Instead of electing politicians to represent us…what if we just represented ourselves? Peer to peer. Neighbor to neighbor. Baratunde talks with Claudia Chwalisz about citizens’ assemblies – groups that are randomly-selected by lottery that are shifting political and legislative power into the hands of everyday people. Claudia is one of the world’s leading voices on citizens’ assemblies and founder and CEO of DemocracyNext, an organization working to build new institutions for the next democratic paradigm.
Claudia Chwalisz 0:01
I really feel personally a sense of disillusionment with how things work, but I also feel like we cannot give up hope that things could be different because it's in that uncertainty around hope that motivates us into action. To say that we are all capable of making some changes to actually do things differently, to change the way things work. We're not limited to trying to save this broken system that we have. We really could be working towards something else.
Baratunde Thurston 0:32
Welcome to How To Citizen with Baratunde, a podcast that reimagine citizen as a verb, not a legal status. This season is all about how we practice democracy. What can we get rid of? What can we invent, and how do we change the culture of democracy itself? Relieving the theoretical clouds and hitting the ground with inspiring examples of people and institutions that are showing us new ways to govern ourselves. In the US, we have this constitutional right to petition the government to seek redress for our grievances. You know we have mad grievances, but what do we really get to do with them? We can email, call, or fax our representatives. We can attend a local meeting, make a 90-second statement. We can march through the streets, shout outside people's homes, tag lawmakers in scathing posts on social media.
We do these things hoping to affect the folks who make and enforced policies with the threat of throwing them out of office if they don't, and then we try it all over again and again and again. What if there was more than petitioning, protesting, and voting yes or no on a person? What if we could influence the policymaking process without becoming a billionaire first and just buying the policymaking process? I've got great news, we can. We can upgrade our democratic systems to include our voices in ways that stretch our standard definition of civic participation and of politics. I first met Claudia Chwalisz in 2022. A friend was advising her as she built out this new organization called Democracy Next or DemNext for short. For years, Claudia has been studying, writing about, and leading experiments at the forefront of democratic innovation.
Basically, giving us new ways to participate in self-governance. Before starting DemNext, she was at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, for short, where she literally worked on the quote, unquote "future of democracy." During that time, she tracked hundreds of examples of citizen assemblies, which bring together a broadly representative bunch of people selected by lottery to decide how we should live together.
Now, in our last episode, we heard from Nsé Ufot, former CEO of the New Georgia project. Nsé emphasized the value of engaging community and conversation so they could better use elections to exercise their power. Now, while Nsé largely focused on driving people to vote for candidates who decide our policies, Claudia is driving citizens toward each other to help us decide those policies for ourselves. After the break, Claudia Chwalisz takes our participation pillar to the next level. Hello.
Claudia Chwalisz 3:34
Hi, Baratunde. Really, really lovely to see you and virtually this time, but it was great to see you in Paris recently.
Baratunde Thurston 3:41
Yes, it was. Are you in Paris right now?
Claudia Chwalisz 3:44
I am indeed.
Baratunde Thurston 3:46
How's it? How's it feel?
Claudia Chwalisz 3:48
Baratunde Thurston 3:51
Good, not good, but Paris also gets dark. I'm just thinking of sunshine and rooftops. Let's jump into this. Since 2018, you've been part of this growing movement of people trying to take this theory out of academia and textbooks and put it into the real world, a theory called deliberative democracy. Can you define what deliberative democracy is? What does it look like?
Claudia Chwalisz 4:20
Yeah, I think that's a good starting point before we get into any examples or anything else as well because I think deliberation is one of those words that we hear sometimes, but we don't often take the time to even define it. Deliberation actually at its heart is it's a form of communicating with others, with a spirit of having an open mind, of being willing to give reasons for why we believe in something, but also with the spirit of trying to find common ground.
This theory of deliberative democracy is the premise of democracy being about deliberation at its heart. The work that I've been doing has been about citizens assemblies and citizens juries and other forms that deliberative democracy has been taking, which give this a bit more structure.
Baratunde Thurston 5:01
When I think about how we describe ourselves in terms of what our democracy is, the phrase representative democracy comes to mind, and we think about bodies of representation, national assemblies, congresses, senates, which themselves are deliberative in the US. It's the world's greatest deliberative body. Everything you just described sounds like what we are supposedly already up to. Can you tease out any difference between what we think of as representative democracy versus what is being called deliberative democracy?
Claudia Chwalisz 5:33
Today, what we have come to be calling representative democracy has been so bound with the idea of elections. I think if we go back actually, and we take a step back from this, elections have never actually in the longer history of political philosophy been considered a form of democracy.
Baratunde Thurston 5:55
Stop, stop, stop. Elections, that's a big newsflash to a lot of people. Can you just say that one more time for the people in the back and explain that little piece of it?
Claudia Chwalisz 6:05
If we go back to, well go to Aristotle, but political philosophers in between until about a hundred years ago, the notion of constituting a body by elections has been considered a form of constituting an oligarchy, meaning rule by the few.
Baratunde Thurston 6:20
Claudia Chwalisz 6:23
Indeed. I think it's a really important point that we've only very recently in history come to associate elections with democracy. Even if we take a step back to the point in history around the time of the French and American revolutions, which is I suppose the moment when this modern conception of the institutions of representative democracy as we think of them today.
We're initiated and then modeled and expanded to other parts of the world since then. If you look in the declaration in the US in the Constitution, if you look in all sorts of other historical and archival documents, that term was not used. Those institutions were actually set up to be intentionally oligarchic, meaning concentrating power in the hands of the few. It's only much, much later when suffrage began expanding, did the term representative government start morphing into the term representative democracy. Today, we often just say democracy and that's it. Actually, just because we're using that term doesn't actually necessarily make it democratic.
Baratunde Thurston 7:27
I love this context. It reminds me back in season two of this show. We started that season off with Astra Taylor, who is a documentarian and historian and a debt rights activist for liberating people from their debts. She studied the history of the term democracy and the practice as the Greeks helped develop it. She shocked us with this similar kind of revelation that elections were all oligarchical and that the Greeks actually conscripted people random folks from society. I joked that instead of jury duty, it was like citizen council duty and water department duty, and you just got thrown into the mix, which is one way of making sure you have a different type of representation.
