Citizens’ assemblies seem like the epitome of good democracy, allowing ordinary citizens to have their say on major policy issues. The recent climate change citizens’ assemblies in France and Britain provided valuable insights for the future potential of deliberative democracy.
What are citizens’ assemblies?
Citizens’ assemblies aim to strengthen the deliberative nature of the decision-making process in policy-making. Deliberative democracy is strengthened when citizens have the opportunity to debate issues before decisions are made on them. In the UK, there have been three notable examples of citizens’ assemblies: Democracy Matters in Autumn 2015, Brexit in 2017, and climate change in January 2020. Citizens’ assemblies have taken place in many countries, including France, Belgium, United States, Australia, and Poland.
In these examples, the assemblies brought together citizens and policy-makers in a sphere where citizens can directly voice their views. Through this process, the public is able to debate key issues with politicians and regional leaders, which brings the issues closer to local communities by giving them the opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences. In theory, this leads to more effective outcomes, with more informed citizens and more legitimised decisions.
In this way, citizens’ assemblies try to address a democratic deficit by adopting a more democratic model. Ordinarily, this opportunity for people to have their voices heard on pertinent issues is limited. In an ideal democracy, this should exist by default. But, in democracies where the integrity of parliaments is questioned and representation is limited on high levels, there is a need for a platform that can fill these gaps. Citizens’ assemblies aim to achieve this by developing the principles of random selection and deliberation through inviting a group of representative people to share their views.
People-shaped solutions to global issues
The use of citizens’ assemblies in both France and the UK in January 2020 provide an opportunity to learn about the role of these fora in solving global issues.
A downfall of the Brexit citizens’ assembly in 2017 was that it was poorly publicised; in fact, many politicians called for such an initiative on Brexit afterwards, unaware that one had been held already. It was strongly implied that any outcome of this citizens’ assembly would be dismissed unless it offered a recommendation that politicians wanted to hear. This gives the impression of hypocrisy: are citizens’ assemblies only effective when they offer what politicians want?
But the latest climate change assemblies provide hope. In 2020, 110 randomly selected citizens became members of the UK Climate Change Citizens’ Assembly, and in France 150 citizens were randomly selected by sortition.
This citizens’ assembly was called for in response to one of the three core demands of the climate activist group, Extinction Rebellion. Although climate change is an international problem, Extinction Rebellion saw value in engaging citizens on a local level to have their views heard by local leaders. This allowed the issue to transcend traditional partisan party lines that can lead to divisive policies, and alleviated the risk that people’s experiences could be forgotten in central policy-making.
In the UK, members tried to inform Parliament on how policies can be redefined to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The members learned about climate change from experts before forming their decisions. In France, members also discussed measures to fight against climate change, and both assemblies raised challenging questions to leaders, spanning from how homes should be heated to how businesses and governments should tackle climate change together. One goal of these assemblies was to put pressure on politicians to act faster; this is especially important since climate change is a pressing issue that cannot wait for a typical five-year term length.
The future of citizens’ assemblies
The presence of climate assemblies across borders, whilst debating the same issue, suggests there is an important role that citizens’ assemblies can adopt. This comes at a time when the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy found that 57.5% of people surveyed were dissatisfied with democracy in 2019 (compared to 47.5% in the mid-1990s).
If democratic institutions are not meeting the needs or expectations of people, then one way to address this could be by establishing more legitimacy and bringing democracy closer to people with citizens’ assemblies. The examples from the UK and France helped to bring together ordinary people to debate global issues. The long-term outcomes of these climate assemblies is yet to be seen, but for the future, it could lead to a more interactive democracy, where citizens’ assemblies are seen as a normal feature of government decision-making.
Preeti Pasricha is co-Head of Agora’s Democracy & Governance Programme