Digital democracy

How Citizens’ Assemblies Can Strengthen Democracy?

Photo: The Citizens’ Assembly in Estonia.
Source: https://www.facebook.com/pg/Rahvakogu/photos/

Neither the prevailing institutions of representative democracy and de facto expertocracy, nor direct or digital democracy alone are sufficient to ensure balanced and legitimate policies. A more integrated design is required. And this is exactly what citizens’ assemblies offer.

In modern democracies the predominant mode of citizen contribution to politics is electing representatives to develop policies for them. This constitutes the core of representative democracy. However, too often the interposition of personal and party interests, the disconnection of politicians from their constituents, and the consequent elitism and the lack of trust towards the government undermine electoral democracy.

In practice, representative politics is supplemented by professional policy development by learned experts be they civic servants or extramural consultants effectively constructing an expertocracy. Although such specialists might possess a more comprehensive perspectives on policy issues, they are not directly elected by the people. This might put in question the legitimacy of their policy proposals.

In contrast, grassroots activism expressed in signing petitions, participating in strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, protests, and other forms of political action re-links the people to policy making. These efforts reflect the idea of direct democracy. Yet, such outright activities bear the risks of insufficient expertise, representation and power imbalances, and of falling into particularistic interests at the expense of those serving community or society as a whole.

When these activities employ information and communication technologies, they also embody digital democracy. It allows a wider, faster, and more inclusive involvement. Albeit, public opinion is especially susceptible to manipulation online, while e-participation raises cyber-security concerns.

Then, how to combine direct citizen participation with an inclusive, informed, and reflective policy making? An alternative solution is to apply randomocracy or sortive democracy design. It is similar to the sortition procedure practiced in ancient Athens for choosing representatives for public offices and to the random selection of jurors to serve on a jury during a jury trial.

Contemporary citizens’ assemblies are mini-publics inspired by earlier experiments such as citizens’ juries, planning cells, consensus conferences [1], deliberative polling [2], and other formats of deliberative democracy [3]. Although their designs vary, they are usually united by a set of common principles and procedures.

Faced with an important yet contested policy requiring a wide and profound discussion, trust and legitimation by the public, policy makers would call a citizens’ assembly. It would be composed of a group of over 100 individuals drawn using a random sample (according to statistics, supposed to represent the whole population best). Furthermore, a reputable and impartial organising committee would assemble the selected citizens, assist in studying an issue, hearings of experts, and facilitate in-person critical deliberation in small groups. As a result, the participants are supposed to form an opinion, develop, and vote on policy recommendations. To ensure transparency and wider public opinion formation, the discussions would be broadcast on mass media. The final recommendations would be put for voting on a referendum or sent to policy makers for review and adoption.

Europe and North America hold most citizens assemblies

Citizens’ assemblies have been practised on all continents, although mostly in Northern America and Europe.

The first ever case took place in 2004 in British Columbia [4]. At that time, the provincial electoral system had clear shortcomings. The number of seats each political party gained in the Legislative Assembly was determined not by popular vote, but by results by each riding (district). Consequently, in the 1996 election one party gained the majority of the popular vote, but another party gained the majority of the seats. Further, in the 2001 election parties with considerable popular vote support gained few or no seats at all, while one party with 57.6% of popular vote gained 97.5% of seats. Apparently, such electoral system posed serious political risks to the parties. Eventually, politicians proposed that the citizens debate and decide on a new electoral system.

160 British Columbians randomly selected from all province's electoral districts constituted the independent and non-partisan Assembly. They deliberated is small groups and in plenary sessions. The session recordings were broadcasted on television. Besides, the public discussed the matter and provided inputs online. In total, there were 1,603 written submissions. The Assembly scrutinized the existing electoral system, looked for alternatives, and suggested a proportional system. The recommendations were widely disseminated and passed to a referendum.

At the referendum, in 77 of 79 electoral districts a simple majority of voters supported these recommendations. This comprised 57.7% votes in favour. However, this was less than the required super-majority of votes (60% popular support of voters and simple majorities in 60% of all ridings). Therefore, the new electoral system was not adopted. Nevertheless, this experiment inspired other citizens’ assemblies around the world.

For example, in 2013, citizens’ assembly (Rahvakogu) was launched in Estonia [5]. In the previous 2012 year the country faced a political party funding scandal, which spurred mass protests and a widely supported e-petition. The president called a meeting with CSOs and soon after an initiative group of CSOs and parties designed the assembly. Despite parliament’s scepticism, the initiative group urged a deliberative democracy exercise to resolve the crisis.

The whole process attracted a significant media attention. Online crowdsourcing by 2,000 registered users brought around 6,000 proposals. The initiators grouped them into sub-categories, experts commented, then authors and experts discussed and voted offline. A representative for the whole society sample of 300 was brought for an informed offline deliberation and voting. The resulting policy proposal document was published online. A total of 15 proposals of 6 topics in a report were passed to the parliament.