Even the idea that people who win elections are charismatic and extroverted and thus not truly representative of the people because it self-selects for a certain type of person. Does that align with your understanding of the history as well? These elections themselves, as you said, have been oligarchic, that this goes back as far as the Greeks and even the Romans?
Claudia Chwalisz 8:34
Yeah, exactly this goes far back, but I would say that also this idea of democracy has deliberation is something that also goes far back and is widespread also in indigenous communities and many non-Western cultures because I think we also have a tendency to talk a lot about Ancient Greece as though it is somehow the pinnacle of democracy. Of course, there's a lot of inspiration to be found there too, but it's not the only place.
Baratunde Thurston 8:57
We're going to keep moving. I just want to let listeners know we'll put a link to that Astra Taylor episode in the show notes for this so you can dive even deeper into her history of what the Greeks did and didn't do and what made them nervous. A lot of things that still plague us to this day.
Claudia, Citizens' Assemblies, you've used the word already, when did you first learn about this idea of randomly grabbing people from the public to serve in some participatory deliberative fashion?
Claudia Chwalisz 9:26
Well, it's been about 10 years that I've now been doing work on deliberative democracy in some way or other. I first came across these ideas when reading the work of David Van Raybrook in his book Against Elections. It was a bit of a revelation for me because I was doing work at the time on populism and my research was focused on trying to understand the extent to which people's disillusion meant with politics, with the system. This feeling of not having a voice or a genuine say or ability to really shape the decisions affecting your life. To what extent was this driving this wider trend of populism? From that work, I became really convinced that this was one part of it, and it's not the only thing, but if it's a core part of it, then it's never going to be top-down policies that actually gets to a heart of people feeling like they have agency, and they can be citizens in the way you're using the term here.
This led me into exploring this world of democratic innovation a bit more broadly. Looking at all sorts of different things like crowdsourcing policy and more participatory ways of involving people. It was when I came across this idea of Citizens' Assemblies that it was like an aha moment of feeling like this could get to the heart of some of those underlying drivers of the problems we have in democracy today, and not just things that are trying to treat the symptoms of the problems that we're facing.
Baratunde Thurston 10:45
You mentioned 2010 and coming across some of this work, you've studied this, and I want to understand, I know you have these big database you created many examples of all kinds of deliberatively democratic activities across the world. Where were you when you did this work and why did Citizens' Assemblies of all forms jump out to you?
Claudia Chwalisz 11:08
I was at the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is an international organization of member countries. Basically, it's a think tank of international organizations. While I was there, I set up and then I was leading the work around the future of democracy, which actually was called that at the time officially today-
Baratunde Thurston 11:29
That just sounds like a high pressure situation. You're at the OECD leading up work on the future of democracy. Did you feel a lot of pressure because I feel like literally the world is counting on you?
Claudia Chwalisz 11:42
I probably did not think about it in that way at the time. It was more just I was head down in the data collection. I mean, it is driven overall that work and the work I'm doing today by a real sense of urgency of needing to be looking at not just the analysis of the problems that we have. Obviously, that needs to be the starting point, but I feel like where we need to put more energy is into thinking about what are the solutions, and what are the ways we could be trying to really do things differently. That's why I feel like this world of Citizens Assemblies has been so inspiring to me. Maybe actually before I continue, we take a moment to define what is a Citizens Assembly actually is. I want to give some examples and talk more in depth than before being able to do that. By Citizens Assemblies, what I'm talking about is when a government or a public authority convenes a broadly representative group of people.
Usually, it's somewhere between 50 to 150 people and tasks them with a policy problem to solve. One real life example was how do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 in a spirit of social justice? There's a problem to be solved, a public body convenes a group of broadly representative people through a process of a lottery, but also ensuring that group of people is broadly representative of the wider public. The technical term for that is stratification. It's what polling companies do when they do polls to try and get a representative sample. There's a lottery with stratification to bring together a group of people that anybody looking at them can say, "There's someone like me that's part of this." Then, these people have the time and the resources to be able to grapple with the complexity of that issue.
The issue that I just named nine months of deliberation to be able to listen to experts, listen to stakeholders, get information, to listen to one another, and then do that hard work of finding common ground on a shared set of policy proposals. Now, those proposals can take the shape of proposed legislation, proposed regulation topics for a referendum, general public policies. This is what I'm talking about when I talk about a Citizen Assembly. This process with a large group of people, relatively large, but small enough to be broadly representative of a public who have the time and resources over a long period of time to really grapple with an issue.
Baratunde Thurston 14:04
Do these people get paid? You just mentioned nine months, this is now a job. How do you make sure people can afford to participate in something like this?
Claudia Chwalisz 14:13
Yes, people get paid most of the time. I don't want to generalize because actually the data and the OECD database shows in detail if you want to look into it, that it's not always the case. In some countries there's more of, especially at the local level, more of an attempt to make this a civic and voluntary process. There's a bit of a debate in the field, but most of the time people get paid.
Childcare is provided. If it's in person transport costs are covered. If it's online, there's computers or technical support provided if needed. It's important to actually break down those barriers to participation. I think part of what has made Citizens Assembly so inspiring as well is that there has been this concerted effort in the field to really create the conditions for participation to be possible. Sometimes we say that people don't really want to participate or why would they want to give up nine months, but actually we have more than enough evidence to show that people are willing to participate. It's also about creating the conditions for this to be meaningful, but also really possible in a very practical sense as well.
Baratunde Thurston 15:14
Willingness to participate, meaningful, and possibility, all of those things are interesting to me because the example that most of us have access to is jury duty. What you've described as a Citizens' Assemblies sounds like super jury duty. We feel certain types of ways about jury duty. Most of us try to avoid them, it's complicated.
We're rendering a yes/no decision on something, but we're very empowered in terms of civic duty someone's life might literally be in our hands. It's randomized. I don't know if it has all the stratification and representation that you've described, but it's the closest we have access to. How does the Citizen Assembly compare to jury duty in terms of our more common reference point with everything you just described that's involved?
