Citizen assemblies: An idea whose time has come (again)
Stid is the Executive Director of Lyceum Labs, a new charitable venture dedicated to improving the quality of political leadership and party politics in the United States. Lyceum Labs is a fiscally sponsored project of the Defending Democracy Together Institute, a 501(c)3 entity based in Washington, DC.
Sometimes, when you put a question out to the universe, the universe answers back. Such has been my experience with an open-ended lament I shared in the spring of 2016 entitled, “Our Problems With Parliaments.”
I began by observing that “the idea of representative government finds itself on the ropes” and offered two reasons why. The first was age-old. It has always been off-putting–especially to the American eye–to take in all the horse-trading, log-rolling, bickering, and grandstanding that elected representatives engage in as they make our laws. But I also went on to propose that:
“There is another problem, and it has gotten worse. We don’t like to be represented. We don’t like decisions to be made on our behalf…When representatives had to travel to the capital by horse and buggy or steamship, there was no other way for democracy to work. But with the ubiquitous and instantaneous communications technology now at our fingertips, we can track what our representatives are doing 24/7. We can give them real-time instructions as to what they should or should not do on our behalf. And the notion that they are better equipped to make these decisions by dint of their elected status, perspective, or experience has become (we tell ourselves) laughable. Not only the distance but also the deference needed for representative democracy have been obliterated.
Where do we go from here? For many, it is into the camps of political leaders who, by appealing to our baser instincts and/or offering simplistic descriptions of what can and should be done, brush aside the complexity of politics and law-making in a diverse society as well as the institutions in which they are meant to occur. We sense these leaders are giving voice to what we are feeling, that there would be no representative distance between us and them. This is of course an old temptation, for both leaders and the led. But it has been turbocharged by our communications technology and shifting assumptions about who can and should speak on our behalf.
These strike me as the core problems we have with parliaments. Does anybody have good ideas about solutions for them? Or, to be more realistic, better ways of coping with them?”
In the intervening seven years, I’ve come to appreciate that we have an emergent and at least partial answer to these questions. Citizens’ assemblies can help us resolve some of the big problems we have with representative democracy. They bring authentic and representative citizen perspectives to bear in policymaking and, at the same time, refine public opinion through informed deliberation and judgment. But for citizens’ assemblies to take root in the U.S., advocates, funders, and–not least–elected officials must see them as an essential complement rather than a replacement for representative democracy.
The idea of relying on randomly selected, representative, and rotating groups of citizens to deliberate on pressing issues and propose or approve policies responding to them is not new. As James Fishkin notes in “Democracy When the People are Thinking: Deliberation and Democratic Renewal,” Athens adopted this system of self-government at the end of the 5th Century BC. The Athenians did so to guard against the demagoguery, political upheavals, and military adventurism that had led to their defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.
I first learned about these ancient democratic practices in graduate school. But their application in the modern world always struck me as risking the unintended and perverse consequences that have plagued other reforms pushed by enthusiasts of participation and direct democracy– e.g., party primaries. So what has led me to change my mind?
An Ancient Innovation Now Spreading Around the World
In part, I have come to appreciate that citizens’ assemblies are not just about increasing citizen participation in government and policy-making. They are as much if not more about improving the representativeness and quality of deliberation through carefully structured processes.
Democracy Next, a civil society group that works to support their use around the world, has just come out with an impressive and richly-linked guide to “assembling an assembly.” Their primer reflects a set of “good practice principles” developed by the OECD based on a meta-analysis of nearly 300 assemblies. While there are many permutations, these resources highlight common elements of well-run citizens’ assemblies:
- A clear purpose and commissioning by a public authority in a position to act on the assembly's recommendations.
- Random selection via “sortition” or lottery of a representative body of citizens to participate in the assembly.
- Preparation of politically balanced information and briefings so that citizens can learn about the issue(s) at hand from different relevant viewpoints.
- Deliberation among participants–carefully structured, adeptly facilitated, and with ample time to work through complexity and points of disagreement.
- Preparation of a report and/or recommendations reflecting in aggregate the perspectives of the assembly, points of consensus and divergence, etc.
- Follow-up by the commissioning authority such that the assembly’s deliberations are taken into account and influence public action in observable ways.
- Transparency and communication throughout the process so the public can follow along and learn from the assembly–and thus be more apt to regard it as legitimate.
I have also been intrigued by and learned from the rapid expansion of citizens’ assemblies abroad in recent years. The Republic of Ireland has set the pace, using citizens’ assemblies to settle deep-seated cultural controversies over abortion and marriage equality and to set the stage for reforming its constitution. In France, President Emmanuel Macron commissioned national citizens’ assemblies to tackle thorny questions related to climate change and end-of-life care. The city of Paris has established an ongoing citizens’ assembly at the municipal level. Other European countries are ramping up their experiments with citizens’ assemblies. The EU has become a creative test kitchen, developing and compiling recipes for their constructive use.
Experiments in the Laboratories of U.S. Democracy
The U.S. is well-positioned to join this exploration. There have been a growing number of instructive and homegrown experiments at all levels of our political system. Enterprising nonprofits and academics are joining with receptive state and local officials to form the vanguard of this experimentation.
