Deliberative Democracy: Citizens’ assemblies within government

Citizens’ assemblies are formed as a way of addressing matters about which governments are either unable or poorly constituted to do – they are a very real ‘by the people for the people’ event

Democracies are in varying states of frustration and anger as trust is lost in their politic. Alongside is an ever growing number of the  disenfranchised who have in effect become impotent spectators as to how they are governed. At the same time is an awareness that the  reality of the vote is only keeping in place a situation that needs to change: “Conventional left/right politics are no longer viable – human nature is an inherent obstacle to cumulative ethical or political progress,” said philosopher John Gray.

Firstly, voting changes some things but not others, by in effect keeping them in place, for the party vote brings with it the ‘clothes’ of ‘institutional design’ – the collective of culture, identity and history which shapes our politic and under which it functions. It is this subjection by a political framework that cannot be similarly objectified as can a party, as to why nothing ever seems to radically change. We vote for a party and by doing so endorse the ‘design.’

Secondly, party affiliated politicians morph into camps of entrenchment , a red light for deliberation and a bed for adversarial politics. Neither are they necessarily or adequately informed, guided as they are by the paths of the ‘left or right’, party agenda and allegiance. In support of their narratives they harvest many hard to qualify, often contentious facts, that ‘mediarised’ can become a blend of mis and disinformation.

People are also used in elections as enabling pawns in the above structure, which are then boxed and again brought into play at a later date when needed. This inclusive/exclusive state of politicians and voters needs to be radically reformed by having the suggested role of people within government as an integral constituent part. We cannot forever leave politics to politicians. Democracy must be the electoral bride, not its bridesmaid.

Citizens’ assemblies

Citizen assemblies, panels and councils exist outside of government and politics. Frequently occurring in many countries around the world, they are formed as a way of addressing matters about which governments are either unable or poorly constituted to do – they are a very real ‘by the people for the people’ event.

Functioning independently of politics as democratic bodies, they listen to evidence concerning the subject upon which they deliberate. Selected by sortition they are not dissimilar to a court and jury in being guided by majority verdict, and more often deal with complex, contentious societal issues.

Some important examples in the last few years have been the Burgerrat Demokratie in Germany, MASSLBP in Toronto, Canada, and the Bristol Council Citizens’ Assembly in the UK. Of significant importance is the Agora in Belgium, a party solely concerned with participatory democracy which has an elected member of parliament representing the citizens’ assembly in the German speaking part of Belgium.  Facilitators and participants in all of these were interviewed by DiEM25 in London at the time, each giving detailed information as to how they were set up, along with an interview of MASSLBP’s founder on DiEM25.

Many countries now have bodies set up for funding and the organisation of citizen assemblies, such as The Sortition Foundation in the UK and Mehr Demokratie in Germany, the largest non-party democratic organisation in the European Union

There are now examples in the UK of regional councils wholly formed along the lines of a non-political citizens’ assembly. Existing outside of government, they do not replicate any aspects of government jurisdiction as an elected body, neither are governments subject to or obliged in any way to act upon their findings. Their purpose is as an enabler for better democratic apolitical representation, which can only exist outside of political institutions.

DiEM25 already has deliberative democracy at its heart, mentioning as it does within its manifesto the values of citizen assemblies. We know there are many other matters about which to fight for and feel injustice over but how we are governed is something we all share, and in so doing gives us the collective power to make change.

The formation of a new DiEM25 Deliberative Democracy collective will explore all this and more – invite speakers and make links – so we look forward to this being attractive, popular and purposeful. To learn more and participate, write to us: 

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