The "Bürgerrat Demokratie" is a mini-public on the national level, initiated by the German NGO "Mehr Demokratie " and the "Schöpflin Foundation". The organizations ifok and nexus were responsible for the planning and implementation of Germany’s first federal Citizens’ Assembly.
Problems and Purpose
The Bürgerrat Demokratie (Citizens‘ Assembly on Democracy) was the first sortition-based nationwide citizens’ assembly in Germany.
In September 2019, 160 citizens selected by sortition from the population registers drew up recommendations for strengthening democracy. The initiative focused on the question of "whether and in what form our proven parliamentary representative democracy can be supplemented by further elements of citizen participation and direct democracy".
Background History and Context
In their coalition agreement of 2018, the CDU, CSU and SPD agreed to convene an expert commission on democracy. It was to "draw up proposals as to whether and in what form our tried and tested parliamentary representative democracy can be supplemented by further elements of citizen participation and direct democracy. In addition, proposals for strengthening democratic processes were to be developed". The Citizens' Assembly on Democracy was to accompany the work of the expert commission. As of April 2020, no such commission has been established.
The model for the Citizens' Council on Democracy was the Citizen’s Assembly and its forerunner the Constitutional Convention in Ireland, whose proposals on marriage for same-sex couples and the right to abortion received broad majorities in referenda.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Citizens' Assembly on Democracy was initiated by Mehr Demokratie, a non-governmental organisation, and the Schöpflin Foundation, and supported by the Mercator Foundation. For its practical implementation, they worked together with IFOK and the Nexus Institute. Former Bavarian Prime Minister Günther Beckstein (CSU), was appointed as chairman of the Citizens' Assembly.
An advisory board with members from civil society and academia was formed to accompany the Citizens' Assembly.
The cost of implementing the Citizens' Assembly for Democracy was 1.5 million euro. The financing was made possible by the Schöpflin Foundation and the Mercator Foundation.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
For the sortition, 98 municipalities throughout Germany were contacted and asked to provide randomly compiled address data. All regions of Germany and all different sizes of municipalities were to be represented. All German citizens over the age of 16 could be drawn by lot. In the drawing of lots, care was taken to ensure that the participants in the citizens' council represented as accurate a picture of the population as possible according to gender, age group, level of education, size of residential area, and possible migration background.
First of all, communities were drawn at random from the official list of municipalities in all federal states. An application was made to the residents' registration offices in these municipalities to draw a random sample of their citizens and to make this sample available to the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy for sending invitations.
The voting ratio in the German Federal Council served as a guide for the distribution of the sample among the federal states. The 160 participants in the Citizens' Assembly ultimately came from 49 cities and municipalities. A total of 250 people applied to participate.
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
In preparation for the actual citizens' assembly meeting, regional conferences were held in Erfurt, Gütersloh, Koblenz, Mannheim, Munich, and Schwerin, in which all interested citizens could participate and discuss necessary changes and additions to democracy together with regional members of parliament from all parties represented in the Bundestag.
The Citizens' Council on Democracy took place in Leipzig on 14-15 and 28-29 September 2019. Various experts such as Benjamin Höhne, Andrea Verpoorten and Ralf-Uwe Beck, as well as civil society organisers such as Lobbycontrol and Mehr Demokratie gave lectures on topics such as lobbyism, transparency, citizen participation, and direct democracy.
The discussions of the Citizens' Council resulted in 22 recommendations for democratic action, which the members of the Citizens' Council adopted individually on the last day.
On 18 June 2020, the Council of Elders of the German Bundestag decided to hold a sortition-based citizens' assembly to present recommendations on Germany's role in the world. These recommendations were intended to provide the parliamentary groups with an additional basis for further development of political and regulatory ideas and programs. Similar to the "Citizens' Assembly on Democracy" in 2019, 160 citizens drawn by lot would deliberate with experts for over three weekends and develop recommendations for action.
