Putting The Public Back In Public Policy

Citizens’ assemblies have a transformative potential to renew democracies and awaken the public’s sense of civic duty.

Rafaela Mascaro for Noema Magazine

Dawn Nakagawa is the executive vice president of the Berggruen Institute, where she co-directs the Future of Democracy program.

Marjan H. Ehsassi is a nonresident Berggruen Institute Future of Democracy Fellow. Her first book, on democratic innovations and the potential of citizens’ assemblies to renew democracy, will be published in summer 2024.

Etienne Barou is a volunteer firefighter from Soleymieux, in the Loire region of France. Nathalie Berriau is a 56-year-old documentarian from Villeurbanne in the Rhône Valley. Twenty-seven-year-old Martial Breton is a climate activist and union representative from Paris. Bintou M. is a 44-year-old technology consultant who lives in Bailly-Romainvilliers, in the region of Seine-et-Marne. 

Apart from all living in France, these four individuals had very little in common until they received an invitation in the fall of 2022. 

Mandated by President Emmanuel Macron, the Citizens’ Convention on the End of Life (CCFV) convened 184 residents from every region of France, including French-administered territories, at the Palais d’léna starting in December of 2022. They were charged with reconsidering the Claeys-Leonetti law, which introduced the right to deep and continuous sedation in 2016 and is the current framework governing end-of-life policy in France. 

Over 27 days stretching to March 2023, this broadly representative collective of residents listened, learned, deliberated and developed recommendations. They presented their proposals to the French public over livestream and were received at the Élysée Palace by Macron on April 3. In the end, 76% of CCFV participants were in favor of changing the law to allow for assisted suicide or euthanasia within a well-defined framework with strict guardrails, and 92% approved the final report and policy recommendations. Macron subsequently tasked the Assemblée Nationale, the lower house of the bicameral parliament, to build on the work of the CCFV and introduce a legislative framework by the end of the summer.

After those weeks inside the assembly, Etienne felt changed. He became better at formulating his opinions on the end of life but also began carrying himself with more confidence. “I wasn’t sure I had anything to contribute, but now I feel I belong,” he told us. The government sought his input and seemed to be working for him. In this, he is not dissimilar from other participants of citizens’ assemblies in other countries around the world. 

The Cure For Our Democratic Malaise

In a time of rapid social, environmental and economic change, fear and uncertainty feed distrust of opaque democratic institutions that have not adapted to demands for access, choice and voice. Low levels of confidence and high levels of frustration have given rise to populist movements fueled by extremist rhetoric from Sweden to Brazil and many countries in between. In response, some governments have launched deliberative experiments and even, in a few places like Paris and Brussels, institutionalized them as permanent mechanisms for developing policy on complicated and controversial political issues. 

But an underappreciated consequence of such processes is the transformative impact they have on participants. Citizens’ assemblies bring together diverse groups of people who are broadly representative of the breadth of backgrounds and perspectives of a community: teachers and firefighters, stay-at-home parents, engineers and many more. Some are politically disengaged and would never have sought involvement in a such a process. Yet the experience of learning, seeking to understand the perspectives of others and building community together is transformative. 

Learning, deliberating, developing a sense of voice and working for common causes across differences can inspire apathetic and cynical people to engage, to become informed and socially connected, to enthusiastically participate in politics, and to have a sense of meaningful input in the governance of issues that are consequential to them.

Scaling these deliberative processes can catalyze the renewal many democracies desperately need. Institutionalizing sortition-based bodies and instilling the practice of deliberation will not only restore the legitimacy of our system, but by transforming disengaged people into active participants capable of collective problem-solving, can cure the deep polarization, populism and pessimism that currently plagues our societies. 

“An underappreciated consequence of citizens’ assemblies is the transformative impact they have on participants.”

The Transformation

Participants arrived at the CCFV with varying degrees of skepticism. It wasn’t a small commitment: multiple weekends spent studying, listening, learning and deliberating together. Many were timid, unsure of why they were there, what was expected of them and even why they had received an invitation. 

