A successful Citizens’ Assembly strengthens public trust, produces reliable outputs that garner legitimacy, and has an impact on public decisions. To run such a process, it is important to set the scene and put in place the conditions for success. This section of the guide lays out the conditions, and chapters that follow provide further details.
The good practice principles for running Citizens’ Assemblies have been developed based on analysis of close to 300 examples of Assemblies in collaboration with an advisory group of leading practitioners from government, civil society, and academia. When in doubt, always refer to them as guidance on what constitutes a high quality Citizens’ Assembly.
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Making sure a Citizens’ Assembly will have an influence on public decisions is the most important task. The commissioning public authority, institution, or organisation should publicly commit to responding to or acting on recommendations developed by the Assembly in a timely manner. This includes having early-stage conversations with a range of stakeholders who will be involved in various ways. A successful process often involves securing cross-party or cross-institutional support for the Assembly and keeping relevant civil society organisations and other institutions informed from the start.
Running a Citizens’ Assembly requires sufficient time and a dedicated budget.
Typically, at least a two months are needed to secure a clear commitment from public authorities and to design the Assembly. It can take a further two months to run the lottery process for selecting Assembly Members.
Finally, the deliberation will take at least four full days, often spread over several months. Deliberation requires adequate time for learning, weighing up the evidence, and developing informed recommendations, due to the complexity of most policy problems.
The size of budget required will depend on the context, size, and length of the Assembly, ranging from 26.000 USD / 23.000 EUR for a small local level Assembly in Brazil to several million euros for a large national level Assembly in France. A significant part of the budget goes into compensating Assembly Members for their time and hiring skilled facilitators.
From a resourcing point of view you will also need to assign a main coordinator or a team (to manage the process), and to tap into diverse competences in the organisation - ranging from communications to project management and expert knowledge of a specific policy area, as well as deploying technical resources such as an online platform or website.
The main motivation to participate is the commitment by a public institution to take into account of the Assembly’s recommendations and use them as a basis for laws and policies which impact the real world. To ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to accept the invitation, it’s important to minimise barriers to participation by:
The amount depends on the context. Here are a few examples from recent Citizens' Assemblies.
To maximise the benefits of Citizens’ Assemblies, they have increasingly been embedded into the system of democratic decision-making in an ongoing way. This means that rather than being one-off initiatives dependent on political will, they become a normal part of how certain types of decisions are taken, often with a legal or institutional basis underpinning their connection to existing institutions like parliaments.
Embedding citizen deliberation in a systemic way makes it is easier and less expensive to organise Assemblies on a range of issues, which can only deepen democratic legitimacy. More Assemblies provide more opportunities for more people to represent others, ultimately giving people more power in shaping decisions. Read more about benefits in section 3.3 of this guide.
When running a Citizens’ Assembly, we recommend treating it as a stepping stone towards a larger shift in democracy. Setting up a Citizens’ Assembly requires effort and leads to in-depth knowledge as well as increased capacity amongst everyone involved. Use the opportunity to build on it to make a systemic shift towards embedded citizen deliberation.
Even if you are starting with one one-off Citizens’ Assembly to address a specific issue, having the intention to make it an ongoing part of decision-making further down the road will help you to capture useful learnings from it. It can help to open up the conversation about how embedded Citizens’ Assemblies could be useful in tackling ongoing policy challenges where citizen input is needed regularly.
Keeping in mind the goal of structural change towards embedded, ongoing Assemblies allows the identification of the necessary legal, social, and institutional infrastructure that might need to be created. This could include, for example, changes to regulations to make Assemblies easier to operate, give them more authority, or pay Assembly Members more easily.
The Assembly should have a clear and simple governance structure that ensures transparency and independence. National level Assemblies with longer mandates have more complex governance with elements such as independent guarantors, a chair and others, while smaller and shorter Assemblies have more simple structures. Typically there are a few groups to bring together.
The comissioner is a public authority, institution, or organisation initiating a Citizens’ Assembly. It ensures that the Assembly has a clear mandate and its results feed into commissioner’s decision-making process. It provides the resources (financial, staff, communications) to run the Assembly.
The Citizens’ Assembly should be implemented by an arm’s length organisation separate from the commissioning public authority or institution. This helps ensure the integrity of the process. The operator, with expertise in implementing Citizens’ Assemblies, is commissioned to help design the Assembly, recruit Members of the Assembly by lottery, organise the logistics of the Assembly sessions, facilitate deliberation, and prepare the final Assembly report.
