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ON THE BASIS OF KNOWLEDGE: The possibilities of the Citizens' Assembly

INNOVATION / What are "civic assemblies" as political tools? They are now used to ensure a universal consensus and propose solutions that everyone will perceive as meaningful – even in times of crisis.


The sun is shining for a moment. At the Ministry of the Environment in Prague, the window sills are thoroughly cleaned, and signs are put up telling where the protesters can leave dirty glasses and plates, thermoses, sleeping bags and backpacks. The area has been occupied for several days after the blockade in front of the ministry. Every evening, pedagogical lectures are held on climate issues, but there is also a program with cultural elements.

I meet two members of the Extinction Rebellion, Andrej Lizon and Eduard Gemis, who have long explored various forms of civic assembly. Such assemblies seem to be an appropriate tool for reaching agreement on issues that divide society, where political and social agreement seems inconceivable. Lizon will give a lecture on the citizens' assembly as part of the blockade's program.

He opens the laptop and shows me the structure of the planned lecture. In the Czech Republic it is called "občanské shromáždění" (OS), while Professor Julie Mildorfova Leventon, head of the Institute for Climate Research in the Czech Republic, uses the term "people's jury" ("občanské poroty") to describe the same thing. We have no practical knowledge of this tool and do not know if people are aware of it – and the view of it is very varied among those who have heard of the term.

To me, a citizens' assembly is not just a practical form of democratic participation, but mainly an instrument of consensus and progressive social change, whether we are in an Anglo-Saxon or a Central European cultural-historical space. Maybe that's why I was fascinated by this tool, and that made me decide to make a film about it after two years of climate activism – a film that is a stand-alone sequel to my documentary Women's Grief on climate issues (see discussion on page 22).

However, it is clear to me that this tool will not have a breakthrough in the world without further ado, let alone in the Czech Republic. In the film, I will therefore try to portray current citizens' assemblies at the local level as well as the work of marketing it at the national level, following examples from France and the United Kingdom.

Citizen Assembly: Northern Ireland

From abortion to climate issues

It was a citizens' assembly that enabled Ireland to reach an agreement on such a sensitive and divisive issue as abortion. Thanks to this, Ireland was finally able to accept and agree to reject the abortion ban. At the same time, something like this seemed unthinkable in this Catholic country.

Civic assemblies are nothing new in Central and Eastern Europe. The flood-stricken Gdańsk in Poland used it to effectively agree across political parties on how they could use the money earmarked to build flood defenses and rebuild the city.

Both in Canada, Ireland, France, Great Britain and Poland.

After analyzes of civic assemblies in Canada, Ireland, France, Great Britain and Poland, it is possible to describe quite precisely what must be done for such to be a success and can really contribute to achieving agreement and social change. How, for example, will people be elected to the Civic Assembly? The aim is that its composition should, as far as possible, reflect society in its diversity, so that the results of debates and decisions are valid and acceptable to politicians and society.

Participants in the Citizens' Assembly

Most civic assemblies have had around 150 members. A bit of a curiosity: In the UK, 30 invitation letters were sent out, and people were then selected who confirmed their interest according to a specified key: People are selected to fill in relevant quotas to reflect a representative group – for example, according to to gender, age, education, occupation, place of residence and income. Some of the citizens' assemblies dealing with the climate first also examined people's attitudes to the topic of climate crisis and wanted the composition of the 000 people to correspond to different views in this matter.

We can assume that the butcher, the airport manager or the organic farmer will have different views on the question of how to solve climate change before they enter the citizens' assembly. It is important to emphasize that people who are elected by lottery and say yes to participate do not represent any interest group, but join for their own or their family's sake.

A precisely defined and ambitious enough goal for an assembly seems to be very important. It turns out that the participants, after hearing experts speak and have had time to discuss with them long enough, become far more progressive in their attitudes to the topic compared to when they entered the process. A citizens' assembly therefore generally comes up with more progressive proposals than the majority society would suggest, according to surveys that have been conducted.

How important it is not to make decisions impulsively, but on the basis of knowledge of the problem.

The Irish Catholics managed to cross the Rubicon and give abortion a chance. And it has helped people from downplaying the significance of the climate crisis to understanding how important it is to tackle it, but above all to understanding that climate change affects all aspects of life.

Sue Parish, a participant in the British National Assembly last year, told the newspaper The Guardian about how such participation can be an enormous formative experience: “I thought: My God, climate change is real! It made me get more information and to live greener! I'm 57, and I told myself that the time to get involved in public discussions and debates is over. But now you see, one year has passed, I have been a member of the Climate Civic Assembly, and I am involved in the ward council. Who knows what will happen next? Participating in the citizens' assembly was a real wake-up call for me! "

From Sue Parish's reaction, it is clear that such a system, thanks to lectures by experts, not only gives participants a deep insight into the matter, but can also strengthen them in the awareness of their control over their own lives. And that is exactly what we need if we want people to take an active part in changing the sick system that has brought us to the brink of the earth's collapse. We are the system. Unfortunately, the feeling of not being able to influence the world around us, makes an active involvement in public life unattractive.