These are to be made available in the form of a citizens' report in the beginning of 2021. The President of the German Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble, explained that in addition to dealing with the above-mentioned topic, it was also aimed at investigating whether such a new instrument would be suitable for supporting parliamentary work and developing a format suitable for Germany's federal structures. The President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble, has assumed patronage through the citizens' assembly. The institutionalization of citizens' assemblies was one of the 22 recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy.
As part of a "Tag für die Demorkatie" (Day for Democracy), the citizens' report with the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy was presented to the President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble, in Berlin on 15 November 2019. He accepted the report on behalf of the entire Bundestag and emphasised how important the citizens’ assembly approach is.
Also on November 15, an artistic event for the Citizens' Assembly took place in front of the Berlin Reichstag. A large spiral - made of shiny gold fabric and hundreds of people – was erected in front of the Reichstag building, representing the shape of the Reichstag dome. The intention was to symbolically build a bridge from the people on the ground to the politicians in the Bundestag. The aerial art action "Democracy for Future" was planned and executed by the artist John Quigley.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
After the presentation of the citizens' report, sortition-selected members of the Citizens' Assembly and representatives of the supporting organisations of the assembly began talks with members of parliament at various levels in order to convince them to implement the 22 recommendations, as well as citizens’ assemblies as an instrument of democracy.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The inaugural press conference of the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy was broadcasted live on the Phoenix channel. Various voices from the world of politics expressed support for citizens' assemblies as an instrument of democracy:
- Britta Haßelmann, parliamentary leader of the Green Party in the Bundestag, explained, "The impulse from the citizens for more participation deserves appreciation and must be taken up in the Bundestag. We need a new start for more citizen participation at the federal level".
- Marco Buschmann, parliamentary manager of the FDP parliamentary group, said, "I hope that barriers can be overcome by citizens' assemblies because people are not committed to one political direction, but to the factual problem".
- Kevin Kühnert, deputy federal chairman of the SPD, said, “We must also talk about innovation within our democracy. This can include involving people more between parliamentary elections, for example through citizens' assemblies".
- Stephan Toscani, President of the Saarland Parliament (CDU), commented, "Citizens' forums counteract the polarisation and division in society and thus have a pacifying effect”.
- CDU member of parliament, Thorsten Frei, provided a point of critique: "Referendums reduce complex political issues to yes or no. Citizens' assemblies have no political legitimacy whatsoever. Both can be steered away from facts by moods and financial power".
- The political scientist Hubertus Buchstein said, “When it comes to reflecting the social characteristics and world views of the whole population as well as possible, committees based on sortition are more representative".
Criticism and evaluation
The research centre "Democratic Innovations" of the Goethe University Frankfurt evaluated the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy as an independent body. "The first multi-stage, sortition-based, deliberative participation procedure at federal level in Germany succeeded in dealing intensively with central aspects of democracy and in making 22 recommendations, all of which without exception advocate greater involvement of citizens in politics," the research centre stated in its evaluation report.
Due to the conditional random selection and incentivising mechanisms, the participants had been approximately representative with regard to gender, age and migration background. Participation had led to an increase in the perception of their own political abilities as well as greater approval for more participation. Moreover, the willingness to participate in politics had increased. However, people with a high level of education and a positive attitude towards greater citizen participation had been overrepresented. Furthermore, there had not been enough time to discuss all topics in detail.
In the future, more efforts towards socio-demographic representativeness would be necessary. Methods of so-called "outreach participation" could make a substantial contribution and should be applied more extensively in future procedures. A further recommendation is the institutionalisation and direct connection of sortition-based citizens' assemblies to political institutions.
British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly
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Official website [GERMAN]: https://www.buergerrat.de
Mehr Demokratie e.V. [GERMAN]: https://www.mehr-demokratie.de/ [ENGLISH]: https://www.mehr-demokratie.de/english-news-more-democracy/