexit — many Brits used the decision to evaluate government performance rather than consider the consequences of leaving the eurozone. At the end of the day, instead of giving clear answers, referendums may result in vague outcomes and a broken society. 

Citizens’ assemblies, finally, are strong in that they give a random sample of everyday citizens a chance to familiarize themselves with a topic before making recommendations on how to construct policy around it. They are about public judgment rather than just public opinion. People say what they think after they have had a chance to think. The problem is: This can be a great experience for the few citizens in the assemblies, but it’s just business as usual for the rest of society. Participants might embark on a transformative journey, but society itself may not be transformed for the better. In-group and out-group may drift apart. 

The preferendum combines the best of these three tools: It honors the “one person, one vote” principle of elections, it celebrates the content-rich nature of the referendum and it builds upon the informed output of citizens’ assemblies. Combined, it adds a layer of large-scale public response to a question asked by the government and answered by small groups of informed citizens. 

By validating and ranking the proposals of a mini-public, it gives nuanced input to responsible public authorities in a loop from government to citizens’ assembly to preferendum and back to government. Such a loop is better for citizens (everyone is involved), better for politicians (clear and nuanced input) and better for policies (decisions are informed). It is also better for democracy (people have real impact).

“If preferendums are organized on a wide scale, people might become responsible actors rather than the passive (or unwilling) subjects of much-needed climate policies.”

The Preferendum And A Climate Catastrophe

Compared to autocracies, electoral democracies seem poorly equipped to deal with the consequences of colossal environmental change. As we go deeper in the transition toward a fossil-free future, public unrest may be expected to rise once less popular and more destabilizing climate policies are proposed and implemented. Elected politicians will risk their own political survival. Serving the people of 2080 is a huge challenge when the polls look bad for 2024. As a result, we may witness even more polarization, more populism, more fake news, more filter bubbles, more distrust, more unrest, more hatred and more violence — and not just online. We may even witness the end of liberal democracy as we know it. 

Giving these historic and pressing needs, we urgently need to develop new democratic spaces and practices that can reconcile rational, fact-based policy proposals with large-scale public involvement. We need to explore tools that empower the masses while not losing support for democracy. In sum, we need to invent new forms and procedures of democratic self-government.

The logic is very simple: If liberal democracies do not succeed in empowering more people, other regimes will — or at least will create that illusion. If preferendums are organized on a wide scale, if citizens are fully aware of current emissions and reduction targets, many millions of people might become responsible actors rather than the passive (or unwilling) subjects of much-needed climate policies. 

We are living in a critical time, both politically and climatologically, and the current procedures of representative democracy are simply not enough to face it. We need all the creativity we can get to imagine alternative ways of doing democracy. Preferendums are a fast, easy and safe way to simultaneously embolden climate governance and bolster liberal democracies. Now more than ever, they are needed to realize the ideal of self-government.