What is this site for?

The aim of this website is to promote the introduction of citizens’ assemblies in Aotearoa New Zealand.  It is intended to serve as a forum for folk who would like to work together towards this end. The idea of assemblies with participants recruited by direct invitation and with invitees chosen by lot, is simple. The execution is not, and needs to be adapted to local circumstances. It has to be said that, since putting this up towards the end of 2018, not a lot has happened. I would be happy to know ways in which participating in this discussion and possible actions can be made more attractive.

What is a citizens’ assembly?

A citizens’ assembly is a body made up of participants who meet together on a number of occasions spread over time to deliberate on an issue or a set of issues of national or local importance. The participants are selected by sortition, or lot, so as to be representative of society at large, and accordingly the assemblies are often described as mini-publics. Since participation is voluntary, the selection by lot initially requires the drawing up of a long list of invitees, and checking the positive responses to make sure that the intended broad representativeness of the assembly is not compromised. Commonly it is found that only 8 or 10 percent of invitees respond. Invitations to take part may be delivered by door knocking, so that at least some questions, and possibly fears, can be immediately addressed.

Citizens’ assemblies work by studying the options available on the issue or issues presented to them, or which they themselves have chosen  to address. They work towards proposals for action through discussion where all participants’ voices are heard, and by using various methods of inquiry including questioning experts, stakeholders, officials and politicians. The results and recommendations are presented in public, and on account of the way they have been arrived at can be considered to have a high degree of democratic credibility.

Under our present political system, citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries, mini-publics etc. are a form of consultation, and their power lies in their high degree of democratic authenticity. However, the sponsoring authority needs to commit to transparency and to responding fully and in public to any recommendations. 

Why citizens’ assemblies?

The Democracy R&D network lists ten reasons for making use of Citizens’ Assemblies, in that they are:

Fair: Randomly selecting participants gives every person an equal chance of being selected, regardless of age, gender, location or any other characteristic.

Deliberative: Assembly members work together to identify the pros, cons and trade-offs of policy options, giving you high-quality public judgements backed by considered, easily understood reasons.
Inclusive: They increase the diversity of voices in the decision-making process, allowing very different people to find common ground by focusing on wider community needs. They assure inclusiveness of voice during the assembly through professional facilitation. Powerful: They open up the space for change when tackling ‘wicked problems’ where interest or community groups are blocking progress. They give decision-makers increased confidence that they have broad public support for a proposal, which can gain an immeasurable boost if a Citizens’ Assembly gives it near unanimous support.
Transparent: Using stratified random selection and a clear, open process reduces the influence of vested interests – you will not be engaging with the ‘usual suspects’. Innovative: You will be at the forefront of democratic innovation and citizen empowerment and engagement.
Effective: Hundreds of examples from around the world have shown that citizens’ assemblies work. Research shows that diverse groups of people are better decision-makers than homogeneous groups. Legitimate: They increase the legitimacy of public policy-making by enabling a representative cross-section of people to inform the decision.
Informed: People develop an informed, critical understanding of complex policy decisions, hearing from and questioning a variety of experts and stakeholders. Trusted: People like the outcomes as decisions are made by ‘people like me’.

What is sortition and why is it used?

Sortition simply means selection by lot. We are all familiar with it as the basis of how juries are selected. The reason for using sortition is to obtain a bunch of people who are representative of the makeup of the population as a whole. Thus, if the sortition is correctly conducted, the collection of participants will, so far as possible, represent the gender, ethnicity, financial status, housing status, education level and so on which is found in the community at large. What is specifically excluded from consideration, even if it were knowable, is what political party, if any, the participant supports. An assembly of participants selected by sortition is free to deliberate in the interest of the community at large. They have no future election hanging over them.

This is a very brief description, and the process of applying sortition effectively in any particular context or country has to be worked out. People have to get used to it, and then it will seem normal. 

Won’t it be difficult for people to take part?

To a degree, yes. Commonly an assembly will meet over a number of weekends spread over some weeks or months. To try to minimise the downside of taking part, it is usual to pay participants a daily sum for attending, and to reimburse travel, and sometimes other, costs associated with taking part.

A  feature of citizens’ assemblies is that, from the point of view of individual participants, they are usually one-off. Anyone willing to take part has an equal chance of being invited to participate, and once they have taken part and contributed to the report and recommendations (or demands?) on the topics to hand, they are off the list for the next assembly. Thus the time commitment for individuals is limited. Also, in this way, over time, if this kind of assembly becomes a regular feature, a larger and larger body of citizens will have taken part and found out how empowering the experience is. Although this site has been called “our voice”, actually the listening respectfully to others, whether or not we initially agree with them, is in many ways the  key to a citizens’ assembly. The assemblies do not speak for political party, for particular interest groups, or for any individual, they speak for the country as a whole.

What examples are there?

There are descriptions of citizens’ assemblies that have been tried, generally not in Aotearoa New Zealand, in the “examples” section of the menu above. This section will be added as time goes on. Many of the examples are very inspiring, and there are a number of short videos describing the process, some also with comments from participants. Take a look. One thing you will notice is that most of the assemblies have been sponsored and organised by government, whether local, state or national. Whilst the assemblies themselves seem generally to work well internally, the response of the sponsoring authorities, politicians local or central, has sometimes been wanting. 

What is happening in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Unfortunately, so far as I know, not a lot. Hence this website. Whichever route to initiate the use of citizens’ assemblies here is followed, a lot needs to be done to get up and running. Let us hear what you think. Any and all help and suggestions for moving forward will be welcome.

A possible and urgent topic is to see what a citizens’ assembly could do in the climate change space, and one of the demands of the Extinction Rebellion is that government, local or national, create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly.

One advantage of citizens’ assemblies is that they are free of the constraints of the electoral cycle, and can deliberate and act for the long-term on issues where politicians are often reluctant to act boldly for fear of the electoral consequences. That having been said, it would still be useful to hold assemblies in the run-up to elections so that citizens’ considered suggestions and recommendations can inform the electoral process and influence political parties’ policy offerings.

Register your interest and join the discussion

Do you want to get involved, to whatever degree you can manage? There was a contact form, but it has only attracted spam entries so I have deleted it. If anyone wants to contribute to this site send me an email to johnst at inspire dot net dot nz. Thanks.