Claudia Chwalisz 16:00
I think jury duty is probably the best analogy of what most people will be familiar with on the premise of it. It does differ a little bit because usually it's a larger group of people. Also, usually, it is facilitated. In juries, the jury members just deliberate with one another, whereas in Citizens' Assemblies there's independent and skilled facilitators that are there to try and also create those conditions. There's always going to be people who are naturally more confident and inclined to speak up in a public setting. I'm one of them, you're probably one of them too.
Baratunde Thurston 16:34
I don't know what you're talking about, Claudia. What do you mean? I just, I'll be sitting out in the corner just taking notes, observing. I don't like to talk.
Claudia Chwalisz 16:45
There's facilitators who very kindly ensure that those people who naturally speak more confidently than others are not the only ones who speak to bring in those who are less inclined to also be there to create the trusted environment that is needed in the room as well.
Baratunde Thurston 17:02
This idea of populism, people feeling disenfranchised and just a higher degree of polarization, a lot of that feels like it's driven by technology, the idea that we live further apart ideologically from each other, information silos, the whole thing that's been studied in its own right. Does tech have a role in the opposite end in enhancing our ability to deliberate. I think about Audrey Tang and vTaiwan and what the people of Taiwan have done with tech to bring more citizens into the flow. Then, I'm also thinking about insurrections and misinformation. What is your analysis and what have you seen in terms of tech's contribution to populism and some of the drivers creating the need for more deliberation, which tech could also provide some solutions for?
Claudia Chwalisz 17:54
Well, I think you're right that tech is on both sides of the problem. It's also part of why, for me technology is not the starting point in terms of the first thing I think about when we're talking about democracy and the problems with it, but also the potential solutions. I feel like we first need to have this lens of looking at actually what are our institutions? What are the processes that we use to try and decide who decides, and how we're taking those decisions? Then, the question is, where does technology come into that and how can it be supporting and creating that environment that really enables people to, I suppose, hear that diversity of perspectives but also create the space to really listen to one another.
I feel like that's also part of what just looking through the tech lens angle, we sometimes miss if we jump straight into talking and thinking about technology and where it fits in.
Baratunde Thurston 18:44
I love that answer, and I love people hearing this to really hear that we don't start with the technology. You don't start with the hammer, you say, what am I trying to build? You realize what tools you need to create that world you're trying to live in. Thank you for emphasizing that. Have you been a member of a Citizens' Assembly yourself?
Claudia Chwalisz 19:05
No, I wish.
Baratunde Thurston 19:06
Claudia Chwalisz 19:07
I'm hoping that one day as this practice actually expands, I'll be lucky enough to be selected. I do know people who've been members I mean both actually on a personal level now when it's getting to a point of some of my friends being excited of like, "Oh my gosh, I've just received a letter." Also, having been in touch with and interviewed some of the people who've been part of different processes.
Baratunde Thurston 19:29
Well, I hope you get that call too. In the city that you're living in right now, the city of Paris has a Citizens' Assembly and you were involved in helping make that happen. How did you get involved in the co-creation of this? Let's talk about what they actually do.
Claudia Chwalisz 19:48
Paris has a permanent Citizens' Assembly as of December last year, indeed. Why I was involved actually is related to another story of a smaller place, which is a little bit less well-known, but nonetheless interesting when it comes to looking actually at this bigger history of what's been going on with Citizens' Assemblies. There's this region in Belgium called Ostbelgien, which is the German-speaking community there. They were the world's first place to establish a permanent Citizens' Assembly, which is effectively their second chamber of people selected by lottery. I was involved in the group of experts that helped design that process there, which is related to why when the vice mayor of Paris responsible for participation was inspired by this, I was also part of the group of people who was involved in thinking about how could we adapt some of the elements of this Ostbelgien Model to a city like Paris.
Baratunde Thurston 20:47
You mentioned that there's a vice mayor for participation in Paris?
Claudia Chwalisz 20:51
Baratunde Thurston 20:51
See, jealous again, I've never heard of such a thing. That's amazing. Normally politicians, they just want your participation to vote and then they're done with you. This is interesting that they're in inviting it. What were the conditions in Paris or in France that had someone at relatively high levels of elected government asking for more citizen participation, which I could imagine some elected officials seeing as eroding their own power.
Claudia Chwalisz 21:17
Some I think see it that way and some see it as the evolution of democracy and the need to be also expanding people's power by creating meaningful ways for people to be able to also be participating in a more ongoing way. Paris actually has had a quite deep participatory culture for quite some time...
Baratunde Thurston 21:35
You mean when they behead everybody every 30 years?
Claudia Chwalisz 21:48
I'm talking about more contemporary history maybe in the past decade or two. Where it's one of the first cities that had implemented participatory budgeting on a much bigger scale. There are different local [foreign language 00:21:54] citizens councils, so not with people by lottery, but there's already different forms of councils.
There's a youth council, there's a council of Europeans living in Paris. There's different mechanisms that exist for people to be able to be influencing things in this city in an ongoing way already.
Baratunde Thurston 22:12
Thanks for the context. I get that you are working on a project in Belgium that gave you a little credibility to roll up into Paris's participatory culture. What does it mean for someone to be a part of this assembly? What power do they actually have and what are the responsibilities?
Claudia Chwalisz 22:30
There's a few different aspects to this. Well, I'll try to explain it in the simplest way possible. Basically, the system with the permanent Paris Citizens Assembly works is that there are a hundred people that form this Citizens' Assembly, and they are people living in Paris, so not necessarily French citizens. I technically could have been chosen as a Canadian living here.
They're broadly representative of the diversity of Parisian, and their mandate lasts for one year. There's a combination of them being able to have an agenda setting rule, so deciding what issues should be on the table that they deliberate on, but they also come up with policy recommendations. Let's say the legal mechanism that established this assembly allows for them to be able to either put forth what is called a wish to the city council, which is the same thing that the city councilors are able to do as well. This means that they're able to suggest that they would really like something to happen and it necessitates a response and a debate within that council. More importantly, they're actually able to draft local laws, which again is then required to have a deliberation and a debate and a vote by the elected city council members on the back of this. Another mandate of this Citizens' Assembly is that it decides the theme of the next year's participatory budget.
