Selecting members of a Citizens’ Assembly

This is an extract from Tony Czarnecki’s book: ‘Democracy for a Human Federation’

I consider Citizens Assemblies as an intermediary stage in partially devolving political decision-making to citizens. Ultimately, constitutional changes should lead to establishing a Citizens’ Chamber, in which case Citizens’ Assemblies may only be needed in very exceptional circumstances, like debating a new Constitution. In any case, Citizens’ Assemblies, even if they are used in the interim period before Citizens’ Chambers take over, may become a powerful tool in improving democracy in the age of rising populism, making citizens more closely involved in making political decisions.

However, I believe the way how these Assemblies select their members and how they operate needs some modification. The method, in which Citizens Assemblies have been operating so far, may be the consequence of simply copying the Roman procedures for calling members for a jury service, which are still in use in a judicial process in the Anglo-Saxon world. I agree with the basic principle that the members of the Citizens’ Assembly should be selected randomly from the electoral roll. However, the need for such a random selection for a jury service and for making important political decisions is entirely different from that for a Citizens’ Assembly. In the jury service, the only decision that a juror has to make is always a binary one: guilty or not guilty. In a Citizens’ Assembly, the members have to make many decisions on usually very complex problems, where there can be many recommended solutions with a wide variety of opinions among the members. That requires a certain degree of knowledge, which is not essential in the jury service.

Furthermore, the members of the Assembly are only selected at the time, when the need to apply this method for making an important political decision is made, for example, as a substitute of a referendum, As far as I am aware, there have been no case when the members of the Citizens’ Assembly have been selected far in advance, before the need for such an Assembly may arise. I do not think this is right and therefore, I propose a different system of selecting and running a Citizens’ Assembly.

Although we cannot substitute a representative democracy with a direct democracy, we should still be able to deliver the positive results of a system of direct democracy, such as used in Switzerland. However, Swiss do not call their referenda once or twice in a decade, they have on average 10 referenda in a single year. Therefore, to achieve a similar impact, major changes are required in the selection process of representatives to a Citizens’ Assembly. In a nutshell, it should not be a one-off process but a continuous one. It must enable the selection of the candidates for the Assembly far in advance of such an Assembly being called, so that its members are properly prepared for making complex political decisions, which may have to be made in a matter of weeks, rather than years. This is how I propose to carry out the entire process:

  1. A Citizens’ Assembly is a separate institution of a democratic system, whose role is to select the most favoured option to legislate from several ones proposed by the Parliament. Once such an option is supported by the Assembly, it must be put into law by the Parliament.
  2. Not all laws will have to be passed from the Parliament to the Citizens’ Assembly, but only those, which are modified twice by the Upper House of the Parliament
  3. The Citizens’ Assembly is only able to propose a new law, if it receives a Citizens’ Petition, which needs the support of a minimum 5% of the voters on the electoral register. Such a petition, is then passed on to the Parliament if it is supported by a simple majority of the Citizens’ Assembly members
  4. That resolution will not become law but will have to be considered by the legislative body to make it a specific law, unless e.g. 2/3 of the Parliament rejects it
  5. Every year, at any level of government, there will be a number of citizens randomly selected from the electoral register to serve on the Citizens’ Assembly
  6. The whole process of random selection would be carried out and supervised by an Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)
  7. The candidates may have to meet certain criteria, such as age, e.g. the same as for the elections to a parliament, or a minimum level of education. There could also be more complex criteria for selecting candidates, but perhaps more beneficial for the society. This might include selecting randomly, say 30% of the candidates with no initial pre-screening for education, another 40% with a minimum secondary education, the next 20% might include university graduates, and the final 10% might consist of technology specialists, scientists, lawyers, voluntary sector etc.
  8. The selected candidates have the right to decline the offer to join the Citizens’ Assembly team. That’s a departure from the Anglo- Saxon Jury service, where a person called randomly to serve on the Jury must perform his duty, since this is a legal requirement, unless he can be excluded for specific reasons, such as a long-term illness
  9. Once the candidates pass the selection criteria and agree to serve as a member of the Assembly, they join a stand-by pool of the candidates for becoming a member of the Citizens’ Assembly. For each seat in the Assembly there may be 3 stand-by candidates
  10. Only one of them will be selected to serve as a member of the Citizens’ Assembly for two years. A new candidate will be randomly selected from the electoral register to replace him in the stand-by pool, so there will always be 3 candidates in the pool. The candidates remain in the stand-by pool for a period of 2 years, when they are released from that duty, unless they are selected as a member of the Assembly. They can resign from the service upon giving a notice to leave.
  11. The candidates in the stand-by pool undergo training and coaching courses over a certain period on how the government works and what are the rights and obligations of a member of the Assembly. They are also regularly briefed on the current proceedings of the Assembly and may attend the sessions as a non-voting representative. They are remunerated for being a candidate in the Assembly in the stand-by pool
  12. The members of the Citizens’ Assembly are paid the national public sector average salary for the time when they actually attend the Citizens’ Assembly’s meetings plus any expenses
  13. Members of the Citizens’ Assembly, have their job legally protected, should this be necessary. They have a legal duty to provide all the information on their education and skills they have. They would also have to sign the Official Secrets Act and other necessary documents, swear under oath that they agree to represent their constituents honestly, without prejudice and maintain the secrecy of the debates, if required, under the same penalties as for government officials
  14. The members of the Citizens’ Assembly are supported by a dedicated officer in all matters related to performing their duties
  15. A member of the Citizens’ Assembly cannot be recalled for any reason unless he disobeys the rules of the service. Since he is accountable to nobody, because he has been selected and not elected, the only way of removing him from the service would be by the members themselves, following the adopted procedures for a member’s recall.

Once the members of Citizens’ Assembly have been randomly selected, they may be later on allocated to smaller groups on specific subjects being debated by the Assembly. That should also be carried out using a random process, which may take into account many criteria, such as profession, education, social groups, religious groups etc. Doing it manually is not straightforward. However, Sortition Foundation has created a specialist software tool, called Table Allocation Manager, which may significantly simplify the whole process.

Citizens’ Assemblies, or if it exists, a Citizens’ Chamber, will replace referenda.