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

Sign up for our weekly Behind the Headlines email and get a free copy of Byline Times posted to you

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.

Voter ID‘Far Worse than Any US State’

Josiah Mortimer

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.

Don’t Miss a Story

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

OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU

Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us

SUBSCRIBE TO THE PRINT EDITION

A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up to our newsletter (and get a free edition posted to you)

Our leading investigations include: empire & the culture warBrexit, crony contractsRussian interferencethe Coronavirus pandemicdemocracy in danger, and the crisis in British journalism. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under Democracy in Danger

EXCLUSIVE The Steele Dossier, the Indicted FBI Officer and the ‘Most Consequential Investigations in US History’ 

, 26 January 2023
Christopher Steele is concerned his dossier on Donald Trump’s Russian connections was held up at the FBI Office whose head of Counter Intelligence has been indicted for working with one of Putin’s most powerful oligarchs  

Rishi Sunak’s Government is Sinking Into its Own Swamp 

, 26 January 2023
The Prime Minister promised a break from the chaos and corruption of Boris Johnson's administration. After three months, his MPs fear little has changed

EXCLUSIVE Labour MPs Quit Parliamentary Lobbying Group Set Up to Slash Tax on Petrol as Ties to Big Polluters Emerge

, 24 January 2023
One Labour MP quit after a report by the APPG criticising the move to electric vehicles was backed by the Global Warming Policy Foundation – often described as the most high-profile climate 'sceptic' body in the UK

More stories filed under Argument

‘Brexit – Three Years On: The Lie So Etched on Britain’s Body Politic’

, 1 February 2023
Jonathan Lis explores whether telling the truth about leaving the EU would take the entire establishment down too

‘Britannia Chained: Brexit has Left the UK in a State of National Decline’

, 31 January 2023
Three years on from Britain's exit from the EU, the deep impact on our economy and national standing is now undeniable, writes Adam Bienkov

Brexit – Three Years On: Reconnecting the UK with Europe

, 31 January 2023
A Brexit supporter in Westminster in 2019. Photo: Lindsay Lipscombe/Alamy

More from the Byline Family