It has a big impact on the investment decisions of the city in that more indirect way. It also has the ability to choose a topic for a more one-off citizen's jury, which is a smaller group of people. Again, that citizen's jury also is able to potentially draft a local law to be deliberated by the city counselors. It's a little bit complex, but at the same time, that is also I think something we need to keep in mind that democratic innovation is not necessarily simple or easy. It's not just about like, "Why don't we just replace the politicians that we have in some of the existing chambers with people selected by lottery?" I think it also requires new ways of thinking about the kinds of roles that citizens can be playing in the system like agenda setting, because that's also not something we see very often today.
Baratunde Thurston 24:48
Agenda setting, budget influence, at least on the part of the budget that is open and participatory defined by the people, and nominating proposals, nominating laws that are required to have a debate in the elected system, so to speak. That is getting closer and closer to just fully exercising power.
Do you have any sense of what the experience is like? What are people who are a part of this saying? What does it mean to be a member? Are they changed by this process?
Claudia Chwalisz 25:18
Well, I think sometimes at the very beginning there's a sense of almost disbelief like is this even really happening? It's actually quite new and different to be asked to play such a longer term and meaningful role in shaping decisions. It's not the same as like, "Come along to this town hall meeting for an hour and tell us what you think about something." It's like, "Will you engage for a full year and take on all these different responsibilities?" I've been observing some of the sessions of the Paris Assembly in particular, and it's just really powerful to see because it's also people from 16 years and over, the 16-year-olds next to the 80-year-olds, and you just really see actually the diversity of the city in the room in a way that don't when you go to see any elected chamber basically anywhere.
That in itself is really moving. Then, it's almost in the more informal moments of interaction during the coffee breaks when you see actually the relationships that have clearly formed between people who never would've met otherwise. You listen to them talking about the propositions they've come up with and giving the rationale and the explanations for why they came to this decision and why it was hard and maybe the considerations they had. Again, it's just quite a different form of democracy than we're used to because we see a lot of debate where people come into a chamber with their pre-prepared statement that they read, and it doesn't even force them to listen to what anybody else says. On the other hand, you have a deliberation where people are all listening to the same information and evidence, and then they're listening to one another. Then, they're really trying to find, "Where can we agree to really take this forward?"
Baratunde Thurston 27:03
This sounds like a magical fictional place. In the US, I think you'd call this meeting and 30% of the folks would show up with automatic weapons, and then you'd have a QAnon contingent saying, this assembly doesn't exist, or it's all a plot to kidnap children. There'd be conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones' people would show up, it'd be madness. What you're describing has patience and listening, and a spirit of shared participation and respect. I think that's the word, there's a respect for everyone's participation in the system, which is not the experience that most of us have observed or felt when we think about politics as practiced today. What's different in the water or what's different in the process that allows for all these beautiful things you just described to actually be real?
Claudia Chwalisz 28:00
I just love the way you described it. It's like all of that is exactly why this gives me hope and why I'm so interested in studying this for so long. It doesn't just magically happen on its own. It's also about designing the conditions for this to be possible. That's where it's really important actually, that there's a fair and transparent process to do the random selection so that everybody actually has an equal chance of being selected to be part of this.
That group of people really does reflect the diversity of a community that is, whether it's Paris or elsewhere, and then creating enough time for people to really be able to grapple with the complexity of an issue. If you give people an issue like, "Should we change the constitution on abortion?" Which is what people in Ireland really deliberated about. You're obviously not going to give them an hour or even just one day. In Ireland, people deliberated for five months about that before coming to recommendations, not just about whether or not there should be a referendum to change the Constitution, which they said there should be, but also how should the legislation change if people were to vote for change in the referendum?
Again, it's complex and so you need to have the time and it needs to be fair in terms of the diversity of information that people hear from. There was a mix of people on both sides of the issue in terms of advocates foreign against. People telling personal stories, researchers sharing their research on this issue. Then, people actually having a lot of time also to listen to one another, to give justification for why they believe something or why not. To come up with their shared recommendations for the government. Again, the skilled facilitation matters. The fact that this is something that will actually be taken seriously, I think is also part of what gets those people who might not vote or might not do other civic things into the room because there's a sense that, "Actually, this is important and it can have an impact."
It's not just being done for a research experiment. There's all these different design elements for this to be effective, but also for it to be democratic.
Baratunde Thurston 30:03
Democratic small d, that's the point, I slightly kid, but honestly not about just the levels of polarization and near to actual violence that we experience in our political system. I'm thinking back to the yellow vest protest in France and traffic has stopped and people are so upset about fuel tax associated with trying to fight climate change. Where does that energy live in a citizen assembly context in France are yellow vest people showing up and listening and people listening to them?
Claudia Chwalisz 30:34
The yellow vest movement in France led to what was called the great debate. There were all sorts of different kind of town hall meetings and different online forms of people bringing up ideas and so forth. One of the main things that kept coming up and up actually was the proposition to have a Citizens' Assembly to be able to take this energy, take these different ideas.
Also, to create the conditions for it to be a broadly representative group of people from French society who would be able to grapple with this issue for a longer period of time. That example I gave earlier on about how do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 in the spirit of social justice was the actual question that French people were tasked with coming up with propositions for in the French Citizens' Assembly on climate that really you could trace the origins of why did this even take place back to the energy that had emerged around the yellow vest movement.
Baratunde Thurston 31:30
Well, that sounds promising. We have examples in the city of Paris. We've got examples in Belgium, we've got Ireland, and the constitutional amendment process around abortion. Then, there's another example in Brussels around climate that's issue specific. What do you accomplish with a singular focus versus something more broad and evolving and emerging as the Parisian example. What could the citizen assembly model generate that all the NGOs and activists and academic researchers, and policy makers who are clearly focused on climate issues, especially in Europe not get done.
Claudia Chwalisz 32:13
I finished the story about France and in a way as though it makes it sound great and amazing. Parts of it are in the sense that there was a climate bill that then was passed that had a lot of the recommendations from this Citizens' Assembly on climate, but actually a lot of the recommendations also got watered down and ignored when they got put back into the traditional political process. Seeing the evidence of this happen over and over again is part of my frustration of feeling like clearly this approach of just adding on a one-off assembly to a system that has a completely different set of incentives at heart with the short-termism, the party politics, the campaign financing, the lobbying and so on, it's not working to actually change who's deciding, and how those decisions are taken at the end of the day.
