From ancient Athens to the town hall: Can a new wave of deliberative democracy save the world?

"Citizens' assemblies" and similar forms of ground-level democracy are suddenly everywhere. Can we all get along?

Published December 15, 2019 12:08PM (EST)

Woman in audience speaking at town hall meeting (Getty Images/Hero Images)
Woman in audience speaking at town hall meeting (Getty Images/Hero Images)

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As the House of Representatives prepares to vote on articles of impeachment, and as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell openly colludes with Trump’s lawyers to fix the upcoming Senate trial, it’s more obvious than ever that Donald Trump is just a symptom of much more profound disease that has rendered our democracy dysfunctional. America is hardly alone in this regard.

Contrast McConnell with Paula Duncan, the Trump-supporting juror in Paul Manafort's criminal trial, who told NBC News"I wanted Paul Manafort to be innocent, but he wasn't," and voted to convict him on all charges. She followed the evidence, just as jurors are supposed to. “I didn't believe politics had any place in that courtroom,” she said. “I knew I could be fair and impartial," and she was right.

The way juries ordinarily work — and worked in the Manafort case despite the surrounding pressures — stands in stark contrast to how dysfunctional our politics has become. Juries are not perfect, of course. But Duncan’s conduct was typical of how well they work more often than not, engaging ordinary citizens in thoughtful deliberation of evidence, to reach serious, life-impacting judgments. If ordinary citizens can do that, why can’t they take on Mitch McConnell’s role as well?

As far back as ancient Athens, people have argued that they can. As Pericles put it: “Our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters … and instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.”

Athenian democracy made varied use of policy juries, citizens' assemblies or “deliberative mini-publics,” as academics now call them. Others have followed their example down through the ages, though the practice withered with the birth of modern representative democracy. In the 21st century, however, they’re experiencing a startling rebirth. There have been more than 700 examples of such ground-level institutions over the past several decades, according to a forthcoming study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

A citizens' assembly in Ireland, convened in 2016, played a crucial role in  reforming that nation's abortion law, and 2019 saw a sharp spike in activity, driven largely by climate activism. While most examples have been relatively limited and ad hoc, there is a growing move to make such institutions an integral part of how modern democracies function, and thereby make them more effective, more truly democratic and more legitimate in the face of profound public skepticism.

To learn more about deliberative mini-publics and how they might help us envision something good for the future this holiday season, despite Mitch McConnell’s lumps of coal, Salon turned to Claudia Chwalisz, the lead author of that forthcoming OECD report. She also leads the area of work around innovative citizen participation in the OECD’s Open Government Unit, and was part of the seven-person team that designed a new deliberative component for the government of Ostbelgien, the self-governing German-speaking community in eastern Belgium. 

Chwalisz is also the author of two relevant books: "The People’s Verdict: Adding Informed Citizen Voices to Public Decision Making" and "The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change."  This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

There has been an explosion of deliberative processes, especially over the past year, capped by the Ostbelgien Citizens’ Council, which you helped to design. But there's relatively little awareness of this in the U.S., even though we do have our own examples. For those who aren’t familiar, explain what these are and how they work.  

Deliberative processes, such as citizens’ assemblies, juries and panels, are used by governments across the world to bring citizens into public decision-making more directly. Even though there are numerous models of deliberative processes that exist — our forthcoming OECD study counts 12 of them — they are all characterized by two features:

  1. Representativeness: participants are randomly selected and demographically stratified, meaning you bring together a ‘microcosm of the wider population’ in one room, and
  2. Deliberation: this entails careful and active listening, weighing and considering multiple perspectives, every participant having an opportunity to speak, a mix of formats that alternate between small group and plenary discussions and activities, and skilled facilitation by professionals.

Simply summarized, a deliberative process is comprised of a wide cross-section of society — a “microcosm” of a population — who are selected by lottery to spend a significant period of time weighing evidence to formulate recommendations for public authorities.

So why are they suddenly experiencing a boom?

That’s a good question. The earliest deliberative process in the OECD study goes back all the way to 1986, and there have been ups and down in interest over time. There was a peak around the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then they came back into vogue again from around 2010. This past year has witnessed an explosion of interest across the globe. 

