Citizens’ assemblies and the future of democracy

October 18, 2019 by No Comments | Category Our work

“Citizens’ assemblies are about rebuilding the links between the public and the political system.”

Those are the words of Dr Jane Suiter at the Scottish Parliament’s Festival of Politics Citizens’ Assemblies event last week.

The event highlighted the power of citizens’ assemblies to bolster democracy. We heard how assemblies across the world brought consensus to a society grappling with polarising issues.

Democracy under threat

There are 19 full democracies in the world, Dr Oliver Escobar, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Edinburgh University, began by telling us. That means less than 5% of the world are living in a democracy.

We may like to think that democracy won the day but these stats show we can’t get complacent. Instead, Oliver argued, we need to look at the democratic systems we have, and whether they can deal with the problems in society.

One of the problems we face at the moment – as anyone who has read the news knows – is the seemingly unprecedented number of polarising issues.

And this is where citizens’ assemblies can provide solutions, and act as a mechanism to enhance our democracy.

Building trust

It’s been found in countries from Ireland to Australia, that citizens’ assemblies add legitimacy to difficult decisions made by governments.

Citizens’ assemblies operate in the grey spaces. They are designed to expose a range of people to research and different opinions. Through listening to one another, past assemblies reached a consensus that the wider population trusted, and could be fed back to governments.

Jane, who is Director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism and Associate Professor at Dublin City University, said the key to building trust in Ireland’s citizens’ assemblies was that people knew it was happening and were given the chance to listen in. Sessions were live streamed and the assembly was widely promoted. This transparency meant those who were not directly involved understood the process.

People trusted those like them to make recommendations on their behalf.

Making an impact

When it goes well, people can feel empowered by taking part. But ultimately, empowering individuals comes down to whether the assembly’s recommendations or decisions have an impact. Dr Ellen Stewart, academic and Associate Director of Science Knowledge and Policy at Edinburgh, argued that an assembly must be realistic about what it can achieve.

This means involving politicians at the right time, and requiring governments to respond and act.

Citizens’ assemblies are a powerful tool in a democracy. It remains to be seen how effectively they will be used to improve societies across the world.

Scotland is currently running a citizens’ assembly – you can find more information here.

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