Resources

Where can I learn more about Citizens’ Assemblies?

New to Citizens’ Assemblies? 

For a step-by-step guide on how to design, run, and act on the results of a Citizens’ Assembly, read our Assembling the Assembly Guide.

Have questions about Citizens’ Assemblies? 

Join “How to Assemble” - our free Q&A sessions on Citizens' Assemblies. Next session is 23 May 4-5 pm CET, register here.

Want some in-person training on Citizens’ Assemblies? 

Check out upcoming deliberative democracy schools run by our friends at FIDE:

Can I learn about Citizens’ Assemblies online? 

DemocracyNext is building a virtual learning programme on Citizens’ Assemblies, which we hope to make publicly available towards the end of 2024/early 2025. Let us know if you’re interested, and be the first to know when it’s launched. 

Like to listen while you walk? 

Check out these podcast episodes featuring discussions on Citizens’ Assemblies:

Hear from Assembly Members

FAQs on Citizens’ Assemblies

We’ve pulled together a list of questions we most commonly get asked about Citizens’ Assemblies.

1. What is it about Citizens’ Assemblies that makes them work? 

The are two essential principles that make Citizens’ Assemblies ‘work’ are:

  • The way that people come together in the room. Assembly Members are selected to be broadly representative of their place through a two-stage lottery process, known as sortition. 
  • The space that is created for deliberation. They meet for at least 4-6 days, sometimes more, over a defined period of time (from a few weeks, to a few months) to learn about an issue and weigh trade-offs. They listen to experts, including those with lived experience of the issue, and to one another, and they find common ground on a shared set of concrete and detailed recommendations.  

These two essential principles help lead to three key positive outcomes: 

  • They help to strengthen people’s agency, recognising that everybody has the dignity and capacity to be involved in shaping the decisions affecting their lives.
  • They build trust between people, and between people and government.
  • They enable action on difficult problems. Citizens’ Assemblies have been proven many times to be able to come up with meaningful solutions on the most challenging social and policy issues.
2. Do Citizens’ Assemblies actually achieve tangible change?

Citizens’ Assemblies have been behind numerous big policy, legislative, and constitutional changes, notably ones on which governments have been ‘stuck’ or found difficult to act upon for political reasons. 

For example, in Ireland, there have now been four constitutional referendums, all leading to positive votes for change, off of the back of Citizens’ Assemblies on abortion, same sex marriage, divorce, and blasphemy. 

In all cases, the Assembly proposed not just the recommendation that there should be a referendum, but equally the legislative changes that should accompany a vote for change. Having the Citizens’ Assembly take place meant that people had clarity about what the change would entail when they went to the polls, and it also opened up wider public deliberations on these issues, creating new space for societal dialogue on issues that were traditionally polarising. 

Other Irish Citizens’ Assemblies have also addressed issues of climate change, gender equality, devolution of powers, biodiversity loss, and drug policy reform, leading to various legislative and policy changes. 

In other places, Citizens’ Assemblies have helped governments identify long-term priorities and close significant budget holes (for e.g. the Melbourne People’s Panel in 2014), to tackle many issues related to environmental and climate issues (for instance, on air pollution, achieving net zero targets), infrastructure projects (ranging from deliberations on 30-year infrastructure investment plans to specific development projects to identify local trade-offs and compromise), mental health issues (from national-level action plans, like Canada’s national reference panel on the issue, to local-level deliberations on how to improve mental health and well-being, such as in Tolosa, Spain). 

Measuring the implementation of recommendations coming out of Citizens’ Assemblies is elusive because it sometimes takes months or years after an Assembly for all recommendations to be implemented, and public communication has not always been consistent. However, in the OECD study conducted by the DemocracyNext founding team, the evidence shows that in 76% of cases for which there was clear evidence, public authorities implemented over half of the recommendations coming out of the Assembly. 

3. Can ‘ordinary people’ understand the complexity of the issue they are deliberating on?

Yes. We have evidence from hundreds of Citizens’ Assemblies from across the globe that ‘ordinary’ people are capable of deliberating on complex issues if we create the enabling deliberative space. It’s why the principles of enough time and access to broad and diverse information are so critical. 

