Good marks for Citizens' Assembly
In January and February 2021, the Citizens' Assembly "Germany's Role in the World" met under the patronage of Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble. 152 randomly drawn people from all over the Federal Republic of Germany deliberated in ten online sessions on foreign policy recommendations for the Bundestag and the Federal Government. An evaluation report presented on 20 May 2021 gives good marks overall to the implementation of the second nationwide citizens' assembly. In addition, a handout and a legal opinion point out ways to shape citizens' assemblies at the federal level in the future.
The preparation and implementation of the Citizens' Assembly was accompanied by participation experts from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) Potsdam and the Institute for Democracy and Participation Research (IDPF) at the University of Wuppertal.
Representatives of both institutes were present, for example, to observe the online sessions of the Citizens' Assembly. Materials and online tools were examined and evaluated. The participants who were drawn by lot were asked for feedback on their experiences with the Citizens' Assembly in interviews and by questionnaire. The organisers of the Citizens' Assembly and political actors were also interviewed.
The aim of the evaluation was to examine the Citizens' Assembly format and to provide scientific impulses for the introduction of this democracy instrument at the federal level. The evaluation report summarises the results.
- With regard to the criteria of gender, age, regional proportionality, level of education and migration background, a roughly representative composition of the citizens' assembly was achieved. The proportion of people with a secondary school leaving certificate increased compared to the 2019 Citizens' Assembly on Democracy (7 per cent), but at 10.6 per cent was still significantly lower than the proportion in the overall population (28.6 per cent). Getting less politically-affiliated groups to participate remains a challenge.
- In the process itself, participation by all works well. The inclusive, equal, active participation of all those drawn was ensured, especially by a clearly and fairly structured discussion and the moderation, which, for example, took care to vary the order as much as possible and to balance the proportion of speakers.
- The entire political spectrum of opinion was able to articulate itself, but in the end more moderate and more common good-oriented positions prevailed. Democracy-friendly, progressive and sustainability-oriented views predominated. Nevertheless, especially in the smaller groups, views were also expressed that reflected the entire spectrum from the left, progressive to the conservative to the more right-wing spectrum of opinion.
- The online format brought more advantages than disadvantages. Half of the respondents had never participated in videoconferencing before the process, so the learning effect was accordingly high. After the process, the online procedure was rated even more positively than before.
- Regarding the quality of the implementation, the process was perceived as fair in terms of 1. equal opportunities to express one's own opinion, 2. respectful treatment of the participants, 3. the possibility to speak freely and to be heard, 4. the effectiveness of one's own arguments. Particularly positive evaluations were given by pupils and people with a secondary school leaving certificate. This indicates a high level of inclusion and fairness.
- A large proportion of respondents were clearly more interested in the topic of German foreign policy after the Citizens' Assembly. Almost all respondents also said they had learned a lot about the topic. Almost 70 per cent of the participants changed their minds on individual issues (especially on the topics of export policy and China).
- A majority of participants do not expect 1/1 implementation of the recommendations. However, 89 per cent would like to see more political commitment in dealing with Citizens' Assembly results.
The evaluation report concludes that citizens' assemblies are a suitable procedure for the cooperative and constructive participation of citizens at the federal level, provided a number of conditions are met. These include the involvement of political actors, a connection to society and the media, a wide range of opinions, a suitable selection of topics and priorities, the appropriate integration of expert knowledge, a strong culture of consultation, and sufficient financial and time resources.
In the handout, the evaluation teams explain why sortition-based citizens' assemblies are a useful complement to representative democracy. In addition, recommendations for the introduction of sortition-based citizens' assemblies at the federal level are formulated. The basic assumption here is that the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany has been only minimally changed since the 1970s and needs to be adapted in view of major processes of social change. A stronger exchange of political institutions with the population and new forms for this are necessary.
The handout recommends that an organisational unit for participatory democracy be set up at the Bundestag. Both politics and civil society should be able to initiate citizens' assemblies. The topic should be politically relevant and explosive and offer diverse possibilities for action. In addition, suggestions are made on the sortition procedure, moderation, expert input, the establishment and coordination of citizens' assemblies and their evaluation. There are also suggestions on how to deal with the results of citizens' assemblies, how to stabilise the use of this democratic instrument and how to embed it in parliamentary procedures.
Prof. Dr. Jan Ziekow of the University of Speyer has prepared a legal opinion to review the legal framework for the activity of sortition-based citizens' assemblies in a supplementary function to decision-making by the German Bundestag. According to this, three forms of initiating citizens' assemblies are conceivable:
a) Initiation by the parliament
b) Initiation by the federal government
c) Initiation by the citizenry/citizens' assembly initiative.
Results: The initiation of citizens' assemblies by the federal parliament is constitutionally unobjectionable. However, citizens' assemblies cannot have any binding effect on parliament. However, a law or rules of procedure can stipulate that the results of citizens' assemblies be referred to parliament and that it be obliged to comment on the status of the procedure and the manner of implementation. A report to the Citizens' Assembly members on what has been implemented and why, on the other hand, would require a constitutional amendment.
A citizens' assembly initiative from the population could be non-binding (after which a citizens' assembly MAY be held) or binding (after which a citizens' assembly MUST be held) for the Bundestag. A non-mandatory citizens' assembly initiative ("with impulse effect") makes a proposal similar to a petition. The procedure does not need to be enshrined in the constitution. The Citizens' Assembly initiative could be initiated by directive, regulation in the Rules of Procedure of the Bundestag or law.
A hurdle of 200,000 signatures seems appropriate for a citizens' assembly initiative, since it is not a matter of a substantive recommendation (as with a popular initiative), but first of all only of its preparation. A mandatory citizens' assembly initiative would have to be anchored in the constitution. The number of signatures required should be below that of a popular initiative, but above that of a non-binding citizens' assembly initiative. Here, 500,000 signatures seem appropriate.
- Evaluation report on the Citizens' Assembly "Germany's Role in the World" (DE - PDF)
- Summary of the evaluation report (DE - PDF)
- Background: Evaluation methodology (DE - PDF)
- Background: Evaluation statistics (DE - PDF)
- Handout: Citizens' Assemblies as a contemporary complement to representative democracy (DE - PDF)
- Legal opinion on framework conditions for citizens' assemblies at the federal level (DE - PDF)
- Dr. Georg Schütte of the Volkswagen Foundation on the funding of the evaluation by his foundation