10 things I learned at the Citizens Assemblies in Europe event, Liverpool University

By Laura Sullivan, Executive Director of WeMove Europe, December 5th 2019

This week I hit the friendly streets Liverpool for a fascinating event to close off an experiment on citizens assemblies in Europe. Over the last year, WeMove was part of a project led by the University of Liverpool to test the potential of citizens assemblies in helping people to understand the EU and to get involved more in European politics. As WeMove’s board member Alberto Alemanno said at the event, if there is something that Europeans do not do together today, it’s politics!

The event was a seriously large learning experience. Here are the top ten things I learned:

1. Doing politics differently is the real value of citizens assemblies. If the rise of populist nationalism and the rather existential threats to the future of Europe tell us anything, it is that there is a need to do things quite radically differently. In particular to remove ourselves from our various bubbles and allow others to do the same.  Whilst citizens assemblies are not a panacea, they are one valuable way to do democracy differently. As WeMove one of our main findings with this project is that people learn a lot about the EU and related political issues by engaging in citizen assemblies. They are one great way to help Europe escape from a vicious circle of a lack of creativity in democratic tools, low engagement and a dangerously wide gap between institutions and people.

2. At the country level, experiments have been happening that show that citizens assemblies work. The same cannot be said at the EU level. Historically there have been loads of experiments at the national level and a lot of learning has come in. ‘We know we can do it’. Against this, there have been few experiments at the EU level. The EU needs to invest far more here into researching many more mistakes, successes and learnings.

3. Some of the more interesting national level examples and experiences were : We The Citizens in Ireland, Citizens Assemblies on Brexit in the UK, on Social Care in Northern Ireland, on air pollution in Polish cities. Interestingly, in Poland organisers have refused to take on a citizens assembly unless the recommendations have binding effect. In Ireland, there is evidence that citizens assemblies are taking hold in society. An Irish Times article yesterday proposed another issue (the role of women in the home) be brought to ‘The Citizens Assembly’. In reality there isn’t one. But it shows that people assume there is and want to keep it going. The Irish story  (https://www.citizensassembly.ie) is important because it was a world first in seeing recommendations go to referendum and get endorsed.

4. Participation and inclusion cost money. If you want to avoid the ‘usual suspects’ phenomenon at assemblies dilemma, you need to invest enough money. It takes time to do inclusion. It also requires incentives to be offered to participants (see below). That costs money.  The advantage is opening up the pool of ideas, bringing new people in. If we keep trying the same things with the same people, we will get the same outcomes.

5. The Citizens Consultation announced by Macron have set the bar low. The EPC and DemSoc have done an evaluation of the initiative which you can find here: http://www.epc.eu/documents/uploads/pub_8839_19_11_ecc_web.pdf?doc_id=2065. The consultations over these last months were run by the member states. Very few were even aware that the consultation in Brussels was taking place. At the event, facilitation was tightly controlled and there was ‘little comfort with uncertainty’. Overall the process has not been plotted out from beginning to end and it is far from clear how these consultations will fit into the discussion on the future of Europe (on the Council agenda in Romania in May). It suggests that the member states are not ready to hold citizens assemblies on European issues and the EU leadership is are not necessarily ready to receive or use the information.

6. A healthy amount of feedback and critique was shared on the project we ran on citizens assemblies in Europe with the University of Liverpool (https://citizensassemblies.eu/).  For example, some questioned the representivity of the participants involved. It was noted however, with small groups of 30-70 people, you simply cannot get perfect representivity. Others questioned the fact that a polling firm had not been used such that there was a low numbers of people participating, which might leave the project open to critique (samples not large enough). In reality, the funding given by EC (overall budget of €130k to cover 4 countries assemblies and online infrastructure and facilitation) did not allow for this kind of approach to be taken.  In general, there was a feeling that more money needs to be invested to ensure the citizens assemblies are not set up to fail. For example, this project did not allow for any financial incentives to be given to participants beyond covering their local transport costs. Involve in the UK commented that incentives are important for 3 reasons:

  • Recognising the value of peoples time they give up, usually over weekends
  • Including people who otherwise couldn’t afford to come
  • Giving an incentive can bring in people who are not initially interested but get there once they actually take the first step to get involved and find out what it’s all about.

7. One of the most interesting questions was whether understanding and knowledge of democracy and democratic tools is a pre-requisite for participating in citizens assemblies. Those who had run citizens assemblies in Poland and the UK were very clear here: people do not need previous knowledge or experience. They learn along the way and that’s the beauty of the assemblies. Facilitation is key here however. Facilitators need to be trained to set up a good space for learning during the event. Otherwise it can go wrong.

8. Language matters: the outcome of online experiment was interesting here. WeMove organised one test round of the online citizens assembly in English and in the second opened it out so that participants could express themselves in their own language. The second experiment was far more successful. If we do these events in English, we will continue to exclude people and not get the engagement we want to see.

9. Representative and participatory democracy dont have to be a question of either or. Dr Brett Henning from the Sortition Foundation showed how a model based on two chambers, one a citizens chamber constituted by sortition (random selection) and another made up of elected representatives could work. Food for thought for the European Union.

10. Overall we need to see more trust in people and in civil society by state institutions on the question of citizens assemblies. The speaker from Ireland noted that they wanted to be able to show that ‘Irish people can deliberate’ (because there had been a certain narrative among a lot of politicians to the effect that Irish people couldn’t do that). Others had heard from their governments comments to the effect that ‘Those experiments over there are nice, but it couldn’t happen here.’  The EU institutions furthermore seem reluctant to trust civil society in the design and implementation of citizens assemblies asking questions about how independent they can be. The experiences of civil society led and civil society supported citizens assemblies across the countries mentioned above have been very positive and there may be lessons to be learned there. Some have introduced accountability measures such as ‘democracy contractors’ (bodies to do quality control across citizens assembly initiatives).  The EU could do with trusting more, taking more risks, opening up and letting go more. I certainly hope the EU can let it go to let it be!

And a bonus one: who knew that there are 1 million more babies in Europe because of Erasmus? (Thanks Alberto!)