One of the reasons why 2019 looks like a tipping point may be the pressure coming from the protest movement Extinction Rebellion, which has been calling for a citizens’ assembly as one of its three demands to government. Since then, more and more public authorities at all levels of governance have started commissioning deliberative processes on climate issues. In the U.K., there is one happening at the national level, around a dozen at local level, and the Scottish government has announced one too.

Cities such as Toronto, Copenhagen and Gdansk have also addressed the issue through deliberation. The French Citizens’ Convention on Climate is perhaps the biggest, both in terms of its size (150 randomly selected citizens), length (over six months), and remit (five different policy areas), with backing from both President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe lending it authority. 

Another reason may be that there has been growing awareness of the potential of deliberation due to increased (and better) media coverage of high-profile deliberative processes in other countries, such as the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, which received international attention after its completion in the context of the referendum on amending the 8th Amendment [the Irish constitution's ban on abortion]. Governments around the world could witness the benefits of putting in place a process around contentious public issues that gives a wide cross-section of society the time and space to learn, deliberate and develop consensus-based recommendations on what change should look like. It gives them the legitimacy to act and helps them to identify the community’s priorities. 

Overall, there also seems to be growing recognition over the past number of years about the crisis of democratic governance more generally. In a time when we are dealing with numerous complex public problems, the current way in which public decisions are decided does not feel adequate. Democratic institutions in most Western democracies, as we know them today, were designed in the late 18th century and are still largely the same, despite some notable advances in terms of universal suffrage. Over time, trust in government and politicians has been declining. Not that there was ever a time when everyone loved politicians, but if you compare surveys taken in the 1940s and '50s to today, there is a significant decrease.

Moreover, the problem of polarization, which seems to define our politics today, is a design feature, not a bug, of a system that relies on elections. It feeds partisanship, and incentives are aligned for the short term. Democracy is more than elections. If we see things that way, then there is a search for rethinking the architecture of our democratic institutions more broadly to overcome some of these design flaws in electoral representative democracy — not in a way that destroys that system, but in a way that complements it.

Deliberative processes are one part of the picture of the type of change needed for democratic governance to become capable of addressing complex and long-term problems, in a way that builds trust and tries to bring society together. 

You note that academics describe these institutions as "deliberative mini-publics," with two key features being deliberation and representativeness (secured by random selection). While they may be relatively novel in the realm of policy-making, these same two features characterize juries, which people are very familiar with.  Is this a helpful model for people new to the idea? 

Yes indeed, I think that the principles behind juries used in the justice system are an example that many people can understand. We trust that a random group of people, who are given the time to weigh the evidence and deliberate with one another, are able to come to a public judgment on matters of justice. 

How and why do they differ? 

Because jury service is a compulsory, random selection that takes place, without a need for demographic stratification. In deliberative processes for governance, participation is not mandatory. So there is usually a second stage after the initial random selection to control for the final group to reflect the wider society when it comes to age, gender, socioeconomic status, minority groups, etc. The exact criteria depend on the context. The idea is for everyone to see "someone like me" who is part of the final group. Using random selection has become popular to help overcome the biases in “open” processes, where certain demographics tend to disproportionately participate — those being male, white, well-educated, well-off and urban. 

Another key difference between juries in the justice system and policy juries is that the latter have skilled facilitation. Within a randomly selected group, there will be people who are more shy or outspoken, more comfortable or anxious with expressing their views and asking questions. Having a professional facilitator, who is independent with no stake in the outcome, helps to create an environment in which everyone can equally participate in the deliberation and no one dominates. 

Even before this year's boom, the OECD began a study of more than 700 examples from recent decades. What does the preliminary data from that study tell us? 

The preliminary findings show that we have over 750 examples around the world of deliberative processes that meet all three of the following criteria: 1) influence: they are commissioned by a public authority; 2) representativeness: participants are randomly selected and demographically stratified, and (3) deliberation, which requires time, so a minimum of one full day of face-to-face meetings. 

