The 400 words on this page provide a sketch of the main proposals found in the book Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen's Guide to Reinventing Politics. If you are curious to know more, we invite you to read it. It is a short, light read based on real-world examples that has received endorsements all the way from leading political scientists to Hollywood celebrities. (Click here to learn more.)
A citizens' assembly would periodically gather to review and upgrade the way our democracies work.
This citizens' assembly would not formulate policy: instead, it would focus on improving our governance mechanisms. It would ensure that the right rules and incentives are in place so that the politicians we elect truly represent the public interest. It would explore ways to involve ordinary citizens in reasoned, informed policy-making. It would level the playing field so that citizens and their advocates—and not just powerful corporations and lobbies—are properly heard in the hallways of power. It would, in short, strive to upgrade our way of doing politics.
Similarly to what has happened in Iceland, British Columbia and the Netherlands, the citizens' assembly would be composed of voting-age citizens drawn at random from electoral rolls. To the surprise of many, experience has confirmed over and over again that, in the right institutional setting, such groups of ordinary citizens are perfectly able to deliberate and decide on complex matters. (Skeptical?)
“Citizen deliberation”—having a panel of citizens chosen at random engage in real-world political decision-making—can seem like a crazy idea at first. Here are some selected passages from Rebooting Democracy on what some leading political scientists think about it:
– In a comprehensive survey of empirical studies on citizen deliberation, John Dryzek observes that the “first lesson” to be drawn from these studies is that of “citizen competence.” In his words: “[T]he most obvious finding is that, given the opportunity, ordinary citizens can make good deliberators. Moreover, issue complexity is no barrier to the development and exercise of that competence.”
– After two decades of running citizen panels, James Fishkin believes that “the public is very smart if you give it a chance. If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study..., ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions. When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves. About 70% change their minds in the process.” “[C]itizens can become better informed and master the most complex issues of state government if they are given the chance.”
– After their 2010 in-depth study of two citizen panels, John Gastil and Katherine Knobloch concluded that participants engaged in “high-quality deliberation” characterized by a “rigorous analysis of the issues.” These citizens “carefully analyzed the issues put before them and maintained a fair and respectful discussion throughout the proceedings.” The statements produced by the two citizen panels at the end of the process “included almost all of the key insights and arguments that emerged during their meetings, and ... were free of any gross factual errors or logical fallacies.” Drawing on his many years of research on citizen deliberation, Gastil didn’t find this surprising at all: in his words, such displays of political competence by ordinary citizens are simply the “typical result for a very well-structured deliberative event.”
Much more information on the promise of citizen deliberation can be found in Rebooting Democracy. (Hide.)
The citizens' assembly would conclude its work by proposing a set of reforms to the general public. If approved in a referendum, they would be implemented.
Why should this citizens' assembly meet periodically? Because, like all life forms, professional politicians and special interest groups adapt and learn, over time, how to circumvent the rules with which we try to constrain their power. At the same time, citizens and their advocates find that even merely getting a shot at meaningful, structural change is extraordinarily difficult (cf. the recent Scottish independence referendum). By establishing that a citizens' assembly would convene every (e.g.) 10 years, we would leave the door open for future reforms.
Which kind of reforms might such a citizens' assembly propose? There is no lack of options. From curbing the influence of money in professional politics to subjecting more policy decisions to public scrutiny to involving ordinary citizens in policy-making (eg, similarly to the way the citizens' assembly itself would operate), much can be done. Several such ideas are discussed (using real-world examples) in Rebooting Democracy.
By periodically giving citizens an opportunity to revise and improve how political decisions are made, our societies will at last become more truly democratic. To stay in the loop, be sure to sign up for our low-traffic mailing list.