What are Citizens' assemblies?
Citizens' assemblies are gatherings of 30 to 200 citizens, randomly selected by lot, who discuss a given topic together and in small groups on several dates and hand over their recommendations for action to the politicians as citizens' reports. They receive background information from experts covering the entire scientific and political spectrum. A neutral moderation team supports the participants and enables everyone to discuss at eye level: the so-called deliberation.
Citizens' assemblies statistically represent the diversity of the population ("Germany in one room") on the basis of predefined criteria. Random selection also makes it possible to reach people who do not participate in elections or do not get involved regularly, for example because they are not interested in politics or do not have the time for intensive engagement. This involves people that are otherwise not present in the debates. Another advantage: people who would ordinarily never have spoken to each other exchange ideas and look for approaches that take their different interests into account.
Citizens' assemblies were created about 50 years ago as an instrument of " dialogue-based citizen participation". They were intended to make legally required citizen participation in the municipal sphere more effective. In recent years, they have also been tested at national level in various countries, for example in Ireland. This has shown the added value they offer:
- They paint a picture of public opinion, which is far more accurate than opinion polls, and show the "sticking points" in a debate.
- They incorporate people's everyday experiences and produce practical recommendations.
- They reveal lines of compromise and proposals that can achieve a majority.
- They bring together different positions instead of polarising them and can thus help to pacify social conflicts.
Citizens' assemblies serve to advise political decision-makers and provide information that cannot yet be adequately obtained by other means. However, they do not make decisions. These remain with the elected representatives, who are responsible and accountable for them. In this way, citizens' assemblies complement and strengthen representative parliamentary democracy.
Citizens' assemblies call for suitable topics and concrete questions. Good subjects for consultation are especially ethical conflicts and value decisions beyond party-political positioning, political dilemmas and directional decisions ("Should we do this or that?") as well as contentious prioritisation and distribution issues ("What is more important?" and "Who pays for this?"). The more focused the issue, the more precise the recommendations can be.
Citizens' assemblies must be open-ended. They do not have the task of merely confirming a political decision that has already been made. Citizens decide how precisely they will discuss an issue and which aspects are most important to them.
Citizens' assemblies trust that their recommendations will be seriously and publicly debated by politicians. It is not important that everything is implemented, but that the politicians explain why they take up certain recommendations and initially put others on hold or reject them altogether.
Citizens' assemblies should be accompanied by a public discussion of the issue.
What makes a parliamentary Citizens' assembly?
Citizens' assemblies in parliament have some special features compared to those set up by the government or initiated by civil society:
- Members of Parliament (MP’s)s mandate the Citizens' assembly and have a specific vested interest in the issue and the outcome of the Citizens' assembly.
- The topic must be of national importance and at the same time have a concrete connection to the everyday life of citizens so that they can contribute their experiences.
- The topic must be within the competence of the parliament. If the EU, the federal states or the municipalities are responsible, the German Bundestag cannot implement the recommendations.
- The topic is usually at an early stage of the political process so that truly open-ended deliberations can take place and the recommendations can become the starting point for parliamentary initiatives.
- The MP’s already give feedback during the consultation process in order to insure that recommendations in the citizens' report are suitable for implementation.
Overall, the benefits for the parliamentary process are key when MP’s are the initiators of the Citizens' assembly.
Citizens' assemblies of parliament offer the chance of an additional feedback of the parliamentary process with the population. They enable inlcuding voices from everyday life beyond technocratic expertise and interest groups. They thus help to increase the acceptance of political decisions and of the parliamentary system as a whole.