OPINION29 July 2021

Bringing democracy to the people

Opinion Public Sector

Citizens’ assemblies can, if done correctly, provide an antidote to the rise of authoritarianism, argues Suzanne Hall.

Crowd of people from above

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index makes for grim reading. Global democracy has continued its downward trajectory: around the world, only one in 12 people live in a full democracy while more than a third live under authoritarian rule. The global score of 5.37 out of 10 is the lowest recorded since the index began in 2006.

These problems are reflected in popular sentiment: all around the world there are real issues with trust in and legitimacy of our democratic structures and processes. A 2017 study by Ipsos Mori found that a majority in every single country surveyed felt the economy was rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful. Governments don’t fare much better in the public’s view: at least half in every country – including three-quarters in the UK – agree that their government doesn’t prioritise the concerns of people like them.

This, in turn, feeds through into low levels of trust in the political class. When people are asked which professions they trust to tell them the truth, politicians and government ministers take up two of the bottom three places; only 15% and 16% respectively trust them to tell the truth, outdone only by advertising executives.

There are, however, two important things to note. The first is that these kinds of problems are nothing new. The second is there’s plenty we can do to help fix them.

One solution lies in changing the way that citizens can participate politically. It’s this that is behind the rising popularity of deliberative democracy, and of citizens’ assemblies in particular. These approaches are rooted in ancient Athenian democracy; Greek statesman Pericles noted that rather than hindering matters, discussion with citizens about the issues of the day “is an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all”.

 The idea is to bring people from diverse backgrounds together, exposing them to credible and authoritative information and encouraging debate that enables them to reach conclusions and make recommendations. The latest wave of deliberative democracy, based on the premise that “political decisions should be the result of reasonable discussions among citizens”, has helped to bring about real legislative change on issues that were previously considered intractable.

Citizens’ assemblies have been at the forefront of this movement. Take, for instance, the Irish citizens’ assembly on modifying the eighth amendment regarding abortion. It was composed of a chairperson, appointed by the government, and 99 ordinary citizens randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society. They deliberated on the eighth amendment over the course of five sessions, heard testimony from 25 experts and reviewed 300 submissions received from the public and interest groups.

By the end of their deliberations, assembly members overwhelmingly agreed that the constitutional provision on abortion was not fit for purpose and made recommendations as to what the legislation should cover instead. These were submitted to the Oireachtas in June 2017 and the subsequent referendum bill saw a two-thirds majority vote to remove the constitutional ban on abortion.

This isn’t an isolated success story. Across the world – including in France, Scotland, Australia, Canada, Poland, the US and Belgium – these approaches are delivering real change at both a local and national level on complex, long-term social policy and constitutional problems such as the climate crisis, electoral reform and land rights.

This can only happen when these approaches are done well – yet when they are, they can create better decisions. Citizens’ assemblies provide a space in which the people and experts can come together constructively to listen and discuss without being side-tracked by special interest groups.

When care is taken to ensure the make-up of the assembly is diverse then its recommendations are afforded credibility and legitimacy; people can look at what has been decided and feel certain that someone like them fed into that process. They can also help create better citizens, providing a gateway through which people can re-engage with their local community and politics.

Citizens’ assemblies are not, of course, a silver bullet. In and of themselves they can’t solve all the problems that we as a society face, or single-handedly reinvigorate democracy. Nor are they designed to replace representative democracy – rather, they can simply augment it. But given the potential rewards – particularly at such a time of polarisation – leaders would do well to think about how they can bring people into decision-making processes.

In return, practitioners, theorists and academics need to continue to share what works and collaborate to develop new, hybrid approaches to engagement which combine the best of online and face-to-face methods and are truly inclusive – not just representative. Doing this will help ensure that these approaches are used judiciously, and are conducted to the highest of standards; anything less risks damaging public trust in the very vehicle which could help build it.

Suzanne Hall is director of engagement at the Policy Institute at King’s College London