The examples come from 22 countries plus the European Union. There is a common misconception that such approaches are better suited for the local level, but the findings indicate that deliberative processes have been used pretty evenly on local, regional or state, national or federal, and international levels of governance. They have been used for tackling all sorts of different big and important policy issues, though perhaps a more useful way of thinking about it is to think of the types of public problems that are well-suited for deliberative approaches. This means issues where there is a political entrenchment or stalemate, complex problems, long-term issues and values-based or ethical dilemmas.

How do these scenarios tend to work?

The preliminary findings indicate that the average length of a deliberative process is 3.7 days, spread out over six weeks. Usually there is time in between meetings for participants to learn, reflect and speak to their family, friends and colleagues. Participants are usually able to request additional information if they feel that something is missing before beginning to formulate recommendations. Having time in between meetings allows organizers to provide this information, either in the form of written documents or inviting a speaker on the topic. 

Deliberative processes are also often in combination with another form of participation, meaning there are sometimes surveys, public meetings or expert commissions before a process begins. Another common practice is that in between meetings of the randomly selected group, there are public town halls or roundtables, where the participants are able to interact with the wider public, fielding their questions and incorporating their feedback into the group’s deliberations. For example, with the ongoing Citizens’ Convention on Climate in France, in between their official meetings, they are holding “Climate Apéritifs” open to the wider public. 

We’re not just talking about a single model, though, are we?

The initial findings of the OECD study indicate there are twelve different models of deliberative processes. Citizens’ assemblies have been talked about a lot in the media recently, which has been a great way to open up the discussion to a wider public. But they’re not the only way to fulfill these principles of representation and deliberation, bringing citizens meaningfully into public decision-making. For instance, citizens’ juries and panels, which are smaller in scale (on average 35 participants) and shorter in length (four days over five weeks), have been more popular than citizens’ assemblies, which on average have 99 participants who meet for 18 days over 11 months. 

Besides juries and assemblies, there are also consensus conferences, planning cells, G1000s, citizens’ councils, deliberative polls, citizens’ dialogues, World Wide Views, and the Citizens’ Initiative Review. On top of that, recently there have been two models of institutionalized deliberative processes — the Ostbelgien Model and the City Observatory (started in Madrid) — to add to the toolbox. So the study will hopefully offer public decision-makers a wider range of approaches, which are dependent on the complexity of the topic, level of governance, resources available, etc. Thinking only about citizens’ assemblies limits the imagination of all the potential ways citizen deliberation can be incorporated into public decision-making procedures. 

Another key finding is that the majority of examples are one-off or ad hoc processes. A new wave of deliberative democracy, however, is about institutionalization. There are some notable examples of how deliberative processes are being embedded into decision-making procedures, so that eventually, regardless of political will, they become part of the "normal way" public decisions are taken. 

The OECD is also developing principles of good practice for deliberative processes. As interest in their use explodes, it is important that such processes are designed and executed to achieve those overarching aims of enhancing public trust and leading to better public decisions. If done poorly or designed in such a way that is not transparent or fair, they risk fueling greater disillusionment. 

There have been examples at all levels of government. I’d like to ask you for some noteworthy examples at each of them, along with what makes them noteworthy. First, what would you cite at the local level? 

The Toronto Planning Review Panel is a notable example of an ongoing deliberative body that has become embedded into the city’s planning division. The first Panel met from 2015 to 2017. It was a group of 28 randomly selected residents, from all parts of the greater Toronto area. They were selected through a randomized process called a civic lottery. This means that 10,000 randomly selected Toronto households received an invitation in the post from the Toronto Planning Division, inviting them to volunteer to become a member of the panel. Among the people who applied, the 28 were randomly selected, controlling for the group to be representative of the wider population when it comes to age, gender, household tenure, geography, proportionate representation of racialized people, and guaranteed inclusion of indigenous and disabled individuals. 

After four full days of learning and training sessions, the members of the Toronto Planning Review Panel met every two months for two years to deliberate on planning issues and provide informed public input on major planning initiatives to the chief city planner. As Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s Chief Planner at the time, said: “In order to create a culture that has meaningful civic engagement, it’s really important to provide a window into the planning process. We don’t want just random, uninformed opinions. We need people at the table who are thinking deeply about the complexity of the city and of the complexity of the issues that we face.”

