Citizens' Assembly or Citizens' Council? - The Outcome Makes the Difference

In the quest for new methods to strengthen democracy and increase citizen engagement in political processes, the concepts of citizens' assembly and citizens' council have garnered increased attention. These forums represent innovative approaches to incorporating citizens' voices into decision-making but differ in their influence and ultimate outcomes.

Citizens' Assemblies: A Step Towards Direct Deliberative Democracy

Citizens' assemblies provide a platform for a representative selection of the population to deeply engage with specific issues, aiming for their conclusions to have a direct impact on political decisions. Strengthened by the OECD's "Good Practice Principles for Deliberative Processes for Public Decision Making," these assemblies have the potential to reshape the political landscape by ensuring that citizens' recommendations lead to real actions.

According to OECD principles, these assemblies are meant to have a direct impact on decision-making. By adhering to them, especially points 7 ("Impact on Decision-Making") and 8 ("Monitoring and Evaluation"), citizens' assemblies aim for their recommendations to lead to concrete political actions, giving them a potent role at the heart of democracy.

Citizens' Councils: Reflection and Recommendation

On the other hand, citizens' councils function more as advisory bodies, where citizens gather to discuss and put forward suggestions on political issues without an inherent expectation that these suggestions will automatically be transformed into policy or law. 

Clearly communicating this limitation is crucial to avoid misunderstandings; it would be detrimental to the method if participants were led to believe that their efforts would immediately lead to concrete political actions. Such a misconception risks undermining the method's credibility and could leave participants as disillusioned as those who have engaged in citizen panels, referendums, or similar initiatives where politicians have not followed through on decisions.

One need not interpret the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR's) choice to translate "citizens' assembly" to "medborgarråd" (citizens' council) as an attempt to neutralize a potentially powerful method for citizen participation. Instead, it can be seen as reflecting a more realistic view of the current political and administrative structures in Sweden. This choice may underline an understanding that while citizens' councils can provide valuable insights and suggestions, there is no guaranteed pathway for these ideas to directly influence the political agenda.

The Swedish Example: A Way Forward?

The decision to initiate a citizens' council on climate in Sweden reflects an ambition to include citizens' voices in the political process. By using a "democratic lottery" to select participants, the project aims to create a miniature of Swedish society. This experiment in democracy shows a desire to explore new forms of citizen engagement, even though the current structure does not guarantee that the proposals lead to direct changes in politics.

The Future of Citizen Participation

itizens' councils and citizens' assemblies represent two sides of the same coin in the effort to revitalize democracy through increased citizen participation. While citizens' assemblies offer a model for direct impact on political decisions, citizens' councils provide a platform for advisory dialogue and reflection. The Swedish example with its citizens' council on climate highlights the potential of these new democratic forms, even as it also underscores the need to develop structures that can bridge the gap between citizens' recommendations and actual political action.

In the end, both citizens' assemblies and citizens' councils are valuable tools for increasing citizen engagement and broadening democratic dialogue. The Swedish example with its citizens' council on climate underscores the potential of these initiatives to stimulate public discussion and reflection on important societal issues. 

As we navigate a world of complex global challenges, the question of how best to integrate citizens' insights into the political decision-making process becomes increasingly urgent. The ultimate difference between a citizens' assembly and a citizens' council lies in their capacity to produce concrete results – a measure that becomes ever more important for the future of our democracy.

Micke Ströberg March 12, 2024
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