Why a Citizens' Assembly on "Germany's Role in the World"?

The Bundestag seeks direction. How do people see Germany's international role in combating the climate crisis and helping refugees? What position should the country take in the European Union? What framework are we creating for international trade policy? How can Germany help to secure peace in the world? In the citizens' assembly "Germany's Role in the World", randomly selected people who otherwise are not the usual suspects in the political arena will discuss such questions.

The citizens' assembly is initiated by the associations Mehr Demokratie and "Es geht LOS" and is conducted by the independent experts on participation from ifok, IPG and nexus. The main question is: How should Germany's role in the world be defined in the future? Are new approaches in foreign policy necessary? If so, what exactly could these approaches look like?

Frequently Asked Questions

Many people associate the term "citizen dialogue" or "participation" with elaborate consultation procedures in which a few selected and interested people have their say and whose results eventually have no visible effects. Even dialogues or surveys started with the best intentions often yield no results because there is no clear approach on how the results should actually be taken forward. Stop right there! This project works differently.

First of all, the citizens' assembly on "Germany's role in the world" uses the process of sortition. The participants are selected at random from the Register of Residents and invited to take part in the citizens' assembly – and are given an expense allowance. Across ten online sessions, the randomly selected people meet to outline the topics for the plenary and to discuss details and solutions within smaller working groups. They receive all necessary information from experts so that every participant is brought to at least the same level of knowledge on the topic. A wide variety of people from the political and scientific field or from associations are selected as experts so that the participants do not receive information from just one point of view.

Second of all, the citizens’ assembly also ensures close linkage to political decision-makers throughout the process. The parliamentary groups, the President of the Bundestag, and the responsible federal ministries are informed about the project and are involved in all appropriate ways. The citizens’ assembly will officially be held under the auspices of the President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble.

The citizens' assembly is not intended as a protest or a political message, but rather as a council and as a mandate to politicians. We provide a roadmap to help the Bundestag decide how Germany's role in the world must develop in the coming years and decades and with which agenda points the parliament really represents the citizens.

In 2019, the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy proposed, among other things, to use randomly drawn citizens' assemblies in Germany as a permanent instrument of democracy. In a decision dated June 18, 2020, the Council of Elders took up this recommendation. The decision advocates the implementation of a further nationwide citizens' assembly. The Council of Elders favored the topic "Germany's role in the world", whose wish is now being met.

In addition, this citizens’ assembly makes it possible to test the format. It will provide 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 majority of the Bundestag's Council of Elders has spoken out in favor of the topic "Germany's role in the world". This has to do with the fact that the Bundestag draws up a political program for the legislative period of the following four years. If a topic has already been dealt with in a legislative period - such as climate change, organ transplantation, euthanasia - it makes no sense from the perspective of the Bundestag to deal with this topic again. If a topic has already been widely discussed in a legislative period, the chances are therefore slim that the discussion will be repeated in much detail. On the subject of "Germany's role in the world", the Bundestag's Council of Elders is prepared to support the discussion and would even like to see the results in this legislative period. Citizens' assemblies on other important topics are conceivable and should be set up in such a way that the results can be well received in the following legislative period.

First, municipalities in four different size categories from big cities to small villages were randomly selected. These communities then randomly drew a predetermined number of people from their population registers, who were then contacted with an invitation to the citizens' assembly by the institutions implementing the process. The participants in the citizens' assembly should constitute a variety of demographics according to place of residence, size of municipality, age, gender, educational level, and migration background in such a way that they closely reflect the population in Germany. The distribution of participants from amongst the federal states should correspond to the share of the federal states in the total population. In a second round of selection, the institutes implementing the citizens' assembly draw up a "mini-Germany" from the people drawn by lot, who positively responded to the invitation.

The sortition procedure ensures that, in principle, all people in Germany have the same chance to participate in the Citizens' Assembly. For this purpose, the implementing institutes made a further selection from all those who had been drawn and who had returned: The participants in the Citizens' Assembly were selected according to age, gender, place of residence, migration background and educational attainment in such a way that it corresponds as closely as possible to the distribution of people in Germany. Since participation in the Citizens' Council is voluntary, however, representativeness also depends on how many people from which population group report back.

The greatest challenge is to convince people with an intermediate or lower secondary school leaving certificate or without a degree to become politically active. For example, more than 80 per cent of members of the Bundestag have a degree, but in the population the figure is only just under 18 per cent. In the Citizens' Assembly Germany's Role in the World, the lower and middle educational strata are very well represented with about 41 percent of the participants (about 10.6 percent with a lower secondary school leaving certificate, 30 percent with an intermediate education, about 0.6 percent without a degree). This means that the proportion of people without a high school diploma or a university degree was significantly increased compared to the Citizens' Assembly on Democracy (where it was 31 per cent).

