With the instrument of the Citizens' Assembly, issues of federal policy importance can also be discussed with citizens in a discursive format and solutions can be proposed. This is the core message of an evaluation of the Citizens' Assembly "Germany's Role in the World" by the Bundestag administration.
After the Bundestag's Council of Elders had requested a citizens' assembly on German foreign policy in June 2020, the Bundestag administration, alongside the independent institutes IASS and IDPF, had participated in an observational capacity in the online sessions of the assembly of 152 randomly drawn citizens from all over the Republic. This was to answer the question of the Council of Elders as to whether the instrument of citizens' assemblies was suitable to support parliamentary work in representative democracy and whether a format suitable at the federal level could be developed.
From its observations, the Bundestag administration has come to the conclusion that the Citizens' Assembly participants "develop a high level of motivation and willingness to get involved in challenging issues and thus to contribute their own analytical and decision-making skills". The members of parliament would thus have at their disposal recommendations for further parliamentary deliberations, which had come about in a discourse that was both consensual and professionally oriented.
The Bundestag administration states that "during the procedure and in the follow-up, there was actually a very high level of interest from MPs, but also from individual federal ministries, in the implementation of the Citizens' Assembly". This can be interpreted to mean that the instrument is connectable and capable of generating political resonance. "The special features of the procedure for drafting recommendations distinguish the results of a citizens' assembly from those of classic discussion situations between MPs and citizens in the constituency or within the framework of other discussion and decision-making formats, and complement them," the administration continues.
"Broader legitimacy of political decisions"
Citizens' assemblies could also serve to broaden the legitimacy of political decisions by enabling individual positions to be fed back directly to citizens. The participants were convinced that by offering a citizens' assembly, parliament would be opening itself up to a discourse with society that goes beyond traditional parliamentary procedures.
The active involvement of citizens would give them deeper insights into the processes of political operations and would thus be suitable for creating acceptance for the functioning and working methods of the Bundestag. This acceptance is not limited to the narrow circle of participants, because the members of the Citizens' Assembly can serve as multipliers via social media, for example. "On the other hand, the less the interest in the new form of the citizens' assemblies, i.e. the procedure itself, is in the focus of possible follow-up projects, the more the work of the citizens' assemblies is likely to attract media attention," the Bundestag administration expects.
Broad approval among participants
The instrument of the citizens' assembly met with broad approval among the participating citizens. Moreover, it was noticeable that the initial scepticism on the part of the participants turned into great commitment in the course of the consultations. The administration of the Bundestag also finds "the self-confidence expressed by the citizens as well as their high expectations - also expressed at the handover event - regarding the political handling of the recommendations developed" remarkable.
The Bundestag administration considers "topics whose questions can be clearly defined" to be particularly suitable for citizens' assemblies. The success of productive discussion and decision-making processes is facilitated if the participants can relate to the chosen topic from their own lives". When choosing the topic, the question of the feasibility of the recommendations should also be considered. A clearly defined topic also facilitates the moderation of a citizens' assembly.
Plea for hybrid citizens' assemblies
There is much to be said for holding future citizens' assembly both digitally and with analogue components, i.e. as "hybrid" events. "The classic deliberation, i.e. the exchange of arguments, which characterises the citizens' assembly participation format, could thus be supplemented by creative digital methods with which the respective abstract topic can be made more tangible," suggests the Bundestag administration.
Other suggestions concern fundamental procedural questions. The role and the degree of participation of the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag should be agreed at an early stage. In particular, it should be decided how the parliamentary groups as a whole could be sustainably involved in the design process without overburdening the planning, decision-making and implementation process too much or challenging it in terms of time.
Who decides what?
It should be agreed how and by whom or by which bodies central decisions such as the choice of the theme, the choice of the chairperson, the choice of the implementation method and the choice of any implementation institutions would be made.
For the members of the Citizens' Assembly "Germany's Role in the World", it is of great importance how its results and recommendations are dealt with in the further political process. "This aspect is likely to play a role in the recruitment of participants in future citizens' assemblies. Therefore, it seems desirable that the parliamentary groups make clear already in the course of selecting topics how the recommendations will be incorporated into the parliamentary deliberations," the report of the Bundestag administration recommends.