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Can Citizens’ Assemblies Improve Our Response to Crises?

Governments should use assemblies to tackle the issues at the heart of public debate during a crisis, write Stefan Flothmann and Brett Hennig

Members of the citizens’ assembly on climate change on their first weekend of discussions in Birmingham in January 2020. Photo: Fabio De Paola/PA/Alamy

Can Citizens’ Assemblies Improve Our Response to Crises?

Governments should use assemblies to tackle the issues at the heart of public debate during a crisis, write Stefan Flothmann and Brett Hennig

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It’s beyond doubt that the 21st Century will be marked by prolonged disruptions such as the Coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine or the cost of living crisis.

Most democracies have dealt with these disruptions using protocols designed for short-term crises during relatively stable times. This usually means centralised decision-making and the allocation of relief funds to minimise the burden and, therefore, the anger of those impacted.

However, with national debt rising and trust in institutions decreasing in countries like the UK, this traditional approach to crisis response is proving to be fundamentally flawed. Indeed, most countries applying these strategies have seen their governments ousted or substantially weakened in the first post-crisis election or even sooner.  

In ‘The Disrupted Mind‘, we showed that, in times of crisis, people’s lives and minds are disrupted: they feel disorientated, afraid and unable to act. Those impacted strive to make sense of the situation and, in doing so, they look for guidance. But most governments actually ignore the public’s state of mind during a crisis, focusing instead on mitigation or adaptation, granting leaders increased power and prioritising fast decision-making.

Ignoring the public mindset has proven dangerous and the pandemic showed us how this plays out: increased polarisation and a decrease of trust in institutions and even democracy itself, weakening the impact of the crisis response plans as people refuse to comply.

In May, 81% of British people already said they were dissatisfied with the Government’s response to the cost of living crisis. This becomes even more acute as the crisis drags on and people enter the disillusionment phase – a period characterised by rising frustration, anger and people starting to look for someone to blame for their situation.

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There are two ways to respond to the challenges that frequent and prolonged crises bring.

The first is an ‘authoritarian’ crisis response: governments centralise decision-making and control the societal narrative by constraining freedom of speech and propagating one ‘official’ story.

The alternative is a ‘participative’ approach: using democratic tools that allow citizens to participate in the development of crisis response plans themselves. This approach has yet to really be tested as it would seem, in times of crisis, governments don’t trust their citizens.

But what makes citizens better equipped to deal with crises than governments? After all, weren’t referendums responsible for Brexit and a resounding ‘no’ to a more progressive constitution in Chile? Once perceived as tools of modern democracy, referendums have lost their appeal in times of fake news and polarising populism. However, a relatively new tool is gaining momentum: citizen assemblies. 

Citizens’ assemblies operate in a very different way from referendums.

They are made up of 50 to 150 participants chosen at random but who reflect a representative sample of society in terms of age, gender, location, and socio-economic status. If asked, these participants would hold the same opinion as if they were asked to vote in a referendum. However, in an assembly they do not come together to express their opinion on a specific policy proposal – they come together to develop their ideas and search for common ground. 

They first go through a collective process in which they learn everything they need to make informed decisions down the line. This makes them far more resilient to fake news.

During the discussion rounds, participants begin to develop ideas they can agree on. They are then requested to look for consensus if possible or points of agreement, while strongly-held minority views are documented. In this sense, unlike referendums, assemblies do not enhance polarisation, but rather reunite social views.

Assemblies have taken place all over the world on critical societal issues from abortion and same-sex marriage in Ireland to climate change in the UK, France and even the world’s first global climate citizen assembly, presenting its findings during the COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow last year.

They alone, however, are insufficient to ensure agreement and the normalisation of a crisis response. They must also be visible to the general public: people need to be able to follow the discussion from the perspective of the assembly member they feel represents them. Assembly members also need to be able to communicate with their audience.

One might ask how this can be responsive in a crisis requiring fast action, not a lengthy discussion process. This may be true for disasters or wars where governments restrict decision-making to a handful of people and response plans are ready to be rolled-out. Citizens’ assemblies though are ideally suited to complex and long-lasting crises like the cost of living crisis. Indeed, during the past two years, we have seen governments themselves engaging in lengthy orientation and decision-making processes.

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Setting up, running and consolidating the outcomes of a citizens’ assembly takes about six to nine months. But this could be shortened to a minimum of three months – a reasonable investment during a prolonged crisis and not much slower than the pace of many governments’ responses. Governments or institutions could also reduce the response time of assemblies by establishing permanent citizens’ assemblies and allowing their agendas to be agile and reactive to events as they happen. 

Assemblies can be part of a new strategy to engage citizens in solving the crisis, a process that would give people agency and pride. They can offer unique moral frameworks for societies about the right level of ambition or sacrifice and how it is fairly distributed among all citizens.

Instead of using them as exercises in token democracy, governments should use assemblies for issues at the heart of public debate during a crisis. Topics that spark anger and could lead to social unrest.

Of course, that means that governments must be prepared for outcomes that would go against the vested interests of the elites – but isn’t that what democracy should be about?

Stefan Flothmann is global director at Mindworks and Brett Hennig is the co-founder of the Sortition Foundation

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