Democracy is more than just Citizens’ Assemblies!

How one-eyed lobbying for one perceived solution can make people blind to other solutions…and the reasons why we’re NOT advocating for a Citizens’ Assembly on Suicide Prevention!

In recent Twitter exchanges with representatives of The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby, I’ve been told that Citizens’ Assemblies are “the only way” to fix our democracies. When anyone tells you that anything is ‘the only way’, we can be sure that it isn’t, it isn’t democracy, this ‘one way’ is not being fully scrutinised, and there may well be better alternatives that are not being considered by those with the blinkers on!

There are so many ways we can improve our democracy, it’s important not to just get obsessively focused on what we might think is one way or the best way to enhance democracy to the point of stifling discussion and debate around all the alternatives. Indeed, to do so deliberately is anti-democratic!

With the many failures of our democracies — and there seems to be a high degree of agreement that there are problems to be solved here and on many dimensions of what these problems are — it’s important to have width of vision in seeking ways to reform and enhance our democracies.

In many countries, we perceive flaws and weaknesses in electoral democracy or representation democracy and there are many possible solutions such as:

a) reforming the voting system (eg proportional representation rather than ‘first past the post’ majoritarian systems, multi-member constituencies, etc — we have many different systems around the world to study what helps and what harms democracy, and all of them can be improved)

b) compulsory voting (which Australia has so we can study its benefits and drawbacks) or ways of increasing voter registration and turnout

c) qualified or conditional voting (voting for a candidate or party with qualifications or conditions to address the problem of ‘elective dictatorship’ and claiming a ‘mandate for everything’, and flagging specific issues for public conversations and/or referenda)

d) limits on party political power, limits on election spending

e) quotas in parliament or co-option of members to make chambers more representative of the population they’re intended to serve

f) re-designing parliamentary chambers so they’re designed for round-table discussions and listening rather than adversarial political theatre

g) re-designing parliamentary structures, systems and ways of working so they’re more sensitive to the needs of parents, people living with disability, etc to facilitate a more ‘representative’ body.

h) having regional chambers and MPs meeting in a range of physical locations and online rather than in one central location, usually a capital city with institutionalised lobbying and ‘protective bubbles’

i) having ‘Listening Time’ replace Prime Minister’s Question Time with citizens submitting questions which Ministers don’t see in advance

j) an anti-corruption commission with the power to investigate reported cases of corruption and abuse of political power

k) a standing ‘Transparency and Accountability Commission’ to permanently monitor decision-making processes, key decisions, allocation of resources, claims and justifications, and publish fact checks, with the teeth to prosecute where there are breaches of legislation, regulation, agreed protocols, and ethical guidelines

l) second chambers, or third chambers, designed to complement first chambers, scrutinise first chambers, and perform very different functions, including facilitating ground-up input into the parliamentary system.

And the list above was just quickly off the top of my head. I’m sure you can think of many more potential reforms to your own political and electoral systems wherever you are.

In addition to reforming the systems, structures and culture of our representation democracy and all of the other component parts of our democratic institutions, we have a diverse toolkit of citizen research, community engagement, and participative democracy approaches for involving large, diverse, and inclusive groups of citizens as appropriate for any given issue.

As I’ve practiced for decades and written about previously, we can devise ways to involve anyone and everyone we want, it’s a case of ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’, including making sure everyone has ‘digital access’ and appropriate support to be able to fully participate online (congratulations to Leeds, York and the many other cities taking practical steps to provide digital access and support for all who need it and want it):

And of course there are also a wide range of deliberative democracy processes, with new ones emerging, of which citizens’ assemblies are just one model or tool, to be deployed when appropriate.

However, The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby has been growing fast in the past two years, in numbers, prominence, and strength of promotion of its particular Citizens’ Assembly product (for some, citizens’ assemblies are a flexible, adaptable tool for public engagement but The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby has defined it as a prescribed product, including those whose core business is now providing that product, so we need to challenge and question!).

Whatever issue is raised — from the global Climate Emergency to improving our local town centres — The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby says the solution is…a Citizens’ Assembly!

Indeed, even before anyone has raised a specific issue, they say a Citizens’ Assembly is the answer. It’s like someone who only has a hammer seeing everything as a nail!