In order to achieve this, the invitation to the Citizens' Assembly was this time also sent out in easy language and further explanations were provided in easy-to-understand language. If necessary, the necessary technical requirements are provided to those drawn and support such as technology tests are offered. A group of substitutes has been formed in case someone is unable to attend at short notice. In addition, this time the selection was supplemented by outreach participation, i.e. those drawn from underrepresented groups were specifically approached by telephone or by a visit.

Since the topic "Germany's role in the world" was brought up to the organizers of the citizens' assembly from the Bundestag, all parliamentary groups were first informally asked to state their ideas on which topics and issues would be important under this title.

On the basis of the feedback from the parliamentary groups, a questionnaire was developed to collect information on the understanding of roles, as well as on favored topic areas and concrete examples that can be used to explain the topic areas.

The survey will be conducted as an online survey. Around 50 civil society organizations with special expertise in the fields of foreign affairs, security, foreign trade, development and international policy were invited to participate.

In four online discussion rounds from 20 - 24 October 2020, with 23 - 26 participants each, the questions and topics for the citizens' assembly were also deepened, discussed and sorted according to importance. In the discussion rounds, the citizens' views on Germany's role in the world and what is important for it were reflected. This ensures that the topics dealt with in the Citizens' Council are also relevant for the participants.

The participants of the four discussion rounds were also drawn by lot. Citizens from Chemnitz, Freising, Lübeck and Völklingen had been invited, cities representing the regions East, South, North and West, which were also drawn at random. Since no recommendations to the Bundestag were worked out in the discussion rounds and the purpose of this participation module is to find out the opinion of citizens without experts on the topic and to gain references for the working program from it, the procedure was clearly more simply arranged than the drawing of lots to the citizens' assembly itself.

Based on the overview of topics and the priorities set by citizens, a roadmap and agenda for the citizens' assembly is developed. This agenda has been finalized in a half-day workshop with members of parliamentary groups in the Bundestag, and with representatives of the federal government as well as selected representatives within large social organizations.

The participants of the workshop ensure that all politically and socially relevant topics and issues are considered in the working program of the Citizens' Council. They narrowed down topics and sorted questions according to their importance. They also were able to advise on the selection of experts and speakers for the citizens' assembly.

The implementing institutes IFOK, IPG, and nexus ensure that the agenda can be processed by the members of the citizens' assembly in terms of time and content. The agenda should leave sufficient space and flexibility for the concerns of the citizens themselves. The final decision on the agenda lies with the independent implementing institutes, which work together with the scientific partners.

The implementing institutions selected the civil society organizations that were involved in the first phase of the citizens' assembly. Their aim was to neutrally select 20 - 25 organizations that were meant to reflect all points of view. The implementing institutions were also advised by scientists working in the field of foreign policy. Here, too, the aim was to reflect different disciplines, views and attitudes, so that there was no bias towards one position. Furthermore, it was made transparent which scientists and organizations were involved in the preparation of the topics and questions. The goal was to find organizations that cover broad target groups and several topics.

In order to get a better grasp of the big issue and to find out what the Citizens' Assembly should talk about in detail, various groups were involved in the first phase: the parliamentary executives and members of all parliamentary groups, experts in the field of foreign policy from civil society, academia and politics; citizens drawn by lot (who, however, are not involved in the actual Citizens' Council); the population via a representative survey.

With the help of these groups, the implementing institutes worked out questions and narrowed down which topics, fields of action and regions the Citizens' Council should discuss. For this purpose, online workshops, conversations, surveys and questionnaires were combined in a complex procedure and then evaluated. Five major thematic areas emerged: Democracy and Human Rights, Peace and Security, Economy and Trade, Sustainable Development and the European Union. All details on the preparatory phase

The implementing institutes and the initiators of the Citizens' Assembly received scientific advice and support from the foreign policy experts Dr. Cornelius Adebahr, Sarah Brockmeier and Barbara Mittelhammer. More on the scientific support

The implementing institutions researched and consulted experts in the five major thematic areas of the Citizens' Council. The following criteria played a role:

1. thematic competence/expertise
2. balance of expert voices on a topic / as many points of view and perspectives as possible should be represented
3. good general comprehensibility/ability to explain in a clear manner
4. diversity (different genders, age groups, institutions, domestic/foreign, people of colour considered)

Some of the experts also accompany the Citizens' Assembly process through the Support Panel, others came on recommendation from politics or academia. During the selection process, there was also constant feedback to academia (intensive consultation with Dr. Cornelius Adebahr, Sarah Brockmeier and Barbara Mittelhammer, read more) and with all parliamentary groups in the Bundestag.

