What is a Citizens’ Chamber?

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

Should Citizens’ Assemblies be used on a larger scale to improve democracy by becoming, for example, the second chamber of a parliamentary system? If we accept that as possible in principle, then any proposal for a Citizens’ Chamber would have to provide answers to the following questions:

  • Should sortition terms be longer or shorter? Longer terms allow for better competency but also more potential for corruption, as well as more potential for the emergence of factions, which are likely to undermine the quality of deliberation.
  • Should Citizens’ Chamber be a permanent body of legislation, when individual members join and leave after one full term, say 6 years, and can be replaced ‘on-the-go’ from a pool of waiting sortition members. That would create an asynchronous legislation system, where MPs could be elected every 4 years while Citizens’ Chamber will be there permanently, since its members would be joining and leaving the chamber at random dates.
  • Should sortition debates be held secret or made public? Secrecy can enhance deliberation, prevent corruption, and protect members from embarrassment, but it risks undermining accountability.
  • Should there be some minimum level of competency, e.g. education or experience required, even if this undermines the principle of perfectly random selection of population’s representation?
  • Should the Citizens’ Chamber have the rights to propose legislation on their own (set the agenda) or only vote on the legislation proposed by the lower chamber of parliament?
  • Does the Citizens’ Chamber need a special body covering administration or supervision (on formal matters only)?
  • How should the relationships between the Citizens’ Chamber and the lower chamber of the parliament (the elected MPs) be regulated? Should both houses of the parliament have equal powers of approving or rejecting legislation or one of the chambers would have the ultimate ‘upper hand’?
  • How to ensure quality debates by the Citizens’ Chamber? Should it be supported by a special independent ‘advisory’ body or a period of training and coaching/mentoring by experts before the member could take part in voting a legislation?

There are already a number of proposals answering some of the above questions. For example, Tom Malleson in his research paper: “Should Democracy Work Through Elections or Sortition?” proposes a solution to the problem of lack of sufficient knowledge by the sortition members. He suggests supporting them with experts that would be part of an independent body ‘running the sortition’ as e.g. Citizens’ Support Office. Using this knowledge, it would be plausible to envisage a well-functioning (though imperfect) Citizens’ Chamber as the second chamber of the Parliament. It could be an independent body on its own, or consisting mainly of sortition members but also including (as a minority), elected Senators (to differentiate them from MPs). Such a Citizens’ Chamber could be divided up into major branches of public policy and form committees. Skilful moderation and facilitation can foster relatively equal member participation free from the pressures from the public and the media.

The existence of two chambers implies that an optimal democratic system would need a mechanism for putting legislative proposals into law. The main reason for having a bicameral system is that elections and sortition each offer a different type of representation. In an elected chamber, the aim is to have representatives who would take into account the needs of the entire population. In such a chamber, discussion would be between the MPs who play a role as delegates with limited independence.

By contrast, in a Citizens’ Chamber, the aim would be to have a statistically accurate sample of the population. The sortition members are not delegates as such (they represent themselves) and therefore have substantial independence to change their minds. In other words, combining both mechanisms would allow the society to benefit from having representatives of actually existing interests and needs of the whole population as well as hypothetical interests and needs generated by totally independent sortition members. Both points of view are valuable and would result in a much better fulfilment of what a given nation really wants and how it wishes to be governed.

A Citizens’ Chamber faces some difficult issues such as people with lower education, as well as the problem of complexity arising from the complicated nature of issues, almost all of which have budgetary implications. In theory, a sortition body might overcome such difficulties through having adequate periods of a prior training.

For an average member of the Citizens’ Chamber, the complexity of the issues discussed in the Parliament might be a significant problem. It could be resolved in some way by setting up a separate independent body e.g. Citizens’ Support Office to deal with ‘competence and complexity problem’ that the members of the Citizens’ Chamber may face. However, I would also believe that this is probably one of the most attractive proposals that could change quite fundamentally the way that we are governed and although not without risks, it should be started in some form on a wider scale as soon as possible.