Equally, it is important to leave the time at the beginning of an Assembly for people to get to know one another and start building trust. Research shows that group building that activates deliberative norms makes the biggest difference for increasing a group’s ability to reason, particularly in enabling people to cope with complexity.

Moreover, there is also evidence that more diverse groups are more likely to come to better decisions than more homogenous groups (including groups of experts), because they are more likely to come up with completely new ideas and bring in a wider range of perspectives needed for finding solutions. This principle is referred to as “collective intelligence”.

4. Who do you mean by ‘citizen’?

We use the word ‘citizen’ intentionally. We mean the term in the broadest sense of a person living in a particular place, which can be in reference to a village, town, city, region, state, or country, rather than in the more restrictive sense of ‘a legally recognised national of a state’. 

We recognise that in some places the word has become narrowly associated with this latter definition, and can even be charged or controversial. However, we feel it is important to reclaim this broad, expansive, original meaning. 

Because in Citizens’ Assemblies the Members are people living in a place, regardless of their formal papers, it gives people who may be denied formal citizenship the ability to still be recognised as citizens in this wider sense. We see citizenship as an active practice and are inspired by Baratunde Thurston’s ‘How to Citizen’ work. 

5. Are you saying that we should replace elections and elected politicians with Citizens’ Assemblies?

Citizens’ Assemblies are not a replacement to elected politicians, but they do need serious political commitment and should be integrated into decision-making cycles to have a genuine impact on policies and public decisions. 

There is a real question of power involved, and of the changing relationship that needs to occur between people, politicians, and public administrations in a renewed democracy that gives people more agency in shaping the decisions that affect their lives. 

6. How does the Assembly process manage the multiple barriers to participation experienced by underserved or disadvantaged communities?

Traditionally under-represented or underserved groups, such as those with lower socio-economic status, young people, those living in rural areas, people disadvantaged by ethnicity, race, disability or in other ways, are less likely to accept the initial invitation to join the Assembly. Actions can be taken to help address this, including:

  • During the initial invitation phase that reaches 20-30k people at random, more invitations may be disproportionately sent to areas that have a higher proportion of people from underserved groups. 
  • The Assembly team also works through and with civil society organisations and community groups to ensure targeted outreach efforts to ensure those invitations reach people and to engage with members of these communities, who may also have lower levels of trust in government.
  • This factor is why stratification in the second lottery matters, to ensure that the final group of Assembly Members broadly reflects true diversity. 
  • It’s vital to remove as many barriers to participation as possible. All Assembly members receive an honorarium for their time (often the equivalent of jury duty, which in most European countries is around $90 per day); expenses are covered, including travel and caring costs; an accessible location should be chosen. 
  • The invitation might also be translated into one or more commonly spoken languages. One option is to offer the possibility for those not fluent in English to participate alongside an interpretation ‘buddy’ - a common practice in the incredibly diverse city of Brussels. 
7. Can Citizens’ Assemblies cross political divides on deeply partisan issues?

Whilst a world in which so much debate is polarised may make the task seem impossible, it is also one of the main reasons why we need Citizens’ Assemblies. Politics is polarised at the level of our political class, and this has been permeating to society at large to an extent as well.

Citizens’ Assemblies involving people who are brought together as the people who live in a community – not as representatives of a political party, belief, cause, company, or particular aspect of their identity – have demonstrated time and time again that they are able to find a great deal of common ground, that they are not as polarised as our politicians and the headlines would make us think. 

Because Citizens’ Assemblies convene a diversity of people (thanks to sortition) as equals working together – which is a rare occurrence in itself today – over a prolonged period of time, it creates the space where people are able to build trust, get to know one another as humans, break down stereotypes, and are better able to put themselves in other people’s shoes. 

8. Are Citizens’ Assemblies typically initiated by one side of the political spectrum?

According to research drawing on the OECD database by the University of Westminster, Citizens’ Assemblies have been initiated in relatively equal measure by governments on the right and the left. Importantly, most places where Citizens’ Assemblies have become permanent or ongoing, there has been cross-partisan support behind them. 