The second planning review panel, with 32 members this time, has just wrapped up its work for its two-year term. There is now also an ongoing deliberative body like this in Toronto devoted to transport issues as well.

What’s a good regional example?

At the regional/state level, it is worth highlighting the impact of the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) model, which has been institutionalized in Oregon — and is now required before a ballot measure — and has been piloted in numerous other states, as well as in Finland and Switzerland. For a CIR, 24 randomly selected voters from across the state are invited to explore the for and against arguments of a ballot measure. After training in dialogue and deliberation techniques, they question campaign advocates on both sides as well as independent experts. After deliberating on the information, exploring the various trade-offs and the values underlying the choices, they produce a factual statement with the best reasons to vote for and to vote against the measure. In Oregon, it is distributed to registered voters when they receive their ballot, and in other places it is distributed as well as widely as possible to help inform voters.

The output of this process is therefore directly targeted at fellow citizens, rather than public decision-makers. But it still combines the same principles of representativeness and deliberation, and participants are given the time and resources to get to an informed public judgment at the end of it. 

How well has this worked?

Numerous academic studies have been done about the impacts of the CIR, notably in Oregon, including a recent longitudinal study that demonstrate the process not only increases the political efficacy of the small group of randomly selected participants, but also of the wider public who uses the information produced by the CIR group to inform their voting choice. Anywhere where ballot measures and referendums are used regularly could consider introducing the Citizens’ Initiative Review as a deliberative complement to direct democracy. 

What about a national example?

The Citizens’ Convention on Climate in France is currently ongoing, but it is worth noting for a few reasons. Its mandate is to define a series of measures that would allow for a 40% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions before 2030 (in reference to 1990 levels), in a spirit of social justice. President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe have both given it prominent backing, linking it to authority and sending a signal to participants that they respect the significant amount of time that has been asked of them to participate. 

The president said in a speech last April that the recommendations will be submitted “without a filter” either to a referendum or a parliamentary vote, or be applied directly as new regulations. The government will respond publicly to the recommendations and has agreed to publish a provisional calendar of implementation of the convention’s proposals. Convention members will have an opportunity to collectively formulate a response to the government’s response.

How is it progressing?

One hundred and fifty people have been randomly selected for this convention, to meet for six three-day weekends over four months, from October 2019 to the end of January 2020. They have been broken down into smaller groups of 30 people to focus on five different policy areas during this time, applying the same principles of effective small-group deliberation that take place in smaller-scale citizens’ juries and panels. The convention’s website is an excellent example of transparency and the opportunity of public communication to enable public learning and participation. All of the frequently asked questions about the convention’s design, composition, and activities are available. The expert presentations and briefing materials are all easy to access. 

It is still ongoing, but a process to watch in early 2020 to see what type of recommendations emerge and the government and parliament’s responses to them.  

The vast majority of examples are relatively short-lived and narrowly-focused — though there are exceptions, such as the citizen's initiative review in Oregon, here in the US. Now, however, there's increasing interest in taking them much more seriously and institutionalizing them, as with the example of the Ostbelgien Citizens’ Council. As one of the experts involved in that project, what did you see as your primary objectives?

First, it’s important to stress that the initiative to institutionalize in Ostbelgien did not come from academics or practitioners. It was led by the parliament and government, and stemmed from their desire to make a more permanent change to public decision-making in their community, embedding citizen deliberation. They then called in the expertise to help them figure out how to achieve that goal. 

What did you see as the problems you faced?

The problem that we were asked to help develop recommendations to the parliament about was how to involve citizens in an ongoing basis in public decision-making, in a way that is meaningful. 

What are the most significant general lessons and principles you come away with from that experience? 

One of the key lessons seems to be that it is important to win over bipartisan support for institutional changes. Every party voted unanimously in favor of establishing the Citizens’ Council, with this dual agenda-setting and monitoring remit. It meant that when there was an election after this legislation was voted on, it wasn’t a campaign issue, and it will help ensure continuity. 

Earlier this year, Politico published a story, "The myth of the citizens’ assembly" with the subhead, "It worked in Ireland but it won’t solve Brexit." The whole argument seemed to be that citizens' assemblies aren't a panacea. But it doesn't seem that any experts like yourself ever claimed that it was. 