Years of being ignored and shut out of policy had left many feeling somewhat cynical about their government. “It’s rare for [the] government to ask for our opinion,” a 54-year-old participant named Pascale told us. “We are usually treated like sheep.” Pascale had not voted in years. 

During the first session, people were visibly uncomfortable — strangers to each other. Conversations were tense. Their levels of understanding about the issues at hand varied, and so did their opinions about what to do. Some participants refused to sit near those with differing views.

With each passing weekend, they became more informed about the issues, more familiar with each other and more trusting of the process. Tensions gave way to enthusiasm and confidence. Body language and mannerisms began to change. 

A kindergarten assistant named Vanessa, who described herself as having a hard time speaking up in public, found that end-of-life policy was something she cared about. Her father had suffered through a battle with cancer during the pandemic. In great pain, he was ready to end his life but didn’t have access to the treatment he needed. The wait was endless. This assembly presented Vanessa with the opportunity to share her experience with her community. 

Soon, the learning process became a shared journey where people gave space to different perspectives and values. Etienne was in favor of allowing assisted suicide but had reservations about euthanasia. He was open to changing his position based on new information and the conversations he was having with other participants. Bintou, a Muslim, acknowledged that her position was deeply informed by her faith. However, hearing other perspectives shifted her position and she became increasingly influenced by arguments that presented a humanistic rationale. 

As the convention progressed and participants came together again and again, they began to appreciate both the process and capabilities of the group. One participant named Blaise, a 34-year-old engineer and start-up founder, marveled at the quality of the interactions among the group: “When you expose people to information beyond what is on television, they are capable of formulating remarkable insights.” Another, Jacques, valued the diversity of the group, which was far greater than any elected body in France: “We are the make-up of this population, and unlike those elected, we do not have a political agenda.” 

“Soon, the learning process became a shared journey where people gave space to different perspectives and values.”

Martial noted the significant advantages of the convention over the typical legislative process: “At the National Assembly, only a few members understand a topic deeply. But 184 of us were engaged in learning and challenged each other on the question we were asked.” He remained skeptical of the government but believed in the full legitimacy, representativeness and competence of citizens to propose policy reform. “We have been given a small seat at the table and are here to serve the common good,” he said.

The success of citizens’ assemblies is often judged by outsiders on whether and what kind of policy outcome results. But this isn’t the full picture. Amandine Roggeman, a participant in an earlier French citizens’ assembly focused on climate change (the Citizens’ Convention for Climate, or CCC), argued that “it is more about the process and the ability to grow as citizens than the policy change.” Roggeman told us she experienced measurable personal political growth; her sense of duty was awakened. She is now more aware of and engaged in political issues. 

Lise Deshautel, an advisor to the co-chair of that assembly, agreed wholeheartedly. She stressed that, contrary to the narrative that people are politically uninterested and apathetic, citizens’ assemblies demonstrate that when asked to provide meaningful input, people care deeply and want to participate in political life. When governments trust citizens’ abilities to make good decisions, citizens become more politically engaged, creating a virtuous cycle of engagement.

Indeed, some participants in the CCC felt a need to raise awareness within their communities outside of the convention itself. A few organized presentations in different neighborhoods; at first, only a few people showed up, but media attention grew and so did the crowds. These activities led a group of participants to establish a nonprofit organization called Les 150 to share their experiences, follow up with the government and act as spokespeople for convention participants.

Following the CCC, 13 participants (five women and eight men between the ages of 33 and 62) ran for office in regional elections. They represented different parties across a range of regions. Four of the candidates had never even voted. William Aucant, a 53-year-old architect from Nantes, described his experience in the CCC as “a slap in the face” that awakened him from a deep sleep and has since dramatically changed his life. He is now an elected member of the council for the Loire region. One of his co-participants, Mélanie Cosnier, was elected mayor of Souvigné sur Sarthe, also in the Loire region. Cosnier remarked that before the CCC, she barely voted and found politics inaccessible. She credits the CCC with expanding her knowledge of government institutions and giving her a strong confidence in herself and community. 