For example, the initiative to establish the world’s first permanent Citizens’ Assembly in Ostbelgien, the German-speaking Region of Belgium, was first initiated by the President of the Parliament and the President of the Government (from different right-wing parties), and all six parties unanimously voted in favour in Parliament. Other initiatives have come from the left, like in Paris, or the greens, like the Brussels permanent Citizens’ Assembly for Climate. 

Those who support Assemblies believe in the effectiveness and legitimacy of a process; it is not a means to arrive at a specific policy outcome. In this way, Citizens’ Assemblies transcend partisan politics. 

In the US, attention should be paid to try and cross partisan divides, which are stronger than those in Europe and elsewhere, to ensure that support for Citizens’ Assemblies does not turn into something that gets painted as a partisan project.

9. Is there any evidence about ‘what works’ when it comes to Citizens’ Assemblies? 

There is a lot of evidence from ~700 examples of Citizens’ Assemblies worldwide over the past decades. The DemocracyNext founding team previously led the OECD’s comparative analysis and worked together with a respected group of international practitioners, academics, and policy makers to establish Good Practice Principles for Assemblies. 

These were developed with the aim of learning from practice to establish guiding principles for Assembly design and delivery to ensure that they are both effective leading to rigorous and concrete recommendations, while at the same time being a genuinely democratic (and not technocratic) exercise. 

Read the OECD Good Practice Principles (2020), and dive deeper into the full 200-page Catching the Deliberative Wave report (2020) with hundreds of case studies and references to the academic literature. 

The DemocracyNext Assembling an Assembly Guide (2023) presents this information in an accessible format, with additional downloadable resources and templates for invitation letters, agendas, etc. 

10. Is there any appetite for this approach?

Beyond the growing numbers of policy makers and elected officials interested in Citizens’ Assemblies in the US, there is also high public demand for them. On average, 79% of respondents in the US think that it is important for governments to create Citizens’ Assemblies where citizens debate issues and make recommendations about national laws. 73% of respondents want those Assemblies to have decision-making authority on laws. 

11. I’ve seen Citizens’ Assemblies described as Panels or Juries – what’s the difference?

At DemocracyNext, we tend to say ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ in an all-encompassing way, in the same way we tend to talk about ‘City Councils’ or ‘Parliaments’ despite differences from place to place in terms of size, mandate, etc. It refers to the principle of a body composed of Members selected by sortition for a longer period of time for public decision-making objectives. 

There is typically little difference between Assemblies, Panels, and Juries, except in terminology, as long as there are commonalities in terms of the two key ingredients of sortition and deliberation. In some countries, one term may have been used more often than others for various historical reasons. For instance, in Australia they tend to say Citizens’ Juries, whereas in Canada most deliberative assemblies have been called Reference Panels; in Europe, there is a mix of references to Citizens’ Assemblies, Juries, and Panels. 

The other distinction, typically in places where Assemblies have proliferated at different levels of government and scales, is that sometimes a Citizens’ Assembly refers to bigger, often national, bodies that last a longer period of time, while Citizens’ Juries or Panels will refer to smaller, shorter, often local bodies. 

12. What do you mean by ‘institutionalisation’?

It’s about more than a one-off event: to maximise the benefits of Citizens’ Assemblies, they have increasingly been embedded into the system of democratic decision-making in an ongoing way. 

This means that rather than being one-off initiatives dependent on political will, they become a normal part of how certain types of decisions are taken, often with a legal or institutional basis underpinning their connection to existing institutions like parliaments or councils. Embedding citizen deliberation in a systemic way makes it easier and less expensive to organise Assemblies on a range of issues, which also deepens legitimacy.

The deep roots of the democracy problem are about agency, dignity, belonging, complexity, curiosity, and trust. We need new democratic institutions and processes that help enable those things on an ongoing basis. One pilot Citizens’ Assembly is a starting point, but the real change is only possible with time. Ongoing Assemblies provide more opportunities for more people to represent others, and give people more power in shaping decisions.

13. Who can commission a Citizens’ Assembly?

Citizens’ Assemblies are usually commissioned by local or national governments, but have also been commissioned by large organisations or institutions - including museums or corporations, NGOs, or academic institutions. 

Making sure a Citizens’ Assembly will have an influence on public decisions is the most important up-front task before the Assembly. 