An exception here are embedded Citizens’ Assemblies - as the commissioner builds capacity and expertise in running citizen deliberation over time, they are able to run a high quality deliberative process themselves, as part of their function. This takes the form of an independent Secretariat that is charged purely with this function.
There are many non-profit and for-profit organisations specialising in running Citizens’ Assemblies. It is important to choose one that upholds high quality standards, meeting the OECD Good Practice Principles outlined in this guide.
Some of DemocracyNext’s trusted partners are newDemocracy and MosaicLab in Australia, Delibera in Brazil, G1000 in Belgium, MASS LBP in Canada, iDeemos in Colombia, We Do Democracy in Denmark, and Deliberativa in Spain. A longer list of organisations with expertise in Citizens’ Assemblies can be found on the Democracy R&D network website.
The project team is comprised of the representatives of the commissioner initiating the Citizens’ Assembly and key people from the operator’s team who will implement it.
This group is in charge of the overall process - making sure the Assembly is set for success, has a clear path to impact, and is run on the basis of the OECD Good Practice Principles. They are a bridge between the commissioner and the operator.
An oversight group ensures the independence of the Citizens’ Assembly. For it to be a truly independent source of scrutiny, this role can be undertaken by a university, an independent organisation, or international deliberative democracy experts. The oversight group can help overcome any disagreements between the other groups listed, and acts as an intermediary between the Assembly Members and the commissioner in case of any conflict. This group can also include representatives of different political parties.
The content group is responsible for putting together the information base that will inform Assembly Members’ deliberations, as well as the wider public. The information base should be accurate, broad, relevant, clear, and accessible. This is fundamental for effective deliberation and crucial for ensuring legitimacy of the entire process.
The content group is comprised of experts in the policy issue of the Assembly representing different perspectives and views. Its members are often academics, independent experts, and other relevant stakeholders. The project team establishes the content group. The composition of this group is transparent.
Evaluating a Citizens’ Assembly helps policy makers, stakeholders, and the general public trust in the process and the recommendations developed by the Assembly. It will also help to establish what went well and what could be improved next time.
An evaluation process should be initiated early on, before design decisions are made. There are multiple possible methods and approaches to assess a Citizens’ Assembly, including surveys, document reviews, interviews, and observation. For longer, national level Assemblies, impact evaluation should be considered as well. For further guidance, see the OECD Evaluation Guidelines for Representative Deliberative Processes.
It is essential that evaluations are as independent as possible.
Evaluation should capture how an Assembly was set up, how it took place, and what impact it had.
The framing of the issue influences all other aspects of the Citizens’ Assembly’s design.
The Assembly’s question should:
You need to decide from the outset who will respond to the recommendations, in order to strengthen ownership, clarity, and commitment. It is often the parliament, the municipal council, a government committee, or the executive team of an organisation.
It depends on the question and the mandate. The more complex, salient, or controversial an issue is, the bigger the Assembly will be and the more time it will need to deal with issue.
The Assembly needs to capture enough diversity so that everybody feels that “someone like me” is part of it.
Context matters - typically local Assemblies are smaller (around 25-40 people), while national, and transnational Assemblies have been bigger (for example Scotland’s Assemblies have involved 100 people, national Assemblies in Ireland and France have ranged from involving 100-185 people, and the EU-level Assemblies have involved 200 people).
There is an inherent trade-off between efficiency, deliberative quality, and maximising representation. More Members means a longer Assembly and more resources, but also greater representation and stronger legitimacy for recommendations.
The more complex an issue, the more time it needs. The OECD Good Practice Principles recommend a minimum of 4 full days of deliberation (typically 40 hours is a good shorthand). Many smaller or local issues benefit from 6-10 days of deliberation. Many national assemblies have tended to last between 15-25 days. Think about a common sense test: "Would you trust the recommendations of an Assembly on the issue after X amount of time?"
Selecting where a Citizens’ Assembly takes place is a fundamental step in ensuring that the process runs smoothly and that Members feel welcome, comfortable, and empowered.
The spatial conditions of a location can easily enable rich and productive learning, discussion, and deliberation as much as they can hinder it.
Consider first where the deliberative process will take place in relation to the wider region or city, making sure it is accessible by public transport and located somewhere that is reachable by all Members of the Assembly.
In choosing a specific venue, consider choosing somewhere that is large enough and can be easily adapted for organising the Assembly.
Adaptable tables and seating options are essential, as well as wall space for displaying information about the given topic and agreements that have been reached.
The space itself should have lots of natural light and should include the right acoustic conditions to allow everyone to hear and be heard in both larger plenary sessions and smaller breakout groups.