Citizens’ Assemblies are being advocated for local democracy, although thankfully at the local level there are many diverse established and emerging means of involving people in decisions that affect their lives, and Citizens’ Assemblies have less traction, partly because of their cost, but mainly because there are better ways of involving many more citizens in healthy wide and deep democracy approaches rather than the narrow, exclusive, technocratic process the Citizens’ Assembly product has recently become.

Citizens’ assemblies could, and in some cases should, be one of several approaches used but the more they’re promoted as “the one tool you need” by The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby, the more likely Councils are to be understandably sceptical and look for other, better options.

The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby is increasingly pushing for nationwide, EU-wide, and global Citizens’ Assemblies, very assertively, often with little humility, and sometimes with dangerous delusion.

Recent Tweets have told us the latest proposals for global Citizens’ Assemblies are designed to “democratise the world” and give “everyone on the planet an equal right to be involved”!

Big claims to make, hard to justify. In an unequal world with so many people powerless, we need to ask if a pseudo-scientific or pseudo-statistical approach to involving citizens in institutionalised, exclusive processes or a ‘Buggins’ Turn Democracy’ is likely to help, and also check the potential harms.

Clearly as we go higher up, it gets more difficult to influence political agendas and involve people in key decisions, which is why cultural change is needed as well as structural change.

However, The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby has recently demonstrated its unswerving faith in the magical ability of a single tool to change the world by advocating for a ‘Global Citizens’ Assembly’.

I’ve made a few comments about this ‘AssemblyWorld’ and the latest developments on Twitter:

The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby now frequently advocates for a “permanent Citizens’ Assembly” or “permanent Sortition Chamber”, completing the citizens’ assembly journey from a flexible, adaptable public engagement tool to be used as one of several methods in a tailored, fit-for-purpose citizen involvement approach to a specific, stand alone Citizens’ Assembly product which claims to be the answer to all the ills in our society and politics...from democracy to technocracy to ‘dictatorship’ in the form of ‘this is the only way’!

Supporters of citizens’ assemblies and mini-publics used to look like democracy advocates. These days, they sound like snake oil salesmen! If these approaches really are of benefit to our democracy, why all the hype? I saw another Tweet this week saying these methods have ‘moved mountains’ but no evidence to support such a ludicrous claim of course.

The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby has developed another toolkit — its promotional narratives and stock lines it uses to sell its product, such as “Democracy is more than just elections”. Absolutely right. It always has been and always will be.

A healthy democracy has wide participation and the right for citizens to be involved in decisions that affect their lives; open conversations, discussion, deliberation, debate on all key issues; electoral democracy and parliamentary democracy with citizens having the right to vote in free, fair elections with appropriate and fit-for-purpose representation democracy; transparency and accountability; a fair, functioning system of justice that we have confidence in; a media we have confidence in who can hold institutions to account and challenge those with power and influence; and digital democracy.

There’s much scope for improvement there of course, which is why we must be constantly seeking reform of all component parts of our democracy. We’re only as strong as the weakest link in these interacting democratic dynamics.

However, The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby has become so obsessed with just one component part, one tool, one product, we now feel the need to say “Democracy is more than just Citizens’ Assemblies” on a regular basis. I heard this comment many times during the recent EU Citizens’ Engagement and Deliberative Democracy Festival, so maybe the tide has finally turned.

One of The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby’s gurus (and leader of the ‘Buggins’ Turn Democracy’ movement), Helene Landemore has contributed to this turning of the tide as, on her book tour (‘Open Democracy’) — which can hopefully open up, she promotes the notion of an all powerful over-arching mini-public which has the final say on decisions above parliament and above high courts. It’s made more people start to go back to first principles and ask “why are we proposing this?” away from the “how can we make this happen?” focus of the past two years where there often was an uncritical acceptance of the benefits of the Citizens’ Assembly model without asking questions about its downsides and without seeking other options..

Complementing Electoral Democracy or Replacing It?

The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby has shifted from advocating for Citizens’ Assemblies as one of many approaches to enhance our democracy, to arguing Citizens’ Assemblies are “the only answer”, to lobbying for second chambers in parliament to be “sortition chambers” (including recently in Scotland), to a more revolutionary agenda — for Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Chambers to replace elections, replace parliaments, replace councils.

At a recent event, another prominent member of The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby declined to comment when I asked if he saw Citizens’ Assemblies as a complement to representation democracy or a replacement for it. Not commenting on such a crucial issue makes this look like there are hidden agendas at play here or a ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy?! And when we know most people see transparency as a key component of a healthy democracy, ‘no comment’ on such a crucial question raises serious issues.