Another CCC participant, Hubert Hacquard, was elected to political office in his home city of Bièvres. He described the state of Western democracy as a degradation of institutions. “People have become distant because they don’t understand the process,” he explained. “Power and choice have been taken away and they do not see the government working on their behalf. It is important to return this power by allowing citizens to have a meaningful voice.” 

For Sylvain Burquier, another CCC participant, the survival of our democracy depends on the ability of average citizens to provide genuine input in government decision-making. “Participation is a transformative experience that changes you and your perception of your place in a democracy for the rest of your life,” he said. 

Similar experiences have been reported as a result of participation in deliberative experiments across the world. Participants often note new confidence and a rejuvenated sense of civic duty. Many feel more connected to their communities and more invested in political issues they all face. The process they went through gave them hope that democracy can work — that it can foster faith in collective problem-solving. 

At scale, these individual transformations could reinvent democracy. 

“Contrary to the narrative that people are politically uninterested and apathetic, citizens’ assemblies demonstrate that when asked to provide meaningful input, people care deeply and want to participate in political life.”

Trust Is An Outdated Measure Of Democracy

The health of a democracy is often measured by levels of public trust in government and political leaders. That trust has been falling steadily for decades; in the U.S., Pew reported last year, only 20% of citizens trust the government. 

Could this be because elections are inadequate tools for political engagement? High levels of voter apathy or frustration and low levels of trust indicate a fundamental disconnect between governments and people. Democratic governments need to find new ways to invite citizens into the political process in meaningful and consistent ways. 

In an era of more voice and choice in virtually every area of our lives, exclusive, hierarchical and opaque systems that rely on public trust to remain legitimate are no longer socially or politically tolerable. Blind trust in the government can no longer be expected and indeed no longer seems like the most accurate way to measure the health of a government. 

Instead of confidence and trust in government, the stories of CCC and CCFV participants suggest that the focus should be on awakening citizens’ desire to contribute to political life by providing them with opportunities to reassume their place and role in democracy. Citizens’ assemblies can be journeys of self-discovery and social bond-building that awaken civic sensibility and political imagination. The experience of being called to serve and having one’s voice acknowledged and valued renews a sense of civic duty and changes a person’s perspective on how they can contribute to society. Experiencing politics as constructive, informed, civil dialogues that bring people together, as opposed to polarizing rhetoric that politicizes issues and frays the social fabric, provides a glimpse of how to build healthier democracies. 

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” At a moment when institutions are faltering, we must use the mechanism of sortition-based deliberative processes to put the public back into policy, enhance knowledge and capacity and harness collective intelligence. 

Peter MacLeod, the founder of MASS LBP, an organization helping strengthen citizen engagement in democracies, cautions that “we keep sinking deeper and deeper into the habit of treating the public like a risk that needs to be managed rather than a resource to be tapped and engaged.” It is inaccurate to suggest that people are not interested in politics. Instead, as MacLeod insists, “It’s the practice of politics that has become fundamentally disinterested in people.”

“Experiencing politics as constructive, informed, civil dialogues that bring people together, as opposed to polarizing rhetoric that politicizes issues and frays the social fabric, provides a glimpse of how to build healthier democracies.”

The Making Of Citizens

During the CCFV closing ceremony, Berriau remarked that “democracy should not be left to experts. All citizens, if given the means, information and time, can have a word.” Citizens’ assemblies around the world have encouraged participants to become ambassadors in their own communities and beyond. Their worlds expand and their zones of influence multiply, as does their sense of legitimacy and their place in their democratic ecosystem. 

Citizens’ assemblies are not partisan. They are inclusive of all political beliefs. They complement existing representative structures, enhance knowledge, build social cohesion and provide citizens with a meaningful and consequential voice. They create greater buy-in and legitimacy for tackling challenging societal issues and generate stronger policy outcomes.

Léo Cohen, a former advisor to the French minister of ecological transition, called this “a miracle of citizenship.” So what are we waiting for?