Ideally this means that the space includes both a larger gathering area with smaller adjacent spaces for deliberation and consensus-building.
In traditional government buildings, spaces are organised in a way that doesn’t necessarily accommodate people to sit together in smaller, initimate groups to deliberate on a topic. This may not be the best place for an Assembly.
Designing a Citizens’ Assembly should be a transparent and inclusive process, led by the project team. It should involve in-house or external deliberative democracy experts.
To ensure the Assembly is widely accepted and trusted by public stakeholders, a process should be set up to involve stakeholders representing diverse views when finalising its design. This could be a meeting or a workshop to share and discuss the plans for the Assembly, or an open call for comments.
To address concerns stakeholders might have about handing over any decision-making power to everyday people, the Assembly process should be explained and ways in which stakeholders can contribute beyond the initial design workshop should be made clear. For example, by including them in developing a list of suggested expert speakers.
There are several ways digital tools can be helpful in running a Citizens’ Assembly:
Facilitating learning — to enable Members to access videos and written materials to learn about the policy issue before the Assembly starts and in between the sessions.
Facilitating connection — to help Members interact, communicate, and build connections and trust in between the sessions and after the Assembly is over.
Supporting facilitation — during the Assembly they can be used to transcribe and summarise group and panel discussions, draw recommendations, and enable voting for the final set of recommendations.
Following up on the results — to help Members stay in the loop about the impact of their work.
Engaging broader society — sharing progress and results of the Assembly, organising other participatory processes that inform the Assembly.
Remember that choosing to use digital tools for Member learning and communication will require support, on-boarding, and providing access to internet and computers or tablets for some Members who may not have access to these facilities.
It is important to ensure equal access to take part in the Assembly for all members of the community.
Find out more:
The commissioning authority will most likely need to run a procurement process to select an operator with the knowledge and experience of running a Citizens’ Assembly. DemNext has put together a sample procurement document based on our experiences in Europe. MASS LBP has a guide that may be more relevant for North America.
It is worth taking time to consider other activities that can open up participation to a wider public - for example, open calls, interviews, or surveys prior to the assembly, to help understand how communities relate to the issue being tackled. This serves a dual purpose of socialising the work of the Assembly, and providing Assembly Members with valuable insight that forms one part of the wider evidence base for their deliberations.
Another way to keep the broader public in the loop is by gathering questions people might have about the Assembly and the issue it is tackling. Assembly members can answer them in short videos that are later disseminated.
A dedicated communications strategy and staff time should be budgeted for and set up from the very start, with the aim of informing broader society about the Citizens’ Assembly, communicating its progress, sharing evidence and learning materials on a dedicated website to inform the public debate, and raising awareness about the issue tackled and Citizens’ Assemblies in general.
Useful ways of spreading the message are:
This is one of the most essential criteria for ensuring the Assembly’s legitimacy and success. Facilitation is a specific skill that requires training, know-how and experience. A clear and detailed plan should be prepared by the operator’s facilitation team that outlines how Assembly Members will go through the process of getting to know one another, learning about the issue they are tackling, deliberating, finding common ground, developing recommendations, and coming to a broad consensus. It should include a mix of work in small groups and plenary sessions.
A defining feature of Citizens’ Assemblies is that Members are selected by lottery to be broadly representative of a community, which means everyone has an equal chance to represent and be represented in turn.
There are two stages to the selection process. In a first stage, a large number of invitations (often between 10-30k) are sent out to a group of people chosen completely at random.
Amongst everybody who responds positively to this invitation, a second lottery takes place.
This time there is a process - known as stratification - to ensure that the final group broadly represents the community in terms of gender, age, geography, and socio-economic differences.
The term for this is sortition. Sometimes it gets referred to as a democratic lottery or a civic lottery.
Invitation sent to a random sample of the population (2.000-30.000) by post, phone, email.
Recipients can volunteer to opt in to the lottery.
Second selection by lottery amongst the volunteers. Stratified based on: Gender, Age, Location, Socio- economic criteria etc.
Final Group: Broadly representative of the community concerned (city, state, country etc.)
Members are often selected by the operator and this process is overseen by the project team. The operator should have experience running sortition and should lead this process.
Most often, gender, age, location, and another variable that captures socio-economic diversity (such as level of education or type of employment) are used to put together a broadly representative group. On some occasions additional criteria such as language spoken or people’s attitudes towards the question tackled is collected and used to make sure different views are represented in the final group. Criteria should also be set for excluding elected politicians, in case they receive an invitation. Adding too many criteria should be avoided, as it makes it complicated to put together a group that can capture them all.
