What is a Citizens' Assembly?

What is a Citizens' Assembly?

Student-Project

Since 2016, The Republic of Ireland has used a citizens' assembly to engage the Irish public in government decision-making. But what exactly is a citizen’s assembly, and how do they work?

Athenian officials were chosen through random selection to avoid conflict of interest – Creator: Philipp Foltz. Public Domain.

This article is part of a student-led project at the Central European University School of Public Policy on the Irish Citizens' Assembly.

Western democracies are, for the most part, representative democracies. When we cast our vote, we transfer our authority to a representative who then wields decision-making power on our behalf. In this way, we avoid the complexity – and perhaps tedium – of direct democracy where each citizen casts a vote on every issue, large or small.

But what we gain in practicality, we sacrifice in engagement. As citizens, we can often feel far removed from discussions on the issues that affect us all. This series will explore how the Republic of Ireland is attempting to redress this imbalance by engaging its citizens in deliberation and decision-making through a citizens’ assembly. But what are citizens' assemblies and how do they work? What are the ideas that underpin them and where else have they been convened?

The Irish Citizens' Assembly

Ireland’s Citizens' Assembly seeks to place citizens at the heart of the decision-making process on constitutional and policy issues.[1] It brings together 99 randomly-selected Irish citizens to debate the issues of the day: from the role of referenda in Irish politics to making Ireland a leader in the fight against climate change. Most controversially, the assembly has also tackled the thorny issue of the Irish Constitution’s Eighth Amendment which underpins the country's laws on abortion.

In a context of rising political divisions and declining trust in institutions, the Irish project has received global attention and has been lauded by some European commentators as a panacea for populist ills.[2] But the concept behind the Irish Citizen's Assembly is not new. It builds on examples from across the globe, and a rich body of theory.

Deliberation, Debate and Democracy

The Irish model is the most prominent in a recent wave of citizens' assemblies, a form of participation in which issues of national importance are debated by citizens, as opposed to politicians. Such assemblies draw their participants through sortition – a process of stratified random selection – to create a body which is, in theory, both representative and free from motive for personal gain. Once convened, issues are debated, experts may be called to give evidence, and final recommendations are presented for referendum or action by the government.

Citizens' assemblies are founded on the notion of deliberative democracy, an understanding of democracy which prioritizes authentic engagement and public discourse within the decision-making process. Proponents such as the political theorist John S. Dryzek argue that deliberation – a discursive process through which judgments can be made, opinions voiced, and minds changed – is the essence of democracy itself.[3]

Deliberative democracy in action can take diverse forms, of which citizens' assemblies are the best-known example. These ideas have since been developed by parliaments, policy-makers, and NGOs into a plethora of mechanisms for engaging citizens in a debate on policy issues: from citizens assemblies to citizens' juries[4], and from deliberative polls[5] to consensus conferences.[6]

The Public in Microcosm

These approaches to democratic participation have at their core the use of “mini-publics” – a representative collection of citizens tasked with deliberating, advising, and in some cases deciding on the outcome of a policy issue. The use of sortition and mini-publics can be traced to the birth of democracy in ancient Athens, where politicians were randomly selected for office to mitigate against the concentration of power.

One of the principal arguments for their use today is as a counter to the domination of politics and policy by a narrow group of individuals and interests: professional politicians, lobbyists, and the wealthy. Random selection ensures as broad as possible a representation of the whole electorate, enhancing the legitimacy of the democratic process. Through deliberation, citizens can also gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of policy issues, and the use of mini-publics creates a space for constructive public debate.[7]

Assemblies in Context

The largest and most influential exercises in formal deliberative democracy in recent years have been citizens’ assemblies, which in addition to the Republic of Ireland, have taken place in Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, and more recently Gdansk, Poland. Funding for a citizens’ assembly in Northern Ireland was announced in January 2018.[8]

The contemporary wave of western citizens’ assemblies can be traced back to Canada, where bodies were established first in British Columbia (2004), and later in Ontario (2006), to resolve an old constitutional paradox: Why should a party in government undertake reform of the electoral system that placed it in power? The British Columbia model, developed by Gordon Gibson at the request of the provincial government, has been a blueprint for subsequent assemblies.[9] Both assemblies put forward recommendations for reform which were later rejected in referenda.

Held concurrently with the 2006 Ontario Citizens Assembly, the Dutch Burgerforum Kiesstelsel [Citizens’ Forum on the Electoral System] also collected randomly-selected citizens to examine proposals for electoral reform. Despite a national remit, the deliberative process has been described as lower in profile than its Canadian counterpart. While differing in its process - recommendations in the Netherlands were put before parliament, not to a referendum - the Burgerforum saw the same outcome as in Canada. No recommendations were subsequently implemented.[10]

Citizens' Assemblies in the 21st Century

Deliberative democracy prioritizes process over outcomes. While no recommendations were adopted in Canada and the Netherlands, the experiments of the 2000s have inspired other mini-publics across the world. This new wave of assemblies has often been broader in scope, taking deliberations beyond electoral reform to examine wider issues concerning society and democracy.

Australia has tried several smaller exercises in deliberative democracy. While varying in scope and remit, they show how NGOs, councils and the private sector can find innovative ways to use mini-publics as a deliberative mechanism. From the Citizens' Jury on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle in South Australia to deliberation on pricing by the Yarra Valley Water utility company, Australia boasts some of the most interesting research and practice into the field.[11]

In Europe, deliberation is increasingly seen as a way to address both social issues and political alienation. In Gdansk, Poland, a citizens’ assembly was formed in the aftermath of public dissatisfaction with the city’s response to flooding in 2015.[12] The civil-society led but officially endorsed assembly has made policy-setting recommendations on flood mitigation, air pollution, civic engagement and –running counter to the otherwise conservative background of the country’s politics –LGBT rights.

A New Model for Democracy?

Can the Irish Citizens' Assembly offer new insights to policy-makers seeking to increase citizen participation and trust in the democratic process? Are citizens' assemblies and other forms of deliberative democracy effective at reducing polarization? 

The record is mixed, and assemblies' results seem to depend on the political context. Yet the challenges of participation are more relevant than ever. And the gentle politics of deliberation holds great appeal as an alternative to increasingly divided public debate.

[1] “Welcome to the Citizens’ Assembly,” www.citizensassembly.ie.
[2] David Van Reybrouck, “We Have One Year to Make Democracy Work in Europe. Or Else the Trumps Take Over,” The Correspondent, 19 November 2016 (online).
[3] John S. Dryzek, Deliberative Democracy and beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (Oxford, 2000) p.1.
[4] BBC News, "Q&A: Citizens' Juries,” 6 September 2007 (online).
[5] Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy conducts “deliberative polling”, for example.
[6] The Loka Institute. “Tracking Danish-Style, Citizen-Based Deliberative Consensus Conferences Worldwide.”
[7] Oliver Escobar and Stephen Elstub, “Forms of Mini-Publics: An Introduction to Deliberative Innovations in Democratic Practice,” NewDemocracy Research Note, 8 May 2017 (online).
[8] Stephen Walker, “Citizens’ Assembly Looks Set for Northern Ireland,” BBC News 19 January 2018 (online).
[9] Gordon Gibson, Report on the Constitution of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, 23 December 2002.
[10] Patrick Fournier et al., When Citizens Decide: Lessons from Citizen Assemblies on Electoral Reform, (Oxford, 2011) chapter 8.3.
[11] Yarra Valley Water, “Price Submission Review: Jury Report.”
[12] Tin Gazivoda, “Solutions: How the Poles Are Making Democracy Work Again in Gdansk,” blog post at BlogActiv.eu, 20 November 2017.

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