Healthier Democracies is a new initiative by Public Agenda to gather promising global examples of democratic innovation and community engagement, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and identify practices and reforms that improve democracy in the United States. Supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the initiative seeks to help us understand how to establish more equitable, deliberative and collaborative relationships between citizens and governments. The International Perspectives blog series, authored by a variety of guest writers who are leading thinkers in international democracy reform, speaks to specific initiatives in countries outside the U.S. that make an impact on engagement and democratic participation.
In recent years, millions of people have marched and protested to demand change from their governments and public officials. They seem to be breathing new life into social movements that claim “Democracy is in the streets.” But in some cases, these demonstrators and social movement leaders are advocating for a very different sort of change: government reforms that create “minipublics” of randomly selected community members to weigh in on policy decisions, playing a similar role to the one that juries play in criminal justice systems.
As an example, in 2018, Extinction Rebellion (XR), a collective that promotes the use of civil disobedience to force action on climate change, took to the streets in the UK to demand a national citizens’ assembly to legislate a faster transition to net zero emissions. Citizens’ assemblies are one type of minipublic, which typically brings people together to deliberate and facilitate progress on issues ranging from local or national to international, as is the case with climate change.
Social movements and civil society organizations have been one of the drivers of democratic innovation. Many of the deliberative and participatory democracy practices we currently implement trace back to early pilots implemented by civil society organizations and movements (Polletta, 2014). Participatory budgeting, for example, emerged from the demands of social movements in the cities of Southern Brazil in 1989 (Abers, 2000).
Moreover, social movements can provide numerous benefits to participatory and deliberative processes. Social movements can reach populations and community members who are difficult to engage, provide novel social perspectives that contribute to enriched deliberation, and offer unique forms of civic education that might promote a less atomized approach to deliberation (Felicetti and Della Porta, 2019). Externally, social movements can support the dissemination of the results of processes, contribute to transparency, and provide the political pressure to enact recommendations.
However, it is somewhat rare that social movements, like the XR groups, demand the creation of minipublics. Activists and those who lead social movements are sometimes skeptical of a formal mechanism that could be (mis-)used to bypass civil society organizations and tightly control the recruitment and design of deliberative spaces in order to legitimize pre-established decisions. The closed recruitment system based on random selection and small samples implies that members of social movements that are minoritarian in society have almost no chance to have their voice heard in these venues. This is why the call by the XR group in the UK to form a minipublic is quite exciting.
So why is XR asking for a citizens’ assembly on climate change? Among the variety of minipublics, citizens’ assemblies are specifically designed to overcome the fears described above. There are different designs, but they all trace back to the pilot process introduced in British Columbia in 2004. One of the key innovations of these minipublics is the combination of the knowledge of a randomly selected sample of the population, with the knowledge of experts, stakeholders, and the general public. For example, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly (BCCA) involved social movements as stakeholders in a dedicated learning phase. Representatives of social movements were given space to present their instances to the randomly selected assembly. Moreover, the BCCA included 56 meetings open to the general public. So while the randomly selected members of the assembly had little chance to belong to one of the stakeholders groups, stakeholders’ representatives had the chance to present to the assembly their point of view, and stakeholders’ members had the chance to participate in the open events.
The request of XR to introduce citizens’ assemblies on climate change is embedded in a larger evolving debate that offers three fairly unique advantages.
First, the demand of XR builds upon the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) deliberation that established a consensus among the majority of scientists around the world and builds upon a wave of global mobilization. This combination of deliberation among experts and mass mobilization creates a somewhat innovative collaboration, merging an established and reliable body of knowledge to build upon the significant public interest in the climate change crisis. This environment has the potential to simplify the typical communication issues connecting the debate within the assembly with the general public, academics, practitioners and existing institutions.
Second, the demand of XR is supported by politicians and experts that are interested in constitutional reform and democratic innovations and have been experimenting with citizens’ assemblies for the past ten years. Particularly in Europe, the movement around citizens’ assemblies gained momentum after the 2008 financial crisis and has benefitted by the multiplication of pilots in almost all countries of the union. In particular, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on constitutional reform has generated a unique multiplying effect due to its traceable impact. This multiplication of pilots is often described as the deliberation wave. Social movements demanding minipublics can now collaborate with an extensive network of experts, politicians, and even service providers that can support them. Some social movements have shown the capacity to create minipublics without the support of public institutions, such as the G1000 in Belgium.
Third, XR is asking the assemblies about a topic that politicians are incapable of managing alone. A topic that directly tackles the trade-off between different adaptation strategies that require redistributing resources across society and across generations. These types of trade-offs are extremely difficult to overcome with the existing representative institutions as described in a recent book by Graham Smith (Smith, 2021). They seem the perfect testing ground for citizens’ assemblies that are designed to carefully mix experts’, stakeholders’ and citizens’ knowledge.
In the past two years, we have observed the multiplication of assemblies on climate change in the UK, France, and Germany as a direct or indirect response to the demands of social movements. What is unclear is if the formalized demands of XR will create a novel approach to “demanded citizens’ assemblies” and maybe novel forms of institutionalizations, or instead will generate façade processes designed to manage protest movements. Due to the unique alignment of conditions of the current climate crisis described above I am cautiously optimistic that the political costs of façade processes might be such that in some cases truly impactful minipublics might emerge.
Paolo Spada is a lecturer at the Centre for Democratic Futures at Southampton university in UK. His research investigates the diffusion and impact of democratic innovations. Dr. Spada has contributed to the design and evaluation of Deliberative Polls, Participatory Budgets, Multi-city town hall meetings, Citizens’ Assemblies, multinational online deliberations, state and city level participatory systems. He has worked on projects in Brazil, North America, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cameroon, Germany, Morocco, Iceland and the UK. His most recent work focuses on optimizing systems that combine multiple deliberative and participatory processes.
Abers, R. (2000). Inventing local democracy: grassroots politics in Brazil. Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Felicetti, A., & Della Porta, D. (2019). Joining Forces: The Sortition Chamber from a Social Movement Perspective. Book chapter in: Legislature by lot: Transformative designs for deliberative governance, 145. Publisher: Verso Books.
Smith, G., 2021. Can Democracy Safeguard the Future?. John Wiley & Son