In an ironic (and bizarre) twist, we now have new political parties wanting to run candidates in elections on a ticket of abolishing those elections, replacing them with Citizens’ Assemblies.

We have people and organisations acting in the name of democracy but wanting to abolish the right to vote. The Suffragettes would turn in their graves.

We have an organisation, the Sortition Foundation, set up by an overt campaigner for abolishing representation democracy and replacing it with Citizens’ Assemblies, running a business which provides samples for Citizens’ Assemblies for the very councils, governments, and parliaments The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby wants to abolish.

We’re often told by The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby that representation democracy has failed, our political systems have failed, politicians can’t be trusted, etc and so the answer is…yes, you’ve guessed it…a Citizens’ Assembly.

They often joke of being proud of their one-eyed obsessiveness. But there are some very serious problems here. Aside from all the flaws and limitations in the Citizens’ Assembly model/product and how it’s being marketed at the moment — here’s a few questions you might want to ask yourself and others:

— …the obsession with the Citizens’ Assembly model seems to have stopped people seeking other reforms to our political systems and democracy, and made them blind to anything other than their Citizens’ Assembly product.

Options for a Second Chamber in Scotland?

Last week, I saw a petition from The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby for a second chamber in Scotland to be a Citizens’ Assembly. This completes a process whereby The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby called for a Citizens’ Assembly for Scotland, this exclusive Citizens’ Assembly went ahead (at a cost of £1.4 million to the taxpayer, despite only 100 citizens being involved), this ad hoc Citizens’ Assembly recommended a permanent Citizens’ Assembly for Scotland, and now we have petitions from The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby demanding a permanent Citizens’ Assembly which, no doubt, would advocate for more Citizens’ Assemblies!

At best, it looks like political folly or an academic indulgence. At worst, it now looks like a gravy train.

Oh, and — no surprise — one of the organisations behind the petition in Scotland is…yes, you guessed it…the Sortition Foundation, whose core business is providing samples for Citizens’ Assemblies remember.

And another of the sponsors of the petition is The RSA, a non-democratic organisation whose CEO decided, without any democratic involvement or endorsement from its members (RSA Fellows — I’m one), that it would actively campaign for Citizens’ Assemblies, including in his Annual Lecture in 2018 overtly abandoning broader advocacy for enhancing our democracy in favour of narrowly lobbying for one particular approach or product — the Citizens’ Assembly!

What is the legitimacy, authority and democratic accountability of The RSA in aligning itself to such a narrow, contentious lobby for constitutional change without having the informed explicit support of its Fellows? Not practising what you preach is always eventually exposed as hypocrisy in the deliberative and participative democracy field.

I’ve suggested — tongue-in-cheek, although I know The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby will think it’s a serious proposition — that if The RSA thinks Sortition Democracy is the answer they might wish to consider having their Board of Trustees and Fellowship Council randomly selected from the membership.

As usual, I saw the proposal and petition on social media (and a piece in the mainstream media in The Scotsman) and then a flurry of sheep-like ‘likes’, Retweets, and Shares from members of The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby, with no broader debate, no consideration of the downsides or risks, no consideration of the alternatives for enhancing democracy in Scotland or for having more effective scrutiny of the Scottish Parliament.

So, how about we start discussing and debating other ways of enhancing democracy and scrutiny, rather than trying to push one approach?

Of course The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby would say “yes, let’s deliberate about ways of enhancing democracy and scrutiny…by having a Citizens’ Assembly”, which would then no doubt recommend more Citizens’ Assemblies!

The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby often argues for “institutionalisation” of Citizens’ Assemblies which, of course, means institutionalising this bias, and furthering their own self-interests — those who feel they can better influence policy agendas via tightly-controlled deliberative processes, those who want processes that fit their view of what democracy is and their IQ-based, intellectual-rational worldview, and those for whom Citizens’ Assemblies are now at the heart of their business model.

When I challenged this one-eyed Citizens’ Assembly Lobby on Twitter, it was clear that many people had not thought about alternatives and, in some cases, could not think of alternative ways of enhancing democracy and scrutiny. Again, the blinkers were on. It has to be their Citizens’ Assembly product, ready to go off-the-shelf. Don’t think, just Tweet ‘like’ because it’s another member of the gang promoting a Citizens’ Assembly!