Now, we have the example in Brussels where there is an institutional basis created for a Citizens' Assembly to be able to have an ongoing say in all sorts of different climate related policy issues all the time. Again, the fact that this is permanent also allowed us to think about how do we ensure that there's an agenda setting role. It's also in the very first cycle and instance, it's going to be the ministers who said, "What is the topic and what are the issues that they deliberate on?"
In the second cycle, it's going to be a proportion of that first Citizens' Assembly who are going to be randomly selected to decide on what should be the issue for the next one. This is going to be a feedback loop in a circular way. Then also, amongst the Citizens' Assembly members, there's again going to be a randomly selected smaller group of them of 10 who will be charged with also then monitoring and following on the progress of what happens with their recommendations after they've been passed off to government. That's also a downside of just having a one-off assembly is that where's the real holding to accountability afterwards? What's interesting about the Brussels permanent climate assembly is I think this thinking about how do we establish new institutions that could actually create a basis for these citizens assemblies to have genuine power is really interesting. I think that's where we need to be putting more energy into exploring this.
Baratunde Thurston 34:28
After the break, should elections even exist? Is it your not so secret mission to just do away with elections and elected politicians altogether?
Claudia Chwalisz 34:46
I think you can say that. I think it's maybe a blunt way to describe it because I don't want this to come across the wrong way. I feel like a lot of people who go into politics do so because they want to change their communities and they want to make the world a better place, and I don't want this to just be some sort of politician bashing. I really feel like it's a systemic problem. The short-termism, the fact that party politics and campaign financing and all these things come out on top in terms of what are the incentives for the collective public decisions we're taking, these are features not bugs of the system that we have today. How do we redesign the system and how do we shift power to new institutions of citizen participation, representation by law, and deliberation?
This is really the mission that motivates and inspires me to do the work that I'm doing and also with all the other people I'm working with because I'm not alone in all of this either.
Baratunde Thurston 35:42
Well, I'm excited. I think if I'm hypothesizing that if you did public opinion polling about how people feel about the electoral representative political system, and how they feel about the sortition-based more lottery-based citizen assembly political system, you'd have very different opinions on which is legitimate, which is trusted if these things are working as designed. Is that the direction of the feedback so far? Do people who know about this process, whether they're a part of it themselves or not have more faith in it?
Claudia Chwalisz 36:17
I think we need to be humble about the research that exists because I think a part of the problem with research in this field is that there's still relatively low levels of awareness and understanding of citizens assemblies. Now, that depends on the country. In places like Ireland, for example, where citizens assemblies have been a normal part of how politics is done at the national level for a decade, most people today have heard about Citizens' Assemblies.
People in the latest polling say that they see citizens assemblies as the place to really take decisions on the hardest issues that politicians are stuck on. There's a sense of understanding of the fact that this works, and there's also polling around the levels of trust in it. There was some recent polling that was done in France, the UK, Germany and Belgium, or not Belgium, Italy, which found that the majority of people, when you also explained a little bit what the Citizen's Assembly is, trusted this and wanted to see more of them happening. Also, wanted their recommendations to be binding, not just advisory. I think that's where we see a real shift in opinion today as well.
Baratunde Thurston 37:23
I hope a lot for this, and I know it's not a single solution to the myriad of problems, but it seems like a major contributor to a set of solutions through a different process and mechanism. Who are you, Claudia? Why do you care so much about this? I don't know many people who obsess over the future of democracy and commit their professional life's work to it. How were you raised? What was your diet that put this into your mind where this is what you're doing? You mentioned being from Canada, is it because you're a Canadian? Tell us about your biography a little bit that led you to care so much about this.
Claudia Chwalisz 38:02
Well, it's a good question. I'm Canadian from a Polish background, so hence my name. First person in my family who grew up in Canada. I'm sure that there's no doubt shaped in some ways my view of the world. My parents left Poland in the early 1980s when quite a different regime that was in place there at the time. Part of my story is also the fact that I started my studies in 2008, literally one of the first days of my studies. I was in London when Lehman Brothers crashed. This notion of-
Baratunde Thurston 38:36
Now, for an explainer Tunde. The historic stock market crash of 2008 wiped out huge chunks of Americans' retirement savings. Drove millions out of work and led to the collapse of some of the world's largest financial institutions. Among them was Lehman Brothers, the New York based investment bank founded in the 1840s, which was one of the country's largest firms with around 25,000 employees worldwide.
Unlike many other banks and financial giants that governments deemed too big to fail, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in September 2008, there was no bailout. At the time, it shuttering was the largest bankruptcy in the United States, and it's considered one of the tipping points that led to the global financial crisis of 2008. Now, you learn something. Let's get back to Claudia.
Claudia Chwalisz 39:31
I was in London when Lehman Brothers crashed. This notion of crisis, economic crisis, European sovereign debt crisis, democratic crisis, this has been a part of the lens through which I've seen the world for quite some time, and I think was part of actually what got me interested in politics and in wanting to study politics. It certainly wasn't what I intended to study because like I said, I was doing research on populism. There were only nine of us in my class at the time when we did it. It was a very niche topic.
Baratunde Thurston 40:02
That's adorable now.
Claudia Chwalisz 40:04
Then, I hadn't studied deliberative democracy during my studies. These were all ideas I've come across later. I think part of it stems from the fact I'm not just talking about other people when I'm referring to research or this sense of disillusionment with the system and how things work. I'm one of those people, I really feel personally a sense of disillusionment with how things work.
I also feel like we cannot give up hope, that things could be different because it's in that uncertainty around hope that motivates us into action. To say that we are all capable of making some changes to actually do things differently, to change the way things work. The danger zone is when we get into a sense of hopelessness and fatalism of thinking, "Well, this is just the way it is, or it's so hard or it feels impossible." It's like, of course it's not easy but I think when we see and hear about these really inspiring examples, that's what shows us that actually we're not limited to trying to save this broken system that we have. We really could be working towards something else.
