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Voters Don’t Have a Voice in Governance. Citizen Assemblies Could Be the Answer.

What will it take for U.S. politicians to provide outlets for a consequential voice to citizens between elections?

People gather during the G1000 citizen's summit in Brussels where 1000 citizens will discuss social security, immigration and other subjects concerning democracy and the future of Belgium. The G1000 is based on the idea that Belgium's recent political crisis is not only a Belgian crisis, but a wider crisis for democracy on November 11, 2011.

Elected representatives from a broad range of Western democracies beyond the United States are taking bold measures to give real voice to citizens in decision-making. Confronted with protests, polarization and pessimism, countries such as Canada, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands are recognizing the need for a system of governance that is more inclusive and responsive. They are introducing innovative deliberative citizens’ assemblies that offer a consequential voice in policy making.

Our leaders in the U.S. have so far chosen to abstain from this movement, focusing instead on partisan politicking that sporadically ignites the base but does nothing to engage citizens in meaningful dialogue about how to solve our toughest challenges. The results are uninspiring — 83 percent of U.S. citizens feel there isn’t an adequate system in place for their voice to be heard.

Based on my work in Europe and Canada over the last two years, our Western allies no longer look to us as role models of democratic innovation. During a trip to Brussels and Milan, I sat down with parliamentarians, political party presidents and city representatives about the growing role of citizen assemblies.

I first met Magali Plovie, president of the French-speaking Brussels Parliament, in 2021, when she and parliamentary Democratic Innovation Advisor Jonathan Moskovic had initiated a pilot program of deliberative committees in Parliament. That same year, I observed the Committee on Homelessness and researched the process by which 42 residents and 16 Parliament members learned, deliberated and drafted a series of policy proposals for government. Deliberative committees are now embedded in the Brussels Parliament.

Parliament President Plovie told Truthout that this model is “the result of broad and trans-partisan reflection and lessons learned from other leading deliberative processes.” She has even greater ambitions: “We would like to move to co-decision[-making] between citizens and parliamentarians, which the Belgian Constitution currently prevents us from doing.” She added, “and to introduce a citizenship leave, like the jury system, to allow all citizens to participate.”

I also spent two days with the G1000’s “We Need To Talk” initiative. Their citizens’ panel consists of 60 Belgian residents selected by democratic lottery to learn, deliberate and provide recommendations on greater transparency and accountability in political campaign financing. They will be presenting their proposals to government later this month.

Several of the panelists asked whether political parties would consider giving citizens more voice in between elections by investing in citizens’ assemblies.

In Milan, I joined the Federation for Innovation in Democracy Europe’s workshop on climate assemblies. This was an enriching opportunity for government representatives, practitioners and researchers to discuss current issues in the field of deliberation. For instance, we learned that despite the political challenges in Hungary, progressive mayors are implementing municipal climate-related assemblies. Meanwhile, an impressive national assembly is being designed in Switzerland for 16- to 24-year-olds, with youth voting to select the topic. So far, mental health is their top priority.

We discussed the grant-making initiative I co-direct with Peter MacLeod, founder and principal of MASS LBP, the Democratic Action Fund (DAF). The idea is simple: Governments — national, statewide and municipal — allocate 5-10 percent of the amount they spend on elections to set up a fund for deliberative citizen engagement.

In an environment in which defense and national security budgets are growing, there are limited funds for meaningful citizen engagement. DAFs accelerate the number of citizens’ assemblies and create more opportunities for citizens to engage at every level of government. Funds also provide a collective space to develop best practices and lessons learned.

By erecting a national deliberation tent, DAFs strengthen existing representative structures, enhance knowledge and build cohesion. They also provide citizens with a meaningful and consequential voice, create greater buy-in and legitimacy for tackling challenging societal issues, generate stronger policy outcomes and enhance public trust in democratic institutions.

From December 2022 to March 2023, I served as guarantor of the French Citizens’ Convention on the End of Life and witnessed the coming together of a 184-person assembly as they learned, deliberated, built community and offered their final report to French President Emmanuel Macron at a reception at the Elysée Palace. With 76 percent of participants broadly in favor of assisted suicide and euthanasia, President Macron has asked the National Assembly to introduce a legal framework for change by the end of the summer.

The convention’s policy outcomes have yet to be fully realized, and there have been mixed reviews of Macron’s participative legacy (critics have called it a form of “participative authoritarianism”), especially given recent uprisings over police-perpetrated killings and rollbacks of pension and retirement benefits. However, given the success of this experience, the French president has indicated that other citizens’ assemblies will soon follow to tackle other complicated and pressing social issues.

Still, as Brussels parliamentary Democratic Innovation Advisor Moskovic stresses, “The institutionalization at the very heart of government institutions has allowed us to enter a truly citizen-centric democracy, inclusive and radical, to respond to the major challenges of our time.”

Meanwhile, cities across the U.S. are struggling to house those experiencing homelessness, protect residents from escalating gun violence and provide adequate medical care and support to those struggling with opioid addiction. What will it take for our politicians to show some democratic vision, expand their definition of citizen engagement and learn from these models that provide consequential voice to citizens in between elections?

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