As I said at the beginning of this piece, there are many different ways of enhancing our democracy if we choose to open our minds to all the possibilities, and this applies to setting up a second chamber.

It could have members who are elected but only Independent MPs, so excluding anyone who is a member of a political party, with appropriate policing to check.

It could have rotating membership with a core of Senators and co-opted members for each task in hand, eg drafting a piece of legislation or scrutinising a piece of legislation — involving ‘recognised experts’ and all key stakeholders, including people with relevant ‘lived experience’.

It could be established via ‘random invites’ like the court jury system with suitable compensation for those selected to maximise the number who can take part, with no need for quotas to have a ‘demographically representative profile’ as the technocrats insist in their pseudo-scientific model.

It could be populated entirely by people from minority groups and communities who would otherwise be excluded from the democratic process, including, in almost every case, excluded from ‘randomly selected citizens’ assemblies’.

It could be selected via a civic lottery from all those who put themselves forward — the sortition process used in Ancient Athens (not the technocratic sortition process that is often advocated today).

It could invite applications from ‘everyday citizens’ and be chosen by a randomly selected panel of citizens.

It could invite applications from ‘everyday citizens’ and be selected via a ‘blind merit’ system to reduce potential for discrimination.

Again, the list above is just quickly off the top of my head, not meant to be a comprehensive list.

I’m not suggesting I have ‘the answer’. Indeed, the one thing I’m sure of — echoing Socrates — is I know I don’t have the answer. I’m just trying to open out discussion of all the options, all the ways we can improve our democracy, and challenge those who are closing down discussion of options, especially those shutting down public discussion of anything other than Citizens’ Assemblies.

My entire 35 years involved in participative democracy has been centred on listening from the ground-up, without thinking I have ‘the answer’ and being open-minded and flexible, applying ‘the diamond model’ in opening out all options and appraising them before converging on an agreed approach.

Another thing I know for sure is that when someone tells me ‘this is the only way’, we’ve now got another problem, and whoever says that is part of the problem not part of the solution.

I can see that people are desperate for solutions to the problems they’re passionate about solving, including Climate Emergency, poverty, injustice, discrimination, exclusion, corruption, people not listening, abuse of power, etc. And so they latch on to what they think ‘the answer’ might be. But the one-eyed approach usually doesn’t help and it can harm, especially when that approach itself is exclusive, discriminates, and introduces other forms of injustice and harms to our democracy.

In particular, it’s structurally exclusive and, in putting the degree of power into the hands of such a small number of people that The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby proposes, it would play into the hands of those who want to abuse our democratic systems.

Why We’re NOT Proposing a Citizens’ Assembly on Suicide Prevention

I care passionately about suicide prevention and I know the entire system has failed families like my own who’ve lost people to (preventable) suicides, including being ‘killed by the system’ and let down by politicians afraid to even discuss the issue, and also ‘everyday citizens’ turning a blind eye to what is the biggest killer of 15–44 year olds in many countries, as well as The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby not having suicide/suicide prevention on its radar.

I recently discussed suicide prevention, participative democracy and citizens’ assemblies in an interview with Dr Roslyn Fuller. These issues are more connected than you might first think:

In the past 2 years, I’ve heard hundreds of calls for Citizens’ Assemblies but I’ve never heard anyone call for a Citizens’ Assembly on Suicide Prevention.

When there’s structural bias in our systems, some issues will be swept under the carpet in favour of other issues.

I support The Climate Emergency Lobby, as I think it’s a crucially important issue, but we should recognise that The Climate Emergency Lobby is intertwined with The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby because they see it as a method that favours their cause. And maybe it does, although the evidence so far doesn’t suggest that Climate Assemblies have raised the bar in terms of government action.

When lobbyists argue that an approach is ‘fairer’ and is trying to address discrimination, always watch out for the inequity and discrimination in what they themselves are advocating.

I’ve thought about suggesting to those who are passionate about suicide prevention — a growing number, sadly, as suicide rates rise around the world, with the economic impacts of COVID19 forecast to significantly increase suicide rates over the next 2 years — that we lobby for a Citizens’ Assembly on suicide prevention. But I’ve decided not to. This is for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as a democrat, and a passionate supporter of ground-up participative democracy and community empowerment, I don’t want to be method-led. A major problem we have at the moment is method-led technocrats masquerading as democrats, as highlighted above.