As many as 7 proposals (46.7% of all submitted) were adopted by the parliament. In particular, party funding became subject to higher scrutiny. Also, the threshold to register a party was lowered twofold to 500 members. A new law introduced the possibility of submitting e-petitions and obliged the parliament to consider requests gathering at least 1,000 signatures. The very public debate served the role of civic education for participants and adherents, who became more informed and active. This democratic method was tested, proved to be efficient, and paved the path to further assemblies in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Citizens’ assemblies had a profound effect on policy making in Ireland [6]. After the 2010 economic crisis Irish politicians were eager to engage citizens and promised this in public. So, in 2012-2014 scholars and the government experimented with the Convention on the Constitution. Further, in 2016-2018 due to a political division about controversial and sensitive policy issues the government called for Citizens’ Assembly (Thionól Saoránach in Irish).

In 2012-2014 randomly selected 66 citizens were mixed with 33 politicians. The participants chose, studied, and debated on 9 topics. These concerned reducing the voting age and the presidential term, the role of women, same sex marriage, electoral reform, blasphemy, constitutional amendments, parliamentary reform, and on economic, social and cultural rights. They produced respective reports, which were addressed by the government.

Two of these issues were put for referendums in 2015. And although one referendum did not approve lowering the age threshold for presidential candidacy, a majority of 62.1% in another one did approve the marriage equality, which soon was signed into law.

In 2016-2018 a total of 99 citizens were randomly selected. The government defined the topics, namely on abortion, ageing population, fixed-term parliaments, referenda format, and climate change. The public provided a formidable number of inputs, 9,614 of 14,631 which (66%) were online. Experts selected some of these, summarised and presented them. The citizens deliberated and voted offline, while mass media live streamed the sessions. As a result, the secretariat drafted policy proposals, the government reviewed them and passed to the parliament.

The 2018 referendum with 66.4% of votes repealed the Eighth Amendment thereby introducing a more universal right for abortion soon signed into law by a respective bill. It is remarkable that the deliberation design provided a safe environment for such a controversial topic allowing an overall rational and polite discussion.

As humanity is facing global environmental risks, a series of climate change citizens’ assemblies are being held. Starting with the Irish 2017 deliberation on tackling climate change, similar public debates followed in other countries. In 2019 the United Kingdom called the Climate Assembly [7]. In the same year, Estonia launched the Forestry Assembly [8].

How to introduce a successful citizen assembly

Although citizens’ assemblies are so empowering and useful for policy making, they are not widespread. So, what preconditions increase the chances of their establishment?

First of all, the commitment to democratic values among population in general plays a significant role. According to the scholar of an early United States’ case, as Oregon was the first US state to run the initiative in elections, locals understood themselves as pioneers in democracy [9]. Charismatic Individual political leaders can promote randomocracy projects too. As the British Columbia citizens’ assembly project coordinator recognised: “there was a leader, who wanted to champion the project – the Premier of British Columbia at that time Gordon Gibson” [10]. Specific objectives of partisan politics can situationally coincide with randomocracy model. “In the Canadian case of the Citizens’ Assembly, a party used the deliberative process as an effective campaign pledge that it was willing to deliver once voted into office” [11]. In sum, when popular demand for direct participation is supported by political powers under favourable pollical circumstances, ideas become real.

Considering that some citizens’ assemblies have little effect, while others promote massive civic engagement and initiate legislative change, what makes citizens’ assemblies successful in terms of policy impact and democratic action?

Definitely, a protest movement countering a political crisis can draw considerable attention and bring media visibility to the new participatory initiative. Scholars highlight that in Estonia political problems and low trust towards the political establishment put political parties under pressure and scrutiny [12]. A member of the organising committee admitted that there was a plenty of public interest and background advocacy [13].

Yet, political will was critical too. According to another member of the organising committee, the parties had to deal with the civic initiatives, because the President told them [14]. As emphasized by the civil society adviser to the President of Estonia: “the key success factor for similar processes is the commitment of policymakers to respecting the outcomes of the consultations… first and foremost showing appreciation of the time and energy the participants have put into the process by working with the input in a timely manner and giving proper feedback to the public [15]. A researcher of Estonia’s case recognised that a new interesting and valuable instrument of civic participation was created and worked afterwards [16].

From the procedural viewpoint, it is essential to develop a balanced design, arrange a diligent and transparent process, and bring it to the result. The advocate of citizens’ assembly in Ireland narrated that they applied grant funding for deliberation experimenting and campaigning for a more participatory policy making, which they improved with every next assembly [17]. Further, as an academic support group member appraised, a right secretariat was chosen and the consultation was run very well [18]. The Irish Constitutional Convention Secretary reflected that the citizens’ assembly model has been a success because it provided a safe and fair environment for a rational and polite discussion, where people made their considerations on complex and sensitive issues, which were accepted at the referendum [19]. A civic activist pointed out that the Irish referendum showed support of policy proposals due to a systematic campaigning, advocacy, and lobbying although he acknowledged that during the citizens’ assembly efforts were made that all perspectives were heard [20].