Three years ago, for example, a team of such innovators came together to plan and run a citizen’s assembly on climate in Washington state. They helped 77 Washingtonians selected via lottery–a representative microcosm of the state’s 7.6 million residents–assemble, learn, deliberate, and make 148 recommendations to the state legislature on a pressing topic: “How can Washington State equitably design and implement climate mitigation strategies while strengthening communities disproportionately impacted by climate change across the State?”
To take another example, the nonprofit Healthy Democracy has pioneered the use of citizens’ assemblies to help voters better understand ballot measures on which they will be voting. The Citizen Initiative Review process has been codified into Oregon state law and piloted in four other states. More recently, at the municipal level, Healthy Democracy has helped Petaluma, California residents use a citizens' assembly to determine what to do with under-used fairgrounds in their town.
Nationally, the America in One Room project has now run two illustrative “deliberative polls” reflecting many of the design features used in citizens’ assemblies. The project is a partnership between James Fishkin’s Deliberative Democracy Lab at Stanford University, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and Helena. They have demonstrated Americans can deliberate together and arrive at a broad consensus on a range of contentious policy issues–including electoral and democracy-enhancing reforms. They have also documented that a non-ideological and thoughtfully facilitated process of learning and deliberation shifts participants’ perspectives, refining their off-the-cuff opinions into informed points of view.
As these green shoots suggest, the U.S. is fertile soil for citizens’ assemblies. They can be held and inform policy-making at all levels of government. They can be proposed from the outside in by actors in civil society, or from the inside out by elected officials. A burgeoning set of practitioners, facilitators, researchers, and advocates are busy developing methods, tools, data, and messages to hasten the adoption of citizens’ assemblies. Finally, citizens’ assemblies do not require formal or fundamental changes to our electoral systems or governing institutions, a barrier that keeps many democratic innovations from getting traction.
Citizens’ assemblies could help us cope with increasingly vexing problems of self-government. They are a constructive response to the growing bottom-up / anti-elite energy on the political right and left alike. Paradoxically, citizens’ assemblies could also provide elected officials more leeway to pursue courses of action they actually think are right but currently cannot follow. Citizens’ assemblies would elevate disinterested, informed, and representative perspectives relative to the self-interested, knee-jerk, and hyper-partisan stances (often fueled by wealthy donors) that too often prevail today. Well-administered citizens’ assemblies could thus begin to counter the runaway polarization and misinformation that bedevil us.
Realizing the Promise of Citizens’ Assemblies
What will it take to hasten the spread of citizens’ assemblies as a partial remedy for what ails U.S. democracy? Let me flag three imperatives.
Avoid over-the-top advocacy that presents citizens’ assemblies as a panacea. A recent and egregious example of an advocate falling into this trap is the otherwise thoughtful Adam Grant. In a New York Times op-ed entitled, “The Worst People Run for Office: It’s Time for a Better Way,” he argued that we should ditch voting, elections, and politicians altogether. Given the “narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy” that he contends are endemic among political leaders, we should rely instead on randomly selected citizens’ assemblies to govern ourselves.
Spoiler alert: Americans aren’t going to want to stop voting in elections to choose their political leaders –or to toss them out if need be–anytime soon. Grant likely knows as much and is being provocative. But his rhetorical excesses reflect the perspectives of earnest advocates of citizens’ assemblies. They see them not as a complement but as a superior alternative to elections and representatives. If widely circulated, this framing will rally opposition to citizens’ assemblies in the U.S., and rightly so.
Inspire, inform, and support “commissioners” inside government. At present, the most committed proponents of citizens’ assemblies operate in civil society. However, meaningful adoption of this innovation will ultimately depend on elected officials inside the government clearing the way for citizens’ assemblies by commissioning them and responding to their recommendations. To realize the promise of citizens’ assemblies, advocates need to generate and inform demand for them among influential politicians.
It might seem counter-intuitive for elected officials to want to share their decision-making authority with citizens–especially when the former cannot control what the latter may recommend. However, some politicians may well agree with advocates’ convictions about the improved representation and deliberation that citizens’ assemblies provide. Others may discern greater odds of realizing their policy goals via deliberative “mini-publics” than by working solely through the institutions in which they serve. Some politicians may regard citizens’ assemblies as a new way of passing the buck to avoid taking tough votes. Others may wish to avoid the optics of arguing against letting the people themselves decide how to handle tough questions. Whatever the aggregate mix of these higher and lower motives, we might reasonably expect a critical mass of the leaders we elect to be swayed by them.
Fund the civic infrastructure needed for citizens’ assemblies to take root. Philanthropy will also have to step up. It will take an influx of funding to build and sustain the field of practitioners and platforms necessary to ramp up the use of citizens’ assemblies. In doing so, funders will be pushed to walk the talk of their support for democracy. Because citizens’ assemblies are by definition a representative microcosm of the broader public, they will include at least some people and perspectives that funders would rather not let have as much say. Philanthropists may also be ambivalent about citizens’ assemblies because they are open-ended processes that cannot legitimately be set up to arrive at a particular outcome or set of recommendations. The payoff for funders will not come from realizing their own policy preferences. Rather, they will be helping underwrite a democracy that is more representative, deliberate, and decisive–and thus more legitimate and trustworthy.