Baratunde Thurston 41:11
Yes, build the new system, attract us all to migrate there. We had a really relevant question from a listener submitted ahead of time from Florian Schwendinger, I hope I'm pronouncing that reasonably, who says, "What's key to create buy-in and ownership with the political decision makers themselves to support making these things permanent. Increasing the amount of power that you might distribute to the citizens, not merely through elections, but through things like Citizens' Assemblies? How do you get them to want to do this for real?
Claudia Chwalisz 41:44
This element of almost the political strategy of how do we get there is just as important to making this a reality. Well, my experience of working in this field for a long time, and I suppose particularly in the last few years when there has been growing interest in this idea of making these things permanent stems from the fact that I've encountered so many people who are within the system today.
Whether that's as elected officials or presidents of parliament or senior civil servants who are just as dissatisfied with how the system works from within. Who have been inspired by these different examples in different places and see that actually this could be another way of doing things. The motivations are different, if we take the Ostbelgien example, for instance, in German-speaking region of Belgium, it was the president of the parliament and the president of the government from two different political priorities who came together and said, "Well, we did this one Citizens' Assembly and it really helped us solve this issue around affordable childcare.
We see the trends more widely around populism, around people not trusting the system, around feeling disillusioned with how things work. We really want to make a change and establish a permanent way for these citizens assemblies to be part of how our democracy functions here in Ostbelgien. This was the motivation for them and it was unanimously across party lines that people voted in the US Belgian parliament to establish this new permanent institution. I feel like there's a shared sense in many places of the fact that we have a suboptimal way of taking collective decisions today. People are more or less inclined to really believe that or to be wanting to in some ways give up some of their power to make the change happen. I do believe there's enough of those initial change makers out there to be those leaders showing us that another democracy and another politics is possible.
Baratunde Thurston 43:45
How do you ensure that this more deliberative democracy with things but not limited to Citizens' Assemblies actually distributes increasingly real power to the people. It's not just advisory and it's not just agenda setting. How do we make sure that happens?
Claudia Chwalisz 44:04
Well, this is the whole challenge of what we're trying to do now at DemocracyNext. I say this in the sense that we don't really have real examples today where there is genuine power with these assemblies. They're all to some extent advisory and we have more or less in the institutionalized like the permanent models, that's where we have the most mechanisms in place to ensure there's at least accountability, a follow-up. I need to respond monitoring of what happens with those recommendations. It's still not the same as citizens actually having the decision making power themselves. I think part of why we haven't seen that though is that the dominant narrative today is these citizens some of these are just something that could or should compliment our existing institutions. It's something that might enhance or help strengthen representative democracy as we know it today.
I feel like that actually has been detrimental to making the real fundamental change happen. That's why we're trying to shift the narrative and open up an imagination that actually another democratic future is possible and that we could be shifting power to Citizens' Assemblies and this could eventually really be the heart of a democratic system if we start to make those steps taking us in that direction. It means questioning the primacy of elections. It means really bringing up our history of philosophy and thinking actually elections are not a democratic form of governing ourselves and this is not the only way we could or should be doing things. It seems radical, I think to some people to say these things today. I think it's only when we start to question our own assumptions in this time of deep crisis, and open up an imagination that another way could be possible, that we're going to start seeing the real shifts of power.
Baratunde Thurston 45:53
I think that's what excites me is to get us out of this stuck mentality that we hear so often democracy is dying, democracy is dead. It's this competition between a dying democracy and to say the least questionable authoritarianism. On the other hand, and this is the false binary choice that we're presented with, we can do the Xi Jinping model or we can do the corrupt lobbyist driven, capitalistic, extractive quote unquote "democracy model." What you're highlighting and helping accelerate is just another thing is possible, another democracy is possible.
When I think about the outcomes from Citizens' Assemblies, my question is what is the goal, right? Is it consensus? Everybody comes through this beautiful process and they all agree and then they submit it to the system for taking it seriously. Is it just another version of majority rule in smaller groups? What does that facilitation look like in the process? They're not entirely connected, but I think the biggest question is what's the actual outcome?
Claudia Chwalisz 47:02
It's worth actually bringing out the fact that consensus does not mean 100% of people, 100% agree with everything because that's not possible. I would say it's also not desirable because in a democracy there's also a value of pluralism and acknowledging the fact that people actually have different values and different priorities and different ideas. It's why it's important to create enough space and time for people to be able to acknowledge those differences and that then in spite of those differences, do that really hard work that also takes time of saying, okay, where can we find common ground between us? Usually, within these citizens assemblies it's around 75% to 80% of people who get to a point of finding some agreement on a recommendation for it to be a recommendation of the group.
Again, there's a justification and an explanation of why did we come to this thinking? Why do we propose this altogether? Then usually, actually the reports of the citizens assemblies have something called the minority report at the end where those views that didn't reach majority view or consensus are still nonetheless acknowledged and their reasoning is put forth. It's also explained that this only had 10% of the support of the wider group of people here.
It's not a recommendation of the collective, but we nonetheless acknowledge that these ideas were talked about and expressed by some. Is it a perfect system? Perhaps not, I don't think anything is, but I think it's a much greater improvement on the current way in which we're currently trying to take decisions through political party point scoring and debates. Trying to win, rather than trying to find where do we find enough common ground between us.
Baratunde Thurston 48:45
The word that you use that lands most strongly with me is acknowledge and that this is a process where people can feel acknowledged. If you have participated and been heard and interacted and engaged, you may not get everything you want. In fact, most of us never do but if the process acknowledges you, then we should all feel more invested in that process.
We use the word citizen on this show, How To Citizen, we interpret it as a verb. We have a whole series of principles we think define that. Given your work and your heavy use of the word as well, how do you define citizen if you interpret it as a verb? What does that mean?