The actual debates take place in small groups to which neither the experts nor the media or politicians have access. In this way we ensure that an honest and open-ended discussion can unfold in a protected space so that no one has to worry about "embarrassing" or "undesirable" statements. The role of expert, like the entire citizens' assembly process, is also monitored, evaluated, and assessed by the IASS Potsdam and the Institute for Democracy and Participation Research at the University of Wuppertal.

Politicians are often confronted with the accusation that they make decisions far away from the concerns of the people and leave important issues completely out of the discussion. The success of politically extreme individuals and movements is partly due to the fact that people experience politics as being far removed from their everyday lives. Many people with moderate political views also find politics disconnected from real issues and intangible. In the citizens' assembly "Germany's Role in the World", the political actors and the people are connected from the very beginning. After all, politics in Germany and thus our lives are determined by global issues. At the same time, politics in Germany has an impact on international politics. When politicians discuss these issues directly with the people, they send out a positive signal and strengthen confidence in the political process.

Citizens who invest their precious time in this project can be sure that the results will not be lost along the way, but will be taken seriously by politicians. Right from the start, we have been in contact with the Federal President, the Bundestag, various ministries, parliamentary party leaders, and members of parliament, and almost all actors are in favor of the idea of citizens' assemblies. We make sure that the results of the citizens' assembly, bundled in a citizens' report, are also seen and considered by politicians and the media.

In addition, politics also inspires and brings enjoyment. In March 2021, an event took place at which the results of the citizens' assembly were presented to politicians and the public, where politicians discuss the results. This was not a dry debate, but rather a colorful, open, glamorous day.

The citizens' assembly is designed in such a way that it not only reflects a specific point of view, but also includes a cross-section of the people eligible to vote in Germany. This means that we deliberately include those who are frustrated by politics, who feel they are not being heard, and who think that a lot is going wrong at the moment. Our basic conviction is that it is important and necessary to talk to each other - about issues, not about attitudes or personalities - as long as certain rules of interaction are observed. It goes without saying that there is no place for anti-humane, racist, minority-hating, violence glorifying or disrespectful statements - from whatever political direction - neither in the pre-phase nor in the small groups that discuss solutions.

It's true - people from socially weaker backgrounds participate in politics less often than people with higher educational qualifications and stable financial security. A citizens' assembly offers the chance to integrate even those who are not politically active at the moment. Through random selection, the most diverse people are brought together. Citizens' assemblies practiced in other countries show that after a "warm-up phase," everyone gets involved, no one downplays themselves, or doesn't dare to speak, and no one misuses the "platform" to speak. The expense allowance and the organization of care for children or relatives ensure that everyone can afford to take part in the citizens' assembly.

In this way, citizens' assembly participants can be equipped with the necessary technology and trained in the use of hardware and software. Online citizens' councils are different from the gathering of randomly selected citizens in face-to-face meetings. But they are technically feasible and lead to good results in terms of content. Compared to face-to-face meetings, online citizens' councils even have some advantages.

Little effort for participants: Because long travel times and absences from home can be avoided, it is possible to activate those randomly selected participants who would have had to decline an invitation under normal circumstances. The same applies to speakers from all over the world who can join in. The citizens' assembly is more flexible in terms of time, i.e. participants and others involved do not have to keep several weekends free and travel to a central location, which is time-consuming. The citizens' assembly working sessions can be better integrated into everyday life. People interested in the citizens' assembly can also observe the event more easily, and a live stream is easier to set up, since filming is required anyway for digital transmission to the participants' homes.

Cost savings: On the part of the organizers of a nationwide citizens' assembly, high costs can be avoided by using a virtual format. These costs are incurred by renting premises, paying for travel and accommodation costs, and catering expenses for the participants.

A chance for the introverted: Anyone who does not dare to ask a question in front of a large audience, or who is unable to answer in view of the large number of requests to speak, can use the chat function to ask questions or comment.

Simplification and flexibility: Any number of small groups and sub-groups can be formed, since digital rooms can be used independently of a physical room. Questions from citizens to the experts and inputs can be collected and sorted more quickly online. For the breaks, more versatile offers can be created, e.g. coffee klatch, yoga session or individual work. Digitally, a variety of methods can be used that could not be implemented so quickly in a physical space. E.g. any number of moderation walls, quick formation of groups of 2, collecting and prioritizing topics and questions in the plenum, the possibility for everyone to ask questions at any time.

Continuous process: Through the regular, up to weekly working sessions, a continuous thinking process takes place among the participants, which is not limited to the working weekends of face-to-face meetings.

Documentation: Assembly participants have the opportunity to watch the recorded stream, to fast-forward or rewind and to study the presentation slides for as long as they wish. A complete documentation of the meeting is guaranteed. Misunderstandings can be avoided more easily.