Secondly, politicians in their protective bubbles with their minds closed aren’t going to listen to a single Citizens’ Assembly. As we’ve seen many times with Citizens’ Assemblies which haven’t had accompanying wide participation and broad public conversations, it’s very easy for politicians to ignore them and their recommendations.

Thirdly, the way the Citizens’ Assembly ‘product’ has become defined with The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby insisting that it must be recruited via random invites and demographic quotas to be a ‘random representative sample’, with participants being guided by ‘experts’ before reporting to parliament, it’s likely to fall into the same trap of institutionalised low ambition that other intellectual political processes fall into.

It wouldn’t empower those who have mental illness or who have experienced suicide loss. It’s likely to suggest top-down policy approaches that can perhaps increase the ambition from 10% reduction in suicides in 5 years to 15% or 20%, but not 50%, 75% or towards 100% because the Citizens’ Assembly process tends to be inherently conservative, it’s not transformational.

Fourth, I wouldn’t want to expose people who can be highly vulnerable to the hype of The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby, having their hopes and expectations raised only to be let down, or worse!

And fifth, ‘the answers’ in terms of solutions for suicide prevention are to be found among those facing mental health challenges, facing suicidal crisis, who’ve lost loved ones to suicide, and who have loved ones currently in danger. These are the people we need to listen to, and empower. We need reforms and fundamental change to our democracy that listen to people with lived experience every day, adopt ground-up structures and cultures, and empower these citizens and communities. The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby is proving to be a barrier to our goal of widening participation and giving a voice to marginalised communities.

Ad hoc Citizens’ Assemblies will not address these fundamental failures, especially with the technocratic approach The Citizens’ Assembly Lobby insists on which is ‘expert led’.

The ‘experts’ don’t have the answers here. That’s part of the problem. The ‘experts’ are often a barrier to change, and have helped to create the problem of institutionalised low ambition. Many ‘experts’ are now pushing the technocratic Citizens’ Assembly product (because they like the degree of control it has and the power it gives their voice) including telling us they are trying to “restore trust” via this approach.

Sadly, I often hear families at inquests, lives shattered by losing their loved ones to suicide, saying “the problem was we trusted the experts”.

Institutionalisation Means Institutionalising Problems and Biases!

Permanent Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Chambers just institutionalise the problems and biases, with added problems in terms of questionable democratic legitimacy, intellectualisation, and new forms of exclusion.

And if you think this is ‘the only way to go’, it’s your right, but don’t call it democracy, and don’t tell me it empowers marginalised communities.

Show me that you’ve considered a wide range of ways of involving as many citizens as possible, reforming the structure and culture of our democracy, and empowering disadvantaged communities, and think a Citizens’ Assembly is a part of a package of measures that can help, and we could have a constructive conversation, and possibly make a difference.

Further reading includes:

Citizen & Community Empowerment and Deliberative & Participative Democracy — the human right to be involved in decisions that affect our lives (underlying trends shaping our society and democracies):

Suicide is a Practical Act, Suicide Prevention Means Practical Actions — do you want to help save lives? (a dynamic and evolving output from ongoing ground-up engagement and lateral sharing with the global ‘zero suicide community’ and those who have experienced suicide loss):

Hopeful Endnote

In the Zero Suicide Community, we always try to end our interactions, meetings and events on a note of hope. Following a conversation with Steve Phillip, who lost his son Jordan to suicide on 4 December 2019, Steve decided to register Hope for Life Day as a national day in the UK for 4 December every year from now on.

Hope for Life Day will be a day on which to reflect, look forward, share what makes us hopeful, and share what practical actions we’re taking to have optimal mental health and to save lives via suicide prevention, early detection, early intervention, and support for those bereaved by suicide.

There is a launch event scheduled for 21 January 2021, and there will be 10 months of engagement with people and organisations, focused on those with lived experience, on what we will do on Hope For Life Day 2021, and on ways of implementing the Suicide Prevention Transformation Projects (SPTPs).

https://www.linkedin.com/posts/paulvittles_suicideprevention-thejordanlegacy-mentalhealth-activity-6744971386667732992-embJ

Researcher (FMRS), marketer (FAMI), consultant, coach & counsellor who helps people and organisations with transformational change and sustainable success.