In addition, there are often conspiracy theories that explain that "someone else" is to blame for our misery. Of course you can find someone to blame, it just depends on which echo chamber you feel at home in. But it is necessary to remember that we also live in a system that has taken us where we are. Everyone has different ways of being influenced. That is why it is so important to use participating tools and actively engaging people in system change.

From Prague. Photo: Culkova

Planning and meeting preparations

That the duration is well planned is important for the citizens' assemblies. The British session on climate neutrality lasted over 12 months (6 weekends), the Irish for 18 months (11 weekends), and the French for 9 months (7 weekends). It is crucial that good time is set aside, so that the participants have the opportunity to get to know the matter thoroughly and then have enough time to discuss it together. It proves to be effective when members receive an allowance for participation that partially compensates them for attendance. It also enables the participation of people who otherwise would not be able to participate at all due to low income, babysitting needs or disabilities.

In order for the citizens' assembly to function as efficiently as possible and the potential to be fully utilized, thorough preparations and a well-thought-out framework for reflection with invited experts in certain areas of the matter that the assembly is to deal with are necessary. If, for example, the topic «carbon neutrality towards 2030» is chosen, we must consider which areas and which expertise are relevant. It will provide enough space for creativity and contributions from the members themselves. Experts can often come from a number of fields that one would not include in a climate crisis discussion.

For example, it would not have occurred to me how important health services are, before I talked about it with Dr. Anna Kšírová from Doctors for Future. And since I do not drive, I never thought that CO2emissions were related to the speed limits on the motorway.

A butcher and a vegetarian who is a teacher in high school will certainly have different views on reducing meat consumption and meat production. However, having the opportunity to listen to experts on the subject, and especially to each other, can lead to the necessary consensus and surprising solutions that will support suggestions coming from experts in the matter. It is not about convincing the convinced, but about really finding solutions that both parties perceive as meaningful in their own and their own children's lives.

As previously mentioned, the key is that the participants in the assembly do not represent any organization, association or any association, but themselves. If we then give a butcher a voice to talk about the connection between climate change and meat consumption, it will certainly have more legitimacy in the "meat-eating society" than if the message comes from someone who has not eaten meat in 30 years.

Legitimate politics

As in everything, communication is the key here too, ie a well-chosen communication strategy. Both before the beginning of the assembly, during it and after the end. It is necessary to use experts, but also to have a varied composition of participants – and the debate must be public and transparent. The extent to which participants want to share their identities is up to them, and all civic assemblies have addressed this issue carefully. However, experience shows that people are proud to participate. In order for a citizens' assembly to have the necessary political legitimacy, information must be given not only to the citizens, but also to the politicians.

It works best when the majority in parliament shows interest in organizing the citizens 'assembly and approves in advance that its recommendations – with the support of at least 80 percent – will be considered binding for the politicians' further work and further decision-making.

By political legitimacy, we mean that it must be clearly defined how the results of the citizens' assembly meetings shall be handled by the government. Experience from abroad shows that this is crucial to ensure that the citizens' assembly not only remains symbolic, but that its recommendations are really followed. In some cases, the citizens' assembly was followed by a referendum, but this turns out to be an unwise step due to the costs and handling.

On the contrary, it works best when the majority in parliament shows interest in organizing the citizens 'assembly and approves in advance that its recommendations – with sufficiently strong support from all participants, ie 80 percent – will be considered binding on politicians' further work and further decision-making. When it comes to national assemblies, it is important for politicians to understand that the citizens' assembly gives them legitimacy to take bold steps and decisions that are rooted in a broad public debate – and which are thus not easy to manipulate.

The case of France

In 2017, the French elected a new president, Emmanuel Macron, and in his program, the environment played an important role. His most famous reform in this regard, however, was an increase in the fuel tax. This gave rise to the Yellow Vests movement, which used illegal blockades and aggressive (sometimes violent) protests to force Macron to abolish the new tax. The protesters criticized the fact that the tax mainly affected the socially disadvantaged and those who do not have access to public transport. Following pressure from the Yellow West movement, Macron declared a civic assembly on April 25, 2020, as a socially just solution to come up with measures against climate change.