Traditionally under-represented groups, such as people with lower socio-economic status, young people, those living in rural areas, people disadvantaged by ethnicity, race and in other ways, are less likely to accept the invitation to join the Assembly.
It could be tempting to think that the solution to this problem is to invite people to the Assembly in ways that bypass the sortition process. However, this would create problematic knock-on effects, undermining the principle of everybody having an equal chance of receiving an invitation to be an Assembly Member in the first place. It’s important that everybody in the Assembly feels that they are attending by means of the same process - and as members of a shared community.
If some of the group were to receive targeted invitations, bypassing the lottery process, those Assembly Members could feel that they are present solely to represent a specific group or interest, rather than as a community member who has been selected by lottery. We all have multi-faceted parts to our identities, and Assemblies create an enabling environment for people to be able to reflect on the many parts of who they are and not be reduced to one or two aspects of their identities.
So how to nonetheless overcome the issue that certain demographics often have lower response rates to the initial invitation? There are a few options:
If it is known in which areas people from these groups live, sending invitation letters to more households in those areas to help ensure that their response rate can match those of other groups so that they will be well-represented in the final composition of the group.
Raising awareness about the opportunity to join the Assembly through targeted outreach efforts by community, governmental, and non-governmental organisations.
Working with civil society organisations or community groups that work with underserved communities to distribute more invitations to their members during the first phase of the two-stage lottery process. This means there is some over-sampling that takes place initially, but the second stage of the lottery is still done completely at random, ensuring the final group is broadly representative of the whole community.
At the local level, going door-to-door to people who have received an invitation but have not responded and asking them what could be done to enable them to participate is also a tried and tested technique, though time and resource intensive.
To send out the first round of invitations, different databases are used depending on availability. These are often the national population registry, voter lists, postal registry, municipal registry, and others. In cases when no database is available, other techniques like random digit dialling or door-to-door recruitment can be carried out. The aim should be to use the most complete list - sometimes a combination of lists - to be as inclusive as possible. Voter registration lists are often poor lists to use on their own for this reason.
Remember to comply with any regulations around the handling of people’s personal information throughout, such as GDPR.
Getting the invitation letter right is very important in order to maximise the response rate of those invited.
Invitations should come from and be signed by the person with the most authority to issue the invitation - this could be the president, minister, city council leader, chief executive, or similar.
The letter should provide all necessary information that would enable the recipient to understand the purpose of the Assembly and whether they are able to commit to the full process.
It should include information about:
The design of the envelope matters - it should strike a balance between looking appealing and inviting, but official enough that people know it is important to open. It is helpful to write the registration deadline on the envelope to catch people’s attention. Context also matters. In some countries, it is helpful for the invitation envelope to look like it comes from the government. In other places, the opposite is true and it should be fun and appealing, rather than official-looking.
A Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) sheet is included with the letter to provide more detail about the process. It gives an opportunity to make potential Assembly Members feel welcome and comfortable. Besides logistical information about the Assembly meetings and clarification of how an Assembly works, it can address practical questions (such as what people are expected to wear, what support is available) and emphasise that there are no special qualifications required to join, everyone is welcome.
It is handy to set up a hotline which potential Members can call to ask any questions, and so that once the Assembly is underway, Members are able to call for help with any issues they might experience. Typically, this is set up by the operator.
Once the list of people who responded positively to the first invitation is available, there are several trusted online platforms with sortition algorithms that can be used to select the final group to be broudly representative of the community. We recommend using one of the following free and open source tools:
Assembly Members will bring their lived experience and unique perspectives to the process, but they will need to learn about the policy issue the Assembly will tackle from an accurate, broad, relevant, clear, and accessible information base. This is fundamental for effective deliberation and crucial for ensuring legitimacy of the entire process.
The content group is in charge of preparing the information base: a list of experts and stakeholders that Members will hear from and an information kit.
Find out more:
People learn and process information in diverse ways. Recent studies show how different people better learn or retain information depending on how they physically interact with it. Sessions where Members deliberate while walking in nature or visually convey their ideas to others are examples of how this can be done.
Treat the line-up of experts and stakeholders and the information kit as the starting point of preparing learning materials and evidence for Members. Also consider including other elements, such as field trips, games, and other ways of interactive learning.
Remember that other kinds of knowledge beyond scientific or experiential - such as embodied knowledge or indigenous knowledge - are welcome, sought out, and valued.
How a Citizens' Assembly unfolds “in the room”