The disadvantages can usually be easily remedied. For example, citizens' assembly members can be equipped with the necessary technology and trained in the use of hardware and software. If the Internet connection at home is poor, participants can be invited to places with good network coverage and technical equipment. Emotional reactions are also visible online. You can even ask the participants to show them - e.g. via small mood cards that you can hold in the camera and which are sent to the participants in advance. Interpersonal contact can be established through virtual rooms in which the participants can move around and where, for example, joint coffee breaks can be held. Citizens' councils are therefore also well feasible online!

The Citizens' Assembly meets via the videoconferencing platform Zoom. All information on the Citizens’ Assembly is made available to participants on the Howspace platform, where they can also exchange information with each other, and the results of the Assembly are documented. The online tool Mural is used as a digital pinboard to record and structure the conclusions reached in the small groups of the Citizens' Assembly.

All digital tools and platforms used for the Citizens' Assembly are secure and comply with the relevant German and European data protection guidelines. Citizens do not have to download the tools. They can access the tools either using their internet browser or view the content stored in the tools via the screen shared in Zoom.

The legal requirements to reach a level of data protection that is in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are in place for the use of Zoom. There is a data processing addendum between the implementing institute ifok and Zoom. Zoom has user- and data protection-friendly default settings ("Privacy by Default"). Zoom expressly excludes the use of user data (including the user IDs of their end devices) for commercial purposes. It is important for the accessibility of Zoom by its users and for the enforcement of data subjects' rights that Zoom, as a company without a branch in Europe, has appointed a "representative in the EU".

How often and for how long a citizens' assembly meets depends on the complexity of the issue and, of course, on the financial and time constraints. The results of "Germany's Role in the World" should be available by March 2021. Since a citizens' assembly always requires some time in advance, additional sessions could hardly be managed. There are citizens' assemblies such as the Climate Citizens' assembly in France, which met over several months. However, the experience in France shows that it may be disadvantageous for citizens to meet again and again. The more people get to know each other, for example, the more interest groups are formed, which is something that should actually be avoided in citizens' assemblies.

Mehr Demokratie is the world's largest professional association for direct democracy. "Es geht LOS" is committed to citizen participation, especially through sortition. Naturally, the initiators of the citizens' assembly have their own ideas, wishes, and visions, at least when it comes to questions of democracy in the European Union and worldwide. For this reason, they deliberately do not organize the citizens' assembly themselves, but instead seek support from independent institutes that carry out such processes on an ongoing basis and for a wide variety of organizations. The experts and the advisory board are so diverse that there is no bias in favor of individual proposals on democracy issues. It is an experiment in the service of democracy.

The Bundestag's Council of Elders has followed the proposal of the President of the Bundestag for another citizens' assembly, and the parliamentary groups have agreed on the topic "Germany's role in the world". Mehr Demokratie has taken the first step with the Citizens' Assembly for Democracy in 2019 and organized a citizens' assembly on an important issue from the coalition agreement concluded in 2017 by the CDU/CSU and SPD.

The next step is now to give the Bundestag a positive experience with a citizens' assembly. The best way to do this is with a topic that is important to the Bundestag. The results of the citizens' assembly should be incorporated into the work of the Bundestag before the end of this legislative period. Mehr Demokratie allows the project to be implemented quickly, independently, and to be funded by donations. This not only advances the Bundestag but is also important for making citizens' assemblies better known and developing them further. The citizens' assembly "Germany's Role in the World" is also about testing the citizens' assembly format and the question of what such a format might look like in the future.

It is of course desirable that citizens' councils should also be publicly funded. However, especially in the early stages, when it comes to publicising the procedure, it is not unusual for civil society to initiate and also finance a citizens' assembly. The binding nature of the process and the contacts with politicians are always related to the charisma of the process. The great successes with citizens' assembly in Ireland, for example, can be traced back to the "We the citizens" initiative, which responded to the disenchantment with politics that accompanied the financial and economic crisis.

In a 2011 citizens' assembly, which was self-organized, participants selected by a lottery process discussed important political issues in Ireland. This positive example convinced the government to make "official" use of the citizens' assembly. Thus, politicians used the "Constitutional Convention" and later the "Citizens' Assembly" to support their decision-making on particularly important or controversial issues.

The success of a citizens' assembly depends on how the results are dealt with in the end. Mehr Demokratie is therefore closely monitoring the implementation of the results of the first nationwide citizens' assembly on democracy. The fact that "Germany's role in the world" is now the second nationwide citizens' assembly is already an outcome of this. Ideally, the parliament and/or government should assure from the outset that the results will be observed and implemented, as was the case with the Climate Citizens' Assembly in France.