Citizens’ assemblies, which are rapidly gaining popularity around the world, guarantee an active role for citizens in the decision-making process. They have enormous potential in the area of climate action.

The popularity of citizens’ assemblies exploded after Ireland utilised them to successfully resolve its debate on legalising abortion – the issue that had been dividing the country for many years. In 2016, it randomly selected 99 Irish citizens who studied, discussed and then decided the future of the eighth amendment to the Constitution, which effectively banned abortions.

Despite initial public scepticism, the assembly proved to be extremely successful. Its outcomes mirrored almost perfectly the results of the referendum organised in 2018 that eventually led to the legalisation of abortion in the country.

However, it is not only the Irish case that is changing the minds of local and national governments about citizens’ assemblies, but other experiences from around the world. “A growing evidence base suggests that this form of participatory politics works,” writes Graham Smith, a professor of politics at the University of Westminster (UK). “The balanced and structured process of deliberation results in more informed preferences… Opinions tend to be neither polarised nor uniform, with participants developing increased respect and understanding for opposing viewpoints.”

Changing climate of democracy

With climate change considered by many as the most pressing issue of our time, citizens’ assemblies are increasingly focusing on local and national environmental concerns. The most recent example can be found in the UK, which just announced that it would organise a national citizens’ assembly on climate change, in which 100 participants will discuss ways to reduce CO2 emissions. The results of the assembly will be discussed by the British parliament.

“A citizens’ assembly gives a mandate to citizens to settle dilemmas, be it on a local, national or European level, in a transparent and just process. The assembly is perfect for specific, controversial topics and climate change is exactly that,” Marcin Gerwin, a specialist in sustainable development and deliberative democracy, told Meta. He initiated the first citizens’ assembly in Poland and now supports the development of citizens’ assemblies in other Polish cities as well as many European countries, such as the UK and Belgium. Gerwin is the author of the publication ‘Citizens’ assemblies. Guide to democracy that works’.

It is crucial to understand that the point of citizens’ assemblies is not just to organise them, but also to do it well. That is why every organiser should follow publicly available principles. The participants should be randomly selected whilst ensuring that the group is demographically representative. The process must be transparent (for example, transmitted live and recorded) and visible to non-participants. Further information can be found in Gerwin’s publication, as well as in the guide prepared by Extinction Rebellion.

Not just a talking shop

Convening a citizens’ assembly is not enough to ensure effective democracy, it also needs to have an impact in the real world. For example, in Poland, the only country where local authorities are bound by the assembly’s decisions, a recommendation with at least 80% support must be implemented. Gerwin believes that this kind of mechanism “is a fundamental element guaranteeing that a citizens’ assembly is an effective democratic tool – otherwise the time and energy investment of the participants are wasted.”

Supported by more and more citizens, policymakers and city officials, citizens’ assemblies are no longer perceived as solely an exercise in participatory democracy, with a growing chorus viewing them as a vital governance tool.

Some stress the importance of permanently introducing citizens’ assemblies into national political systems. As of February 2019, the parliament of the German-speaking community in Belgium became the first in the world to introduce a permanent citizens’ dialogue consisting of the Citizens’ Council and regular citizens’ assemblies.

Another proposal is to expand citizens’ assemblies beyond the national level. For example, the European Committee of the Regions is considering establishing an annual European Citizens’ Assembly. Representatives of the State Ministry of Baden-Württemberg in Germany emphasised that such an assembly would increase public involvement in and ownership of European decision-making processes because it ”give(s) EU citizens an additional formal way of influencing and discussing policy”.

Citizens’ assemblies have been organised in the United States, Australia, the UK, Poland, Spain, Belgium and many other countries around the world. At present, they all adopt slightly different systems, but their message is clear: we must rethink the way we make decisions on climate change and other issues of broad public concern.

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Would you like to get involved? Do you want to start a citizens’ assembly in your own country? Marcin Gerwin is looking for new partners to expand the presence of citizens’ assemblies in Europe. You can contact him at: marcin@citizensassemblies.org

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