The core strength of citizens’ assembly lies in a combination of policy making models. As well as in the Canadian example, the Irish case linked deliberative democracy (mini-publics) and direct democracy (referenda) [21]. Both Irish and Estonian assemblies employed direct democracy and digital democracy (offline and online crowdsourcing) for collecting policy proposals from the public. In all the three instances these were further strengthened by expertocracy (professional informing and moderation) and carried over for representative democracy (law-making by the parliament).

Eight conditions, including democratic values and political will, affect the implementation of citizens assemblies

As citizens’ assemblies are evidently desirable and powerful initiatives, it is worth taking into account that their success as measured by policy impact and democratic participation depends on a set of conditions. First of all, the scale of initial problem and its recognition by key stakeholders matters. In all three cases there was a political crisis, which was voiced by the public and was difficult to be resolved by conventional means of representative democracy. Therefore, there was a clear demand for change. Second, there was a critical mass of democratically-minded stakeholders that indicated the capacity of civil society and authorities. Decision makers in power were open to new public input formats, civic activists were eager to step in, and funds from multiple sources were allocated. Third, the participatory design and the openness to experiment that shaped the democraticness of an initiative were essential. Fourth, the clarity of civic engagement message and its communication coverage raised awareness about participation opportunities. Across these cases there was broadcasting of the deliberation process to the wider public and in two most influential ones there was an initial offline and online ideas crowdsourcing stage. Fifth, the democratic delivery and transparency during implementation ensured procedural scrutiny and clarity. Sixth, in one case the clarity of the message about outcomes and its media coverage provided a proper communication of results. Seventh, the scope of the established institutions and their mandate resulted in the institutionalization of the initiated democratic format. In two cases citizens’ assemblies became a standard procedure called upon necessity every several years. Finally, citizens’ assemblies should be amplified by direct participation and e-activism designs and synchronized with the existing institutions of a representative democracy.

This article is based on research findings of two projects: one conducted by virtue of support by the Carnegie Fellowship Program and one prepared within the framework of a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Internet Studies.

[1] Escobar, O., & Elstub, S. 2017. Forms of Mini-publics . newDemocracy. Accessed 20 February 2020 https://newdemocracy.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/docs_researchnotes_2017_May_nDF_RN_20170508_FormsOfMiniPublics.pdf.

[2] Fishkin, J. 2011. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Gastil, J., & Richards, R. 2013. Making Direct Democracy Deliberative through Random Assemblies. Politics & Society, 41, 2, 253-282. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0032329213483109.

[4] Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. Accessed 20 February 2020 https://citizensassembly.arts.ubc.ca/.

[5] About the Estonian People’s Assembly in 2013. Accessed 20 February 2020. https://rahvakogu.ee/peoples-assembly-in-2013/.

[6] Citizens’ Assembly. Accessed 20 February 2020 https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/.

[7] Climate Assembly UK. Accessed 20 February 2020 https://www.climateassembly.uk/.

[8] Deliberative democracy attempts in Estonia. Accessed 20 February 2020 https://rahvakogu.ee/in-english/.

[9] C. Knobloch of Colorado State University, personal communication online, 17 December 2013.

[10] S.H. Lyons, a public engagement specialist, personal communication online, 17 December 2013

[11] Gastil, J., & Richards, R. 2013. Making Direct Democracy Deliberative through Random Assemblies. Politics & Society, 41, 2, 253-282. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0032329213483109.

[12] Åström, J., Hinsberg, H., Jonsson, M.E., & Karlsson, M. 2013. Crisis, Innovation and e-Participation: Towards a Framework for Comparative Research. In: Wimmer M.A., Tambouris E., & Macintosh A. (eds) Electronic Participation. ePart 2013. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Vol. 8075. Berlin: Springer. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-40346-0_3.

[13] T. Pehk of Open Knowledge Estonia, personal communication online, 18 November 2019.

[14] H. Hinsberg of Proud Engineers, personal communication online, 11 November 2019.

[15] Kübar, U. 2019. Rahvakogu – Estonian experiment with deliberative democracy. In From local to European: Putting citizens at the centre of the EU agenda. Brussels: European Committee of the Regions.

[16] M. Toots of Tallinn University of Technology, personal communication online, 26 November 2019.

[17] D. Farrell of University College Dublin, personal communication online, 27 November 2019.

[18] J. Suiter of Dublin City University, personal communication online, 21 November 2019.

[19] A. O’Leary of the Office of the President of Ireland, personal communication online, 26 November 2019.

[20] C. O’Gorman of Amnesty International Ireland, personal communication online, 22 November 2019.

[21] Farrell, D.M., Suiter, J., & Harris, C. 2019. ‘Systematizing’ constitutional deliberation: the 2016–18 citizens’ assembly in Ireland. Irish Political Studies, 34, 1, 113-123. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/07907184.2018.1534832.

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