Claudia Chwalisz 49:27
I think it's one of those words we need to reclaim in the same way I think we need to reclaim democracy from elections because I think there's a debate going on almost of like, should we use citizen in this context? Should we talk just about people's assemblies? I think it's actually important that we use this word citizen in that civic sense of the term, which is much more universal than just referring in any way to what passport somebody holds. That's again, something that quite recently in history, we've reduced the notion of what that concept of citizen means to that, whereas actually citizen has this much broader meaning. I really share the version of how you talk about it as a verb as well, because it does mean to participate. It means to be really living with and understanding with what power means and also in a collective way.
It's not something you do on your own to be a citizen, it's something you do with others that you're sharing a community with. I think all those aspects really get captured in this word citizen, and we need to keep using it because it's an important word that we shouldn't give up to the people who want to narrow it down to a very, very narrow meaning.
Baratunde Thurston 50:37
Thank you. We have arrived at the end of the just me part of this. I'm going to shift into the audience Q&A. Robert, you are here. It looks like you are off mute. Go ahead intro yourself and ask your question.
Robert Beets 50:51
My name is Robert Beets and I work with a group called Modern Populace. We're thinking about some of these things about deliberative democracy. My question was, representative selection by sortition seems great, but deliberation can be top down or can be more bottom up. Sometimes that top down limits engagement and bottom up can be more disruptive. My question is, who really owns the process of Citizens' Assemblies? By own that process, I mean you said that was oftentimes open, but is that really accepted or satisfying to the populous as a whole?
Baratunde Thurston 51:25
Thank you, Robert.
Claudia Chwalisz 51:26
It's a good question. I think it raises a bit of attention that there has been in this field as well about the way to really make change happen. I think you need both bottom up and top down initiatives because we see that they'll end up also having different dynamics and different impacts. Actually, if we go back to 2011, of the biggest bottom up citizens assemblies that was organized was in Belgium and it was called the G1000. David Van Raybrook who wrote against elections who I mentioned earlier, was part of this along with a group of other activists. It was during the period when there was no government for over 500 days in Belgium. Citizens took it into their own hands to organize a bottom up Citizens' Assembly with a thousand people who at the time they just convened for one day.
They brought them together to write up all sorts of different propositions for what should we actually be doing in this period with no government. Now, the government actually ended up forming shortly afterwards, they didn't do much of anything of what came out of this, but it wasn't a failure because I think it's what prompted the seeds of this becoming such a prominent form of democracy within Belgium.
There's initiatives happening at all different levels. I've only mentioned a few of the examples here today. I think it's important to have the bottom up kinds of things happening, but we also see that with the citizens assemblies that have been organized by activists or by society or by academia, there is an effect on who ends up participating in something when it's not linked in any way to power or authority. You have a bit much bigger bias of who's willing to give up their time to talk about something for a period of time. People are more likely to drop out, which has also a dynamic on the deliberation. When it is initiated by authority, there is nonetheless a much greater chance of a much more representative group of people who are willing to take the time to do this, but also for there to be real impact.
Even though I was saying that part of why I'm doing what I'm doing today is driven by a disillusionment of seeing recommendations watered down or ignored, we nonetheless have quite a few examples where at least the majority of the propositions do make their way into policy or into legislation or regulation. Citizens have been having a really important impact on shaping things like $5 billion 10-year investment plans in the city of Melbourne. Canada's national regulation around tech companies is now being shaped largely by a national Citizens' Assembly. We do have enough evidence to show that actually it is important to have that top down initiative to link it to authority. Again, I go back to why it's really interesting to be thinking about how to make this permanent because we also need to be giving citizens the way of shaping the agenda.
Today, it's so much shape top down by who decides and how they frame a question or an issue or what might even be allowed to be on the table, and that needs to change as well.
Baratunde Thurston 54:22
The answer it sounds like an all of the above answer, but it's sequencing matters. You start from the outside, work your way in, maybe start top down shift to more bottom up to build trust, experience, best practices. Our next question comes from Sara Hughes.
Sara Hughes 54:36
Hi. Sara Hughes, she/they pronouns from the uncded territory of the Haudenosaunee people. A lot of the circles I'm engaging in now are imagining stateless society and what skills we need as citizens to operate with real sovereignty and on a community basis. Going back to, you mentioned earlier indigenous culture, and I'm glad you did because indigenous ways of knowing pre-state societies are informing a lot of what's happening now in the more radical community formation work.
I'm just curious what your thoughts are about what's happening on the edges of this in terms of questioning state power in general.
Claudia Chwalisz 55:24
Thank you, Sara, for putting probably the most difficult question to me and because my honest answer to that is I don't know. I think when we start to question certain aspects of the system as we have today and we begin to unpick them, we realize actually how interrelated all these different other accepted norms and concepts that we have today are. One of them is around the state. Another one is around citizenship actually, because in these citizens assemblies, it's often not people who are citizens in that narrow sense of the term, but anybody who's living in a place who can be part of them. What does that mean for citizenship if these actually have power, and it's anybody who's living in a place without necessarily a passport from that country that can participate.
The notion actually of what level of government is the most appropriate. Once we start to untick the system, it also puts into question actually, in what way is this the best way to organize ourselves? Like these notions of local, regional, national government, and the way we often have them broken down in many countries are not necessarily the best ways that we divide ourselves as communities. All I'm saying is that I don't know the answer to the question, but I think that's something that we really need to be also thinking about. By opening up the imagination and questioning the system that we have today, I think it allows us the room to be exploring these interrelated and really important questions as well.
Baratunde Thurston 56:59
I love it. I will ask this question on behalf of Liza, which relates to who participates and what their experience might be if they don't have those official government papers, or culturally seen as not citizens. Is there evidence for how threatened minority groups participating in a Citizens' Assembly, for example in Paris, Muslim women and girls with hijabs, how have they fared in the process?
Claudia Chwalisz 57:23
I don't know enough about Paris in terms of the specific examples to answer it from that lens. In terms of the broader lens and perhaps with the example of the mixed deliberative committees that exist in Brussels. Brussels is one of the most diversities in the world, actually 180 different nationalities, a hundred different languages spoken.