In this otherwise daring example from France, we can observe typical errors. If the conditions mentioned above are not met or are underestimated, it jeopardizes the efforts of the congregation. The set goal for the French citizens' assembly was not very ambitious in the first place, but the participants nevertheless came up with a number of surprisingly radical suggestions and suggestions on how to reform the system in a climate-fair direction. Unfortunately, President Macron did not secure support for the assembly in parliament in advance, and he thus wasted the chance to make major changes on the climate issue. If he had first negotiated support for the citizens' assembly and left it to the participants to decide how quickly changes should be implemented, the situation in France would look different today.

Macron also underestimated the dialogue with the French public, which is currently not at all convinced that climate issues will take precedence over education reform, health care, integration of immigrants and other traditional issues. In any case, the interconnection of green and social issues in the public consciousness has, after all, strengthened, as the result of recent local elections shows. The Greens have won mayors in Lyon, Strasbourg and Bordeaux, and their socialist allies have won Paris and Marseille.

The French Assembly was tasked with drawing up a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030, based on 1990 figures. The proposed plan, unlike previous attempts to protect the environment, should respect the needs of all French citizens, including: the socially weakest. The assembly was organized in the same way as in Canada and Ireland, for example – with quotas for participation from different income groups and different types of employment (students, pensioners, workers, employers, the unemployed). After eight months of work, the assembly recommended 149 different measures in five areas: transportation, consumption, accommodation, work and food. The measures included a ban on the construction of new or expansion of old airports, restrictions on advertising, but also symbolic proposals on environmental crime.

Macron rejected only three measures and supported the remaining ones. However, this does not mean that they will (immediately) be implemented.

A tool for urban policy

byen Gdańsk chose the citizens' assembly as a tool after the devastating floods in 2016. It was realized that as a result of climate change, devastating floods would occur more frequently, and action was needed. But in order to act, the city clearly needed the support and understanding of the citizens. And the citizens' assembly proved to be a functional tool, as Marcin Gerwin has described in his book Citizens' Assemblies, Guide to Democracy That Works.

Marcin Gerwin has worked with tools for participatory democracy for more than 11 years. Thanks to his enthusiasm, and the goodwill of the then mayor of Gdańsk, the first citizens' assembly in Poland was held in 2016. The theme was measures to prepare Gdańsk for flood, which is becoming more frequent due to climate change. 60 selected people participated in the assembly. More than half of the recommendations it proposed were put into practice.

Since then, Marcin Gerwin has organized or helped organize several assemblies, including in Bristol, Lublin, Wrocław, Poznań, Mostar and Washington DC. He is also involved in the introduction of a new constitution in Belarus, which will be created with the help of a citizens' assembly.

Another civic assembly, which was ambitious enough and very successful, was the one organized by the city Oxford. It was the first place in the UK to declare a climate emergency and wanted to take the necessary measures. As in Gdańsk, Oxford needed legitimacy for its decisions, and the citizens' assembly made it possible. It is interesting that the city's commitment to be carbon neutral by 2030 was proposed by the citizens' assembly itself.

During the first weekend, 44 citizens listened to lectures by twenty-five experts from various disciplines.

The British government has committed itself to achieve karbonneutrality by 2050. The members of the Oxford Assembly, convened in 2020, were asked whether Oxford should be more active in this regard and what it is willing to sacrifice. During the first weekend, 44 citizens listened to lectures by 25 experts from various fields. At the same time, it was based on actual evidence of climate change – the inhabitants should not have decided if it was true. During the second weekend, they had the opportunity to discuss and formulate recommendations. In addition to specific proposals, they also suggested that Oxford should reach the goal of becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2030.

Areas identified as important by the participants included waste reduction, consumption and training in climate issues, energy management of buildings and support for affordable housing, bicycle infrastructure, public transport, biodiversity, tree planting and support for nature areas. The shift towards renewable sources will mainly be taken care of by the city council, which will help individuals to switch from gas to renewable energy sources in the home.

Meetings in the EU and the UN

The UN's plans to establish a global citizens' assembly are currently being discussed. As far as the UN is concerned, the question is, of course, what the mandate of such an assembly will be, and what form such a large assembly can have. Efforts are also being made to organize civic assemblies within the EU.

I would definitely prefer to be represented by a frustrated single woman, who will receive adequate compensation and help for childcare and thus the opportunity to obtain adequate information about climate change in a civic assembly, than by someone whose only mantra is adaptation, fatalism or technology. optimism because they either do not want to or can not break out of the current system.

Unfortunately, time is not on our side. Every single day we waste in our search for solutions, we will get burned for later. If we want to convince most people of the importance of climate change, we must actively engage them in decision-making processes. And civic assemblies are a suitable tool. Does it have to be that decisions are only made when the shoe really presses for everyone in a democracy? Is it not high time that politicians rely on more citizens' assemblies – with informed knowledge and commitment to decisions?

Translated by Iril Kolle

Andrea Culkova
Andrea Culková
Culkova is a well-known documentary filmmaker from Prague, Czech Republic, and politically active.

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