Solving Problems, One at a Time

Citizens' assembly in action There are two ways that democratic lotteries can be used to improve government. They can be used to select members of a legislative body and they can be used to form a citizens’ assembly.

A citizens’ assembly is a body of people who deliberate on one issue of importance. It is also known as a citizens’ jury, peoples’ jury or policy jury. A citizens’ assembly can consider more than one issue, but is rare.

The members of the citizens’ assembly are selected using a democratic lottery. The selection is based on some means of uniquely identifying individuals in the pool of possible people. Voter registration rolls and drivers license data are examples of pools, and each has advantages and drawbacks. Some countries do not have accurate information on citizens and, therefore, a pool can not easily be identified.

A process to ensure that those selected are representative of the pool is often employed. The process, called stratification, can use identified traits like gender, ethnicity, political affiliation and socioeconomic data. Stratification can help ensure that the assembly is a cross-section of the pool. Some feel that stratification gives too much power to those designing the citizens’ assembly and prefer that it not be used.

Marion Sharp
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Citizens’ assemblies reach decisions through deliberation, which provides for the education of participants. The assembly considers the views, information and arguments of stakeholders and experts on the subject, engages in collaborative discussions, and ultimately produce a result that is representative of the informed public interest. Deliberation removes coalitions, political parties and money, and replaces them with a voice of reason.

A citizens’ assembly is often given a charge or agenda from a political body. How far an assembly can move outside the parameters set by the agenda are subject to debate among professionals. The political body setting an agenda often feels that the assembly cannot move beyond the agenda. However, the assembly may, through the process of deliberation, find what it considers reasonable paths of consideration that stray from the agenda.

Citizens’ assemblies are intended to instill trust in the process itself and in the outcomes it produces. That trust comes from who is in the assembly – a cross section of the people – and how they reach their decision – deliberation.

Most citizens’ assemblies are constituted at the request of a legislative body. The results of the assembly are in the form of recommendations to the legislative body or to the people who consider it in a referendum. Groups who operate citizens’ assemblies often require political buy-in before accepting the commission.

Advantages and Disadvantages

An advantage of a citizens’ assembly is its ability to give a voice to the people. It can speak for the pool from which it was drawn. Factors like age, gender, ethnicity and career of members of the assembly help the public identify with them. The inclusive, diverse and representative nature of citizens’ assemblies comes from the lottery selection process, and contributes to it being the voice of the people. An elected body, on the other hand, is often a exclusive and oligarchic group.

Excessive influence of special interests and money is removed from citizens’ assemblies. A member of a citizens’ assembly is there to consider one issue, and will likely never return to a future citizens’ assembly, so it is more challenging for special interests to gain a foothold. While special interests are often heard by an assembly, it is within the controlled context of deliberation. In addition, the contact between a special interest and the assembly is generally recorded and made public.

Some critics feel that, by the very nature of lottery selection, the average citizen is not as competent as more educated people to make decisions. The briefing materials and choice of experts supplied to an assembly may not be accurate and balanced. The costs of a citizens’ assembly are much greater than measuring the public will through surveys and focus groups.

Adapted from the Sortition Foundation.