The commissioning public authority, institution, or organisation should publicly commit to responding to or acting on recommendations developed by the Assembly in a timely manner. A successful process often involves securing cross-party or cross-institutional and involving civil society organisations and other institutions from the start. 

Although it is not always possible to hold the commissioning authority to account, in general the quality of deliberation and recommendations made by the Assembly hold a significant amount of weight. For this reason, the evaluation process and communications strategy that wrap around the Assembly process are also of vital importance. 

14. How much does an Assembly cost to run?

The size of budget required depends on the context, size, geographical scale, and length of the Assembly, ranging from $26,000 for a small local level Assembly in Brazil, to $450,000 for the Petaluma Assembly in the US, to several million USD for a large national level Assembly in France. A significant part of the budget goes into compensating Assembly Members for their time, and hiring skilled facilitators.  Assemblies cost more in places where there is a need to upskill or create the infrastructure to support the Assembly process. 

Initial funding and support for these Assemblies might come from funds that are often earmarked for other types of public engagement processes. 

Many of the earliest Citizens’ Assemblies were funded with philanthropic support and initiated by coalitions of advocates wanting to show what is possible. 

Sometimes Assemblies are portrayed as expensive because they are being compared to the costs of more traditional citizen engagement methods like surveys and town hall meetings. 

However, the more apt comparison is with the costs of elections and councils, which, putting aside the huge costs of campaigns, require a substantial investment in the democratic infrastructure that enables them to be fair, transparent, and legitimate. 

There is a supportive layer of public administration, procedures, transparency measures that sits around these institutions – from the support staff, to the archival elements, the infrastructure needed for working groups, committees, hearings, etc. 

A Citizens’ Assembly similarly needs an investment in the democratic infrastructure that enables it to be fair, transparent, and legitimate, increasing its trustworthiness as well as its effectiveness and impact. 

15. How can Citizens’ Assemblies be ‘scaled’ and more than just great one-off initiatives?

Scaling allows for better accountability mechanisms, evaluative processes and feedback loops - all of which are good for building legitimacy and trust, as well as economies of scale. Three examples of how to consider scaling are: 

  • Intentionality:  by intentionally building capacity and skills collaboratively from the start, a single pilot in Tolosa in the Basque Country in Spain in 2020, has today led to reflections on how to institutionalise Citizens’ Assemblies across all 251 local councils, 3 provincial governments, and the federal government. This is happening despite a change in political leadership, because both the government and the opposition convened the Citizens’ Assembly together and received its recommendations. 
  • The OECD publication Eight ways to institutionalise deliberative democracy outlines eight models for institutionalising representative public deliberation to improve collective decision making and strengthen democracy, which include combining a permanent Citizens’ Assembly with one-off citizens’ panels, connecting representative public deliberation to parliamentary committee. and requiring representative public deliberation before certain types of public decisions.
  • The role of technology can also support scaling - our partnership with the MIT Center  for Constructive Communication (MIT CCC) will explore ways to use new technologies to improve all three phases of the assembly process - before, during and after.  This work has significant potential to be scaled nationally and internationally.

Resources

Check out a curated list of resources for Citizens' Assemblies.

OECD Deliberative Democracy Toolbox
Practical resources for Citizens’ Assemblies
Journals and blogs
Networks
  • Democracy R&D International Network of Democratic Innovators
  • KNOCA Knowledge Network on Climate Assemblies
  • GLOCAN Global Citizens’ Assemblies Network

Explore the academic research underpinning DemocracyNext’s work.

Books

On Deliberative Democracy and Citizens’ Assemblies

Start here

Go deeper

On Democratic Innovation

On Collective Intelligence

Broader theoretical and philosophical underpinnings

Key papers

Where can I do academic research on deliberative democracy?

Academic institutions and research centres

Australia

Belgium

Colombia

Finland

France

Germany

Ireland

Morocco

Poland

South Africa

United Kingdom

United States

Where can I find ideas for research questions? 

  • DemocracyNext’s research agenda
  • Research questions for PhD’s

Coming soon!

Our newsletter

Powered by Substack. Read the privacy policy. We will not spam you.

Read more