Five-Minute Info

Between 13 January and 20 February 2021, the second nationwide Citizens' Assembly took place in Germany. 169 people selected by lot discussed "Germany's role in the world" over ten online sessions weekends. The President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble, has assumed patronage of the project. In addition to the subject matter, the aim is to test and develop a new form of citizen participation in parliament. The results and recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly were presented to the Bundestag in March 2021 for discussion.

A democracy development project

The Bundestag's Council of Elders had adopted the proposal of the President of the Bundestag for another citizens' assembly, and the parliamentary groups have agreed on the issue of Germany's role in the world. The "Bürgerrat Deutschlands Rolle in der Welt" (Citizens' Assembly on Germany's Role in the World) ” enabled the format to be tested. It provided further insights into whether the instrument of the Citizens' Assembly is suitable for supporting parliamentary work and what such a format might look like in the future. The results of the “Bürgerrat” have been incorporated into the work of the Bundestag since March 2021.

Mehr Demokratie has been seizing this opportunity and independently with the help of donations making the speedy implementation of the project possible. The organisation was working together with a team of professional partners such as the institutions of participation ifok, nexus, IPG and the organisation EsgehtLOS! as well as with the support of several foundations. Politicians, civil society members and scientists were involved in the process from the very beginning, along with the citizens.

The topic

Whether it is about the Coronavirus, world trade, peacekeeping, development aid, migration or environmental protection: policy in Germany is determined by global issues. At the same time, Germany’s policies have an impact on international politics. What can policymakers focus on in times of a change in global interconnectedness, especially when decisions have to be made quickly? When do national interests, global goals, pragmatism and visionary thinking come to the fore? And what is the Germans' internal view of their role in the world? In his welcoming address, Bundestag President Schäuble indicated the scope of the topic.

A randomly-selected citizens' assembly offers the political groups further guidance in their parliamentary work. It provides information on how a cross-section of the population thinks and which political decisions are supported by the citizens. Its suggestions can be just as useful for policy programmes as they are for concrete issues. All sides benefit from this: politicians see which measures and strategies are likely to gain support among the population. And the citizens - on behalf of all the people in the country - can enter into dialogue beyond their usual environment, develop solutions together, and get involved.

What happens in detail?

The Citizens' Assembly on "Germany's Role in the World" should...

  1. develop visions of the future and derive general recommendations. People drawn by lot discussed fundamental issues such as values that are important for Germany, what the international community expects of Germany, and the needs and concerns of people in Germany with regard to global issues.

  2. use the assembly as a "compass" to look at individual topic areas and break down the principles in each topic area.

  3. develop concrete measures and recommendations within each topic area.

Preparation phase

The topics and questions have been prepared during a preparation phase of the work programme before the Citizens' Assembly met. All parliamentary groups in the Bundestag as well as social actors in the fields of foreign, security, foreign trade, development, and international politics were invited to be involved in this topic-finding phase. A representative survey and rounds of talks were used to examine and prioritise the topics and questions developed. People from rural and urban areas and from different parts of the country were drawn by lot for the discussion rounds.

The scientific partners have helped to develop questions for the representative survey and, together with the institutes supporting the implementation of the process, will design a roadmap for the Citizens' Assembly online sessions. The roadmap was in turn agreed in a workshop with people from politics and large social organisations. This elaborate preparation ensures that many politically and socially relevant topics and questions are taken into account.

Randomly-selected Citizens’ Assembly

First, municipalities in four different sized categories of big cities to small villages were randomly selected. These municipalities then randomly drew a predetermined number of people from their population registers, who were then contacted by the implementing institutions with an invitation to the Citizens' Assembly. The participants in the Citizens' Assembly should be distributed according to place of residence, size of residence, age, gender, educational level, and migration background in such a way that they roughly reflect the population in Germany. The distribution among the federal states should correspond to the proportion of the federal states in the total population. In a second round of selection, the institutes supporting the Citizens' Assembly therefore put together a kind of "mini-Germany" from the group of people selected, who positively respond to the invitation.

In ten online sessions, those selected discussed in small groups of six to eight people as well as in the larger group. The groups were randomly composed and professionally moderated in each discussion unit, so that everyone can have opportunities to speak. The Citizens' Assembly was chaired by a respected and political party-neutral person. Experts were available for lectures and questions. The input they gave was transmitted via live stream, and the media was also allowed to report on it. However, discussions in small groups took place in a protected online room, with interim results not being published. In the last session, an anonymous vote on the recommendations took place among the selected citizens. Media representatives and visitors from politics and administration will be able to observe the event on site by registering.

Handover and Implementation

On the basis of the recommendations agreed upon by the people selected, the supporting institutes, assisted by representatives of the people selected, will formulate a "citizens' report". The citizens' report was presented to the public and to the Bundestag on 19 March 2021.

After the citizens' report had been presented to the Bundestag and all parliamentary groups, the Bundestag has the opportunity to incorporate the results in its work. The Bundestag is completely free to use the recommendations. It is desirable that the parliamentary groups take up the contents and, depending on the recommendation, bring the results to the respective expert committees. In addition, discourse and consultation on the format, its further development and future legal implementation should be at the centre of the exchange.

Feedback to the citizens on how their recommendations and results are dealt with also belongs to the quality standards of citizens' assemblies and meaningful citizen participation.

Success of the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy

This second nationwide Citizens' Assembly is a direct success of the self-organised Citizens' Assembly on Democracy, which was initiated in 2019 by Mehr Demokratie and the Schöpflin Foundation.

Over two weekends, 160 randomly-selected participants spoke about strengthening democracy in Germany, accompanied by professional organisations and moderation teams from the nexus and ifok institutes. The result was 22 proposals, which were presented to the President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble, and the parliamentary groups of the Bundestag in November 2019. Amongst other things, the people selected by lot recommended the regular use of elected citizens' assemblies, the introduction of referendums, a separate established office for citizen participation and direct democracy, and a lobby register. At the handover, the President of the Bundestag promised to seek discussion with the parliamentary groups on the proposals and promoted the exchange.

From the discussions, the idea arose to try another Citizens' Assembly, where the question would come directly from the Parliament and political groups. This is not only a matter of the content, but also, as the President of the Bundestag formulated in connection with the decision of the Council of Elders in June 2020, "to investigate whether such a new instrument is suitable for supporting parliamentary work and to develop a format suitable for the conditions in Germany at federal level”.

It’s a start...

This Citizens' Assembly could be a further door opener for nationwide citizens' assemblies and offer the possibility of them being part of the legal decision-making process. The idea is that randomly-selected citizens’ assemblies would repeatedly draw up recommendations for politicians on important parliamentary issues and advise the parliamentary groups. This would put Germany in line with international trends, as other countries are also looking for new forms of political involvement. Germany is now joining after Ireland, France, and Great Britain, among others, have had good experiences with national citizens' assemblies in Europe.

Since the civil society-organised model project "Citizens' Assembly on Democracy" was met with great interest by the media, politicians, and the population, it is now important to ensure that randomly-selected citizens' assemblies are established as a political instrument and taken seriously by all sides. This requires both the will and commitment of politicians and the interest and trust of citizens. The time for this could not be more favourable because there is currently a boom in informal citizens' assemblies in other countries and on the local level. This shows that parliaments, governments, citizens' assemblies, and the entire population can shape policy together.