What is a citizens’ assembly?

There are many different models of ‘deliberative democracy’, but one thing they all share is putting people at the centre of decision making. Every form of deliberative democracy involves everyday citizens like you and me discussing an issue in order to come up with suggestions or solutions together.

In Extinction Rebellion we often use Peoples’ Assemblies to explore ideas or take practical decisions during protests. Other examples are Citizens’ Juries, Citizens’ Advisory Groups, Citizens’ Panels or Citizens’ Summits – to name a few. So what is it about a Citizens’ Assembly that makes it particular? Expert and practitioner Marcin Gerwin has set out the following 12 standards for a best practice Citizens’ Assembly:

1. Random selection of participants – all members of a Citizens’ Assembly are selected by lot (a process known as “sortition” – similar to how juries are selected). Ideally, every member of the population eligible to take part in a Citizens’ Assembly should receive an invitation to participate.

2. Demographic representation – the composition of a Citizens’ Assembly should broadly match the demographic profile of the community participating in the process. A set of criteria may be used to ensure demographic representativeness of the community, such as age, gender, ethnicity, geographic area, etc. The aim is to create a small scale community that “feels like us”. The size of the group should allow for inclusion of a wide diversity of views. A stipend should be provided to all participants.

3. Independent coordination – the Citizens’ Assembly is run by an independent team of coordinators, which is responsible for preparing the process of random selection, developing the agenda, and inviting experts and facilitators. If the Citizens’ Assembly is organized by local authorities or the parliament, it is important that members of the coordination team are not part of the civil service or active politicians. The coordinators should be impartial and not direct stakeholders.

4. Citizens’ Assembly can invite experts – despite the programme being prepared by the team of coordinators, the Citizens’ Assembly can invite additional experts of their own choice. Expert input can be provided in the form of a speech in person, a live stream, a recording, a written note or another method.

5. Inclusion of the widest possible range of perspectives – if there are diverse solutions and perspectives on a subject, all of them should be presented by experts during the educational phase of the Citizens’ Assembly. A method of combining perspectives due to limited time or other practical considerations may be applied. Presentations may take the form of a speech in person, a live stream, a recording, a written report, etc.

6. Inviting all stakeholders – any organization, informal group or institution whose area of work and expertise is related to the topic of the Citizens’ Assembly has the right to present its opinion to the Citizens’ Assembly in person. The role of the team of coordinators is to define the stakeholder criteria – they do not make a selection. If time is limited and there is a large number of stakeholders, a method may be used to select some stakeholders to represent those with similar perspectives. In this case, a diversity of perspectives should be represented in a balanced manner.

7. Deliberation – discussions which include listening to others mindfully and weighing options are the key elements of a Citizens’ Assembly. The programme should involve discussions in small groups and plenary sessions, and should be run by skilled facilitators in order to maximize opportunities for Assembly Members to speak and to be heard.

8. Openness – all members of the community should be able to provide input to the Citizens’ Assembly in the form of comments, proposals or suggestions.

9. Sufficient time for reflection – providing a sufficient amount of time for reflection is necessary to achieve thorough and considered decisions. If the matter is not urgent, it is best not to rush. The Citizens’ Assembly should be able to prolong its meetings – their length and number – if it chooses to do so (subject to budgetary limits).

10. Impact – the follow-up to the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations should be clear from the outset. Ideally, recommendations that receive the support of the Citizens’ Assembly at an agreed threshold should be treated as binding (to such an extent that is legally permissible in the given situation).

11. Transparency – all presentations during the educational, plenary phase should be transmitted live and recorded. All materials presented to the Citizens’ Assembly should be made available online. Clear information about how the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations will be implemented should be provided online and updated as actions occur. A report presenting details of methodology used for organizing a Citizens’ Assembly should be provided by the coordination team.

12. Visibility – each Citizens’ Assembly is an important event in the life of a community and citizens should be informed that it is happening, and given information on how they can get involved (e.g. writing a submission) and follow it. The Citizens’ Assembly should be publicly announced before it is formed.

These principles are available as social media graphics which you can use.

Further Reading

The Citizens’ Assembly Working Group have produced the Extinction Rebellion Guide to Citizens’ Assemblies which is a good introduction to the subject and also contains further reading recommendations.

When Citizens’ Assemble – Film on Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly

Ireland’s efforts to break a political deadlock over its de facto ban on abortion inspired a bold response – the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle the issue.

During five weekends spread over five months, a random selection of Irish people deliberated on the highly divisive and controversial issue. Their conclusion, in April 2017, recommended a radical liberalisation of existing laws, including a change to the Constitution.

This film is a beautiful insight into the experience of the participants in a citizens’ assembly.