“The deliberative wave” that could change European politics

The audience responds with a laugh as Brett Hennig suggests in his TED talk to replace all the politicians in Parliament with randomly selected people. Brett, like many others, believes that in this proposition lies the answer to key modern-day issues. These include climate change, the refugee crisis, and rising inequality, but most of all it provides a solution to what he calls our “broken [democratic] system”.

It isn’t as easy as putting a group of random people in a room. Brett is referring to a citizens’ assembly, a deliberative and structured process where the power of policymaking is given to the people. “A citizens’ assembly is essentially bringing together a randomly selected but representative sample of people to talk about a political topic,” says Brett, director of the Sortition Foundation that helps select people for assemblies.

The past year has seen an “explosion” of citizens’ assemblies in Europe. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organisation that assists with policymaking, is calling it the deliberative wave. The assemblies are being utilized by councils, governments, and public bodies.

This deliberative wave can be traced across the UK. Some of the many places include Birmingham, London, Leeds, and Edinburgh. The citizens’ Assemblies tackle topics from transport to health services. The list of locations and issues goes on. The Sortition Foundation alone has helped set up 20 assemblies in the past year.

One of the three demands from climate campaign group Extinction Rebellion is to institute citizens’ assemblies on ecological issues. Their website says that the assemblies are a “fair and transparent” method to achieve “climate justice”.

The key to a successful citizens’ assembly lies in the process. Caroline Pakel, Extinction Rebellion co-ordinator for people’s assemblies, says: “There’s an input stage, a deliberative stage and then an output stage.”

The input stage is where the group hears from experts to inform their discussion, these could include scientists, doctors, or even people who have had personal experience with the topic. Caroline highlights the need for professional facilitators in the deliberative stage as they impose rules of a “reasoned discussion” to help the participants arrive at a joint conclusion. The group presents their findings in the output stage, where it is recorded and presented to the rest of the group.

Caroline finds they often come to similar conclusions, as the assemblies create what she calls a “collective intelligence”.

Caroline says: “We can all do it together but none of us can claim that I had the idea because it’s been moulded by our sharing. So, when it comes to the consultation at the end… it comes very naturally. So, we don’t fight over ideas. It’s very organic, very collaborative.”

One of the most successful examples was the Irish citizens’ assembly held on abortion. With criticism coming from the United Nations, and politicians anxious about receiving backlash, Ireland gathered 100 people to discuss whether the ban should be lifted. They heard the medical and legal position to inform their deliberation and concluded that there should be unrestricted access to abortion in Ireland. A referendum was given to the public and 66% agreed with the recommendation from the assembly.

Siobhán Fenton, a freelance reporter on Irish politics, says: “The fact that the citizens’ assembly supported it put pressure on the government to set a referendum, pick a specific date in the near future, and make sure it actually happened.”

The abortion assembly was held in November 2016, with the referendum in 2018, and the law was finally brought into action in January 2019. Despite its success, Siobhán says that citizens’ assemblies are not fit for time sensitive issues “as there could be lots of irreparable damage” whilst the assemblies are taking place.

As such a widely experimented process, there are various ways in which they have been utilised. Last year, a council in East Belgium set up a permanent citizens’ assembly that tackles a variety of issues. Their conclusions are presented to parliament, which is enforced to engage with them. Parliament announces their position a year later, whether they decide to pursue the recommendations or not.

Citizens’ assemblies have encountered another problem, one that is very familiar to global politics; underrepresentation of women. Despite using a representative selection method, Siobhán says that women are more likely to drop out because they have “caring duties”.

“It’s the majority of men who tend to take part in the citizens’ assemblies… and that does mean that unfortunately, women tend to be blocked out from quite an important democratic process,” she says.

A skew towards male participants is not the only bias that lies in citizens’ assemblies. The Sortition Foundation has noticed that higher educated and wealthy people are more likely to respond to a citizens’ assembly invitation. Brett’s theory is that “the more highly educated you are, the more confident you are in expressing your opinion”.

To combat this skew, the Sortition Foundation sends 80% of the invitations to randomly selected households and the other 20% to impoverished areas of the country using the index of multiple deprivation.

One of the reasons why citizens’ assemblies have been experimented with is because there is not one singular formula. Laurie Moulton-Ulrich, a member of the Extinction Rebellion citizens’ assembly working group, says: “Looking across the world and experience, there’s no cookie-cutter approach to citizens’ assembly.”

Laurie adds that assemblies are used so differently for different purposes and a variety of topics, that there cannot be one fit-all version of the process.

This also means that Brett’s suggestion to replace all the politicians with randomly selected people is an unrealistic one. Laurie argues that citizens’ assemblies aren’t a method to replace those in power, but a tool to help put people at the forefront of democracy.

Siobhan says: “It can help give politicians a certain amount of momentum or legitimacy, but I don’t think it would work if you are having citizens’ assemblies on every single topic.”

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