Indeed, the argument for introducing more opportunities for meaningfully involving citizens in public decision-making through deliberative processes is more nuanced than that. They are not a panacea for every type of issue or problem, and critically the stage of decision-making matters. Taking the example of Brexit you mention, perhaps a deliberative process very early on to set out what Brexit might look like so that people knew what change meant when they voted, could have been useful. But at this stage it is hard to imagine a deliberative process being helpful. 

In Ireland, the Citizens’ Assembly not only recommended that there should be a referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment, they also developed proposals for the parliamentary committee about how the legislation should change if people voted for change. However, Brexit is not quite comparable either, given that it involves a negotiation with the European Union and is not a decision that the U.K. government could take unilaterally. 

What are the key kinds of problems that citizens' assemblies can help to solve?

A useful guide is this list of types of problems that deliberative processes are well-suited to address, which was published in the UN Democracy Fund and newDemocracy Foundation handbook on democracy beyond elections, which I also contributed to:

  • Uninformed public opinion
  • Corruption in public institutions
  • Political stalemate
  • Tapping into local knowledge
  • Dealing with ethical dilemmas
  • Lack of trust in public institutions
  • Complex problems
  • Long-term issues vs. short-term incentives
  • There are clear winners and losers
  • Entrenched political positions
  • A lack of representation in the current political process

Beyond this, however, the Ostbelgien example also shows that we could conceive of new roles for citizens as well. Often, such processes are seeking informed recommendations on an issue defined by the public authority. In Ostbelgien, the Citizens’ Council has two mandates: (1) agenda-setting — they decide on one to three issues each year that should be put to separate citizens’ assemblies; and (2) monitoring — they ensure that the parliamentary debates on the citizens’ assemblies' recommendations, which are required to happen by law, actually take place and implementation follows. 

To make matters vivid for my American audience, what would it be like if — instead of the U.S. Senate, with two senators from every state — America had national citizens' assembly where impeachment trials would be held (along with other duties)? How might such a body help make American politics less dysfunctional?

Well, it’s hard to answer that question in just a few sentences. A new book on this topic, "Legislature by Lot," is recommended reading for anyone grappling with the many questions that stem from considering the replacement of a permanent citizens’ chamber that is modeled on the Senate. When the group of experts was brought together in Ostbelgien to design a permanent model of citizen deliberation, this was also our initial starting point. We start with what we know and are familiar with. Many democracies today tend to have two chambers of government. But after a few days of deliberation, we came up with a different model of permanent citizen deliberation which involves both the permanent citizens’ council and the ongoing use of citizens’ assemblies on different issues. The citizens’ council gives citizens different roles: agenda-setting and monitoring. And the continual use of citizens’ assemblies, with different people randomly selected for each one, means that many more people over time are able to have the opportunity to be directly involved in governance. 

I don’t think it’s as simple as replacing the Senate with one new chamber of randomly selected citizens to get to the heart of democracy’s ills. It’s not clear how the elements which make deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies work well could be replicated in such a model — i.e. having a clear and specific remit, small group deliberation, professional facilitation, etc. A greater potential seems to lie in embedding the use of different types of deliberative processes at all levels of governance, across ministries, in the work of parliamentary committees, etc. 

The OECD study also shows that other routes to institutionalization so far have involved creating the requirements for a deliberative process under certain conditions, like before a ballot measure with the Citizens’ Initiative Review. In France, there are requirements for a deliberative consultation on any big infrastructure project that costs more than 3 million euros. One could imagine other conditions under which having a deliberative process could be mandatory before a public decision is taken. Finally, another path to institutionalization has been the establishment of rules that allow citizens to demand a deliberative process on a specific issue. So far this is the case in the Polish city of Gdansk and the Austrian state of Voralberg, where petitions reaching a certain number of signatures can trigger such a process. This power has been used once in Vorarlberg in 2017, on issues around the use of land. 

Overall, what seems to be needed for sustained change is also a change in culture and norms — about the role of politicians, public servants, stakeholders, and citizens today. The relationship between these actors will only start to shift if there are numerous changes throughout the democratic governance system, not just with one change to one democratic body. 

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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