The case for citizens’ assemblies

3 July 2020

Citizens’ assemblies should be made a permanent part of our political and democratic infrastructure

Brett Hennig

Typically, in what used to be called “normal times” (whatever that actually means) a high proportion of people had low levels of trust in government. According to various indexes and measurements politicians are usually ranked somewhere near used-car salesmen and real estate agents in terms of public trust. Ever since the likes of Anthony Downs (1957) and Joseph Schumpter (1942) and the application of rational choice theory (also called choice theory) to the study of politics it has often been argued that politicians and political parties exist primarily to get elected, and not to implement specific policies and that while those who deviate from this aim might inspire people, but ultimately don’t win.[1]

Cynicism towards politicians and political parties is therefore not only understandable, but can be rationally justified. Extinction Rebellion, for example, which exploded into the public consciousness in 2019 alongside Greta Thunberg and widespread disillusionment about government attempts to reduce carbon emissions, built this into their core demands, by calling for governments to ‘tell the truth’.

As is typical in times of crisis, there has been a “rally around the flag” effect. Boris Johnson’s approval ratings initially shot to above 70 per cent in late March as the fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic appears to have made people want to trust the government more, at least for a while. After the initial surge, and after Dominic Cummings’s brazen breaking of the lockdown rules, less than half of people in the UK trusted the government to provide accurate information on the pandemic. Among parents of school-aged children, the rates may be even lower, as three quarters of parents kept their children home when the government told them it was safe to go back to school. Clearly some parents did not trust the government to tell the truth and worried that it may be prioritising the economy over public health and safety.

This is precisely the critique aimed at governments all over the world by Extinction Rebellion and many climate and environment campaign groups that call for leaders to stop putting profits before the health and safety of people and the planet. Whether you believe that the only way to get (re)elected is by having a booming economy or not, or if you believe that elites will always put their own financial imperatives first, the conclusion is often the same: that political elites are primarily motivated by being re-elected, with the political narrative often driven by polling numbers, focus groups and spin. This ultimately undermines the prospects for reasoned and informed parliamentary debate, and undermines trust in our democracy.

But what sort of decision-making do people trust? One answer might be Citizens’ Assemblies.[2] People are likely to trust decisions made by “people like us”, by people free from the distorting influences of party politics and the imperative of winning the next election, no matter how far in the future that may be. In France, President Macron’s Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat (Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change) has recently finished, in the UK the national 110-person Climate Assembly concluded in June, and in Ireland, a third iteration of the Citizens’ Assembly was established in January to deliberate over matters of gender equality. Cynics might feel that such initiatives mainly serve to get politicians off the hook for making difficult decisions, but in practice, politicians often want to act but are constrained by vested and factional interests which can be obviated by the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies. Handing authority to a representative, randomly selected group of people can open up the political space for change, and politicians such as President Macron have seen the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly as a way of managing the thorny issue of climate change in difficult political circumstances, while being challenged by the rise of the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) movement on the one hand, and his political opponents on the other.

Of course Citizens’ Assemblies can often be dismissed for being only advisory and ultimately governments can (and often do) ignore the outcomes. Macron has committed to ensuring that the recommendations of the French Convention on Climate Change will be at tabled in the French parliament at a minimum. The output of the Irish assemblies are presented to parliament, and while the recommendation for constitutional change to remove the ban on abortion is well-documented, having been approved by a referendum in 2018, other recommendations can become bogged down in parliamentary committees, or seemingly forgotten altogether.

We argue for the institutionalisation of Citizens’ Assemblies and for them to be made a permanent part of our political and democratic infrastructure. Mary Beard, Stephen Fry, Helena Kennedy, and a host of other luminaries have suggested handing more power to non-politicians. This could involve replacing the UK House of Lords with a House of the People, composed of a randomly selected, demographically representative sample of citizens who deliberate together in an informed environment, which   would serve as a permanent, ongoing Citizens’ Assembly.

Then, as we emerge from this crisis, and indeed, when the next crisis arrives, we could more easily obtain the informed view of the people, which would make me, for one, breathe a little easier inside my COVID-19 protective face mask as I take my children to school.

[1] S. M. Amadae, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2003)

[2] 3 M. E. Warren and H. Pearse (editors), Designing Deliberative Democracy: The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly. Cambridge University Press, 2008 (especially Chapter 8); Does Deliberation Help Deliver Informed Electorates: Evidence from Irish Referendum Votes, Jane Suiter & Theresa Reidy