The first Citizens' Assembly organized by the non-profit Citizens' Forum (Fórum dos Cidadãos) in Lisbon deliberated a proposal to 'improve communication between citizens and politicians.' The outcomes were communicated to politicians and members of the public.
Problems and Purpose
The Fórum dos Cidadãos, a non-partisan civil society project, aimed to establish itself as a new institution in Portuguese civil society. The central problem that the Fórum observes is the current democratic deficit and the widening gap between representatives and those they represent, i.e. the disparity between the political elites and citizens' demands. Thus, believing in the importance of a linking organ between the agent (representative) and the principal (the citizen) at the national level, the Fórum aimed to translate the national agenda to citizens and vice versa. One of the questions the first Fórum tried to tackle was "how can we improve the communication between citizens and their representatives?"
Fórum dos Cidadãos held its first forum from January 7 to 8, 2017. The purpose was to reinvigorate Portuguese democracy by making the informed voice of ordinary citizens heard on major issues. Thus, the Fórum works towards bringing the voice of citizens to the centre of decision-making. In other words, it serves as an alternative to the populist currents that rage for Europe and beyond. Its mission is to strengthen democracy in Portugal through encouraging the informed and reflected voice of Portuguese citizens. One of the positive sides of the Fórum is that the leaders are professional political scientists, authors and professors in higher institutions – who are working to bridge the divide between the citizens and representatives in Portugal.
Background History and Context
Democratic deficits – a mismatch between expectation and reality – in turn give rise to public dissatisfaction. Often it is argued that deliberative democracy will fill this gap. Dryzek notes that the term deliberative democracy was first used by Joseph Bessette (1980) in the context of an interpretation of the United States constitution as a set of principles to ensure effective public deliberation, especially within Congress. For Avritzer, “public sphere lies between the market and the state and involves individual communications and deliberations trough face to face interaction”. Thus, it is worth noting that the deliberative process is not just simply looking to persuade others, rather it involves awareness of differences but not complete otherness and openness to other people's perspective that transcends the deliberation: a “transformation of preference."
Cognisant of the growing democratic deficit and the importance of the "transformative" nature of deliberative democracy, the Fórum dos Cidadãos was established in 2017 and organized its first Citizens' Assembly in January of the same year. The Assembly was designed to give randomly selected citizens the ability to deliberate over issues and develop critical reports for the relevant bodies.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Forum was funded by the New University of Lisbon and the Gulbenkian Institute of Science and has the support of personalities such as former CDS-PP leader, Adriano Moreira; State Councilor, Eduardo Lourenço; the former Presidential candidate, Henrique Neto; and former ministers David Justino, Margarida Mano, and Manuel Maria Carrilho. Most of the organization's full time staff include academics from the University of New York, the University of Leeds, the Gulbenkian Institute of Science, and the Instituto Superior Tecnico. Their Advisory Board is made up of various professionals in the field of democratic innovation including the Jefferson Center's Kyle Bozentko and Kenneth Carty of the University of British Columbia and a lead architect behind British Columbia's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
A panel of 15 citizens—picked at random to capture the diversity of Portuguese society—discussed different proposals for improving the communication between citizens and their representatives. Their goal was to identify the most promising ideas and elaborate a brief proposal summarizing them. Introductory lectures were given to the participants by political scientists, journalists and MPs.
Methods and Tools Used
The Fórum's events use the Citizens' Assembly methodology, bringing together ordinary citizens with experts, facilitators, political analysts, and other professionals. Once deliberation is accomplished, the Fórum develops recommendations and disseminates them through online and offline services. These Citizens' Assemblies are regularly organized on diverse and timely issues so public debate can be properly informed and structured, making the public voice heard.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The first Citizens' Assembly brought together 15 randomly selected representatives of society to deliberate a proposal “to improve communication between citizens and politicians.”
The following are the proposals the participants brought to the table:
- The platform “Eu Conto” + Citizens' Councils: a platform where citizens are able to express their concern regarding a particular piece of legislation. That is, potential laws that could get majority support of the citizens shall be analyzed by the "citizens’' council" – an independent body which would consist of 20 randomly selected experts, citizens who expressed an interest in that bill and citizens drawn at random from the electoral register. Finally, the findings of the Citizen's Council shall be made public – in the national parliament ahead of the parliamentary vote.
- Civic Education: aims to promote democracy in everyday practice of citizenship and it covers all levels of the school system. Thus, the proposal is that students be involved in collective decision-making, from an early age, on issues which are relevant to their daily lives. This proposal takes a radical approach in the sense that students will be considered as citizens to be continuously included in decision-making processes that are appropriate to their level of understanding.
- "Verifier": This is a platform where citizens can take part in deliberative process through online channels – citizens can question, comment, or support certain motions. “Verifier” is an NGO – impartial and independent body – and serves periodically as "promise checkers" and "explainers".
Influence, Outcome, and Effects
On January 17th, the participants brought their proposals to the President of the Republic as well as to the public. The participants were from among the well-known names in Portuguese civil society, academics, and other interested members of the public. The Fórum brought together prominent politicians, MPs, and citizens. The President of the Republic also gave recognition to the Fórum.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The Fórum's civil society-organized Citizens' Assembly was not only the first for the organization, but was the first of its kind in Lisbon focusing on how politicians should listen to the views of the public. The main achievement was that the divide between the representatives and the represented could be addressed. This work of bridging the gap – and the proposals developed to address this issue – are fundamental. The proposed strategies and areas of focus – deliberation on the future of bills – was broad enough to translate the interest of the public to the representatives and vice versa.
 Drzek, John S. (2000) “Deliberative Democracy and Beyond. Liberals, Critics, Contestations.” Oxford University Press. p. 12
 Avritzer, Leonardi (2002) Democracy and the Public Sphere in latin America. Priceton University Press. p. 5
 Young, Iris Marion (1996) “Communication and the Other: Beyond deliberative democracy.” In: Democracy and Difference. Contesting the boundaries of the Political. Prince University Press. New Jersey. p. 128
 "Quem Somos" (2016). Forum dos Cicados. http://www.forumdoscidadaos.pt/quem-somos/organizadores/