In recent years, citizen assemblies have grown in popularity across the world. In the United States, notable organizations like the Democracy Creative, Healthy Democracy, Berggruen Institute, Deliberative Democracy Lab, and Center for New Democratic Processes have advocated for and deployed the recurring use of these deliberative ‘mini-publics’.
Citizens’ assemblies offer an alternative (and supplement) to representative democracy by (randomly) selecting members of a population using a civic lottery (based on key demographics). The participants in the assembly learn from experts, discuss the strengths and challenges of proposals to address an issue, and decide on a course of action or set of recommendations on a policy issue. You can learn more about citizens' assemblies in Alex Renirie’s article in the current edition of the National Civic Review, and I will be expounding on this piece in a forthcoming article in the Winter edition of the Review.
While the movement to use these citizens’ assemblies more consistently in the United States has gained steam, there are notable concerns about these processes. Below, I talk about some suggestions for avoiding these pitfalls, offered by North American practitioners hosting citizens’ assemblies.
- Secure consistent and adequate funding
Practitioners remind us that some of these deliberative processes are not cheap to run, and moreover, organizations often struggle to acquire consistent as opposed to parochial funding to sustain paid staff and the operational costs of months of facilitated activities.
- Ensure an existing willingness to fund and listen to the recommendations of citizens
It is important to secure the intention of those with political and/or bureaucratic authority to both listen to the participants and provide adequate funding before, during and after the processes.
- Value co-learning as an objective regardless of policy impact
Practitioners note that not all the benefits have to come with the implementation of participant recommendations. Ultimately, practitioners want to create a more civically inspired and engaged public by setting up processes that allow participants to meaningfully engage with people that are different, to learn from each other's lived and professional experiences.
- Be intentional about the technicalities of outreach and selection
An important part of a citizens’ assembly is the selection of participants. Most open public consultations/town halls are noted to over-represent the ‘usual suspects’, i.e., older, educated, affluent, white men. Citizens’ assembly practitioners strive to select participants that reflect the diversity of their communities. However, even where this is an agreed upon intention, the practicalities of the selection procedure are complicated by difficult realities.
- Counter power imbalances with an equity lens
Most practitioners pay close attention to who is in the room and how power is distributed, understanding that members of the public do not enter deliberative processes equally. Citizens’ assemblies are generally geared toward norms of inclusive and equal participation, but this might mean that equity is still something that needs to be further worked into the foundation of these processes, which requires conscious intervention in process design.
- Prioritize the autonomy of panelists
There is a complex relationship between the actors of deliberative processes, including the commissioning authority, expert practitioner organization, moderators and facilitators, expert witnesses, and panelists. Power dynamics can impact the functioning of citizens’ assemblies, making panelist autonomy an important factor in the ethics of designing a citizens’ assembly, namely ensuring that authorities take a step back and have participants set agendas and lead the final reporting.
- Allow for local context
Practitioners tend to agree that standards are a good thing, with some advocating for more frequent independent evaluations by third-party organizations to guard against the co-optation of deliberative processes for strategic and worse, illiberal uses. However, there can be difficulties with a strictly rigid process of evaluation that pays little attention to local dynamics. It begs the question: who gets to determine such standards.
The intentional design of citizens’ assemblies has the potential to bring people together to solve policy problems in a more effective manner than politics as usual. When done right, assemblies can address public dissatisfaction and distrust toward formal institutions, political parties, and elected officials; there is ample evidence to suggest the deliberation even changes the minds of participants. However, those seeking to adopt citizens’ assemblies as a common practice, should heed the advice of existing practitioners to address political concerns and the equity question.
If you are interested in learning more about the movement for citizens’ assemblies in the United States, a great resource to connect with is the Democracy R&D network.
This piece is adapted from a research note developed for the ‘Deliberative Integrity’ project. Additionally. Nick’s forthcoming article in the Winter Edition of the National Civic Review will also delve deeper into these practitioner lessons, and a future newsletter article will cover how to combine participatory budgeting and citizens' assemblies.