To make it again, as inclusive as possible, and perhaps there's even more that can be done, the official invitation letters go out in the seven most commonly spoken languages in Brussels. Plus, when you go online, you can also access the invitation in other languages. People who are not necessarily fluent in the main language of the deliberation, in Brussels, this is often in Dutch or French or English. People can come with a buddy who helps to interpret for them so that they can still nonetheless participate. That buddy also receives the same payment or honorarium for their time, the same conditions to be able to participate, so that person doesn't end up being limited by that. Again, there's different aspects around having trained skilled facilitators who are there in the room to create those conditions for people to really truly feel welcome.
As part of this, there's the public communication that has been done that really helps convey that this is really welcome to anyone who's living in Brussels. There's all these different elements that come together that I think help as much as possible bring those people in who today I think feel excluded by the current system who might find it hard to participate for one reason or another. I think we need to stop thinking it's because these people don't want to participate. We need to find the different ways of how do we really create the conditions to make this as inclusive as possible.
Baratunde Thurston 59:09
Thank you for that. We're going to try to squeeze one more in. It's Nick Coccoma, I believe.
Nick Coccoma 59:15
Hi, Claudia. Nick here from Boston. My question is, given the liberal modern Republic Electoral republics came about only through, and at least in the case of the US and France through violent revolution, and we're talking about complete regime change really through sortition.
How can we move from the current constitutional model towards a democracy by lottery system? Then, can you envision this working in both not only legislative but also the executive and judicial branches as well?
Baratunde Thurston 59:49
Small question, thanks Nick. Do we have to have a bloody revolution to get this going, and can it go beyond the legislative branch?
Claudia Chwalisz 59:56
Thanks, Nick. Indeed, easy question to end with. First of all, to be clear I am not calling for a bloody revolution. This is not a call for people to pick up their pitchforks literally but it is a call for people to take action. I think that we can see regime change, if we want to call it that happen also in a much more peaceful way.
If we look at the countries around the world that have both their monarchies and their parliaments with people selected by election in place, we have examples which show us that it's possible to still be in transition from different types of governance in many places as well. I think realistically, there is going to be a combination of elections-based and sortition-based forms of democracy that coexist. For me, the aim is to see over time having more and more genuine power really shifted to this sortition-based deliberative bodies. I think we can see that happening in different ways. I think it's part of why we need this happening in different spheres. If anyone watched them launch event for DemocracyNext, I had opened it with imagination exercise like imagine that we're in 2032.
Part of that was actually getting people to imagine that this morning you received an invitation to be part of your country's executive assembly. Last year, your best friend sat on the judicial selection commission, which was set up to take the partisanship out of selecting judges, and it went on and on. Also, to illustrate that, I think actually we need to think beyond just the legislative branch. We also need to think beyond, let's say the traditional institutions of government. I think we need to also think about trade unions and public banks and central banks, and the other institutions that have an impact on our public lives. How could we democratize the governance of those as well. It's not going to happen overnight. I don't think we need to have violence to get there.
We already see things like the Brussels Permanent Citizens Climate Assembly and the permanent Paris Citizens Assembly, these to me are the first stepping stones that we can be building on to get to another democratic future.
Baratunde Thurston 1:02:06
Claudia, you've been great. Thank you for expanding our imagination. Thank you for giving us a vision of something to fight for and not just against. That's the spirit of what we're trying to offer up here at How To Citizen. You've been citizening great. I look forward to drafting you into some kind of assembly soon because I want you to get high on your own supply, as we say in hip hop.
Claudia Chwalisz 1:02:27
Wonderful, thank you, Baratunde. Thank you to everyone for all the wonderful questions. I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Baratunde Thurston 1:02:33
So do we. Thanks, Claudia. This conversation got me thinking about trust and I need to give people something worth trusting, something we can believe in. I'm thinking back to my conversation with adrienne maree brown in our first episode of this season, and her flip of this ancient eing text where she interprets it to say, "If we trust the people, they become trustworthy." Now, y'all know we're currently in this downward spiral where the people don't trust their politicians and the politicians don't trust the people. The key to chipping away at that distrust of each other and of our systems is information and facilitation and true inclusion so we can involve as many people as possible in the act of self-governing.
Through these Citizens' Assemblies, Claudia is showing us that in a deliberative democracy we get to practice coexisting with our differences around some pretty consequential policy discussions in a way that leaves people feeling more seen, acknowledged, and invested in the system, even if we don't all get the outcome we want every time. I don't foresee a world where a majority of my neighbors are sitting on a citizen's assembly at any given time. Over time, a significant number of us should have that experience of service and participation. As usual, we have some actions you can take after listening to this episode. They fall into three categories, personal reflection, getting more informed, and publicly participating. Our reflection prompt is inspired by the DemocracyNext launch event.
Imagine it's 10 years in the future and we've established some new civic rituals, where once we anticipated and threaded over election day, now we look forward to Sortition Day. The day that public participants selected by lottery are assigned to various citizen assemblies. These bodies are comprised of rich and poor, old and young, documented and undocumented. They decide on all manner of topics, judicial appointments, algorithmic oversight, local energy policy, and more. Imagine what it feels like to serve in one of these well-facilitated and compensated assemblies with your neighbors. Imagine what it would be like to read media coverage of the deliberations that focus on a community's attempt at finding common ground rather than who made the most outlandish statements on social media.
What headlines do you see? Now, in terms of getting more informed? Here's where you can learn more about Citizens' Assemblies. Read the New Yorker essay by Yale University Political Science Professor Hélène Landemore. It's called Politics Without Politicians, which is just a great headline, got to give it to them. For a deeper dive, read Landemore's book, Open Democracy. To see Citizens' Assemblies in action, check out the Permanent Citizens Assembly in Paris or the Irish Citizens Assembly. That one features a special guest appearance from Jane Goodall. You can find links to both in the episode show notes. Finally, to participate publicly, we encourage you to subscribe to the DemocracyNext Newsletter.
They'll be launching a global community of enthusiast wanting to learn more and help build this next democratic paradigm. Visit the site at demnext.org. D-E-M-N-E-X-T.org. If you're ready to roll up your sleeves and start practicing democracy this way, look to the nonprofit democracywithoutelections.org. It has resources and organizations that can help you get started wherever you are in the world. If you take any of these actions, please brag about it online and use the #HowToCitizen. Also, tag our Instagram, How To Citizen. I am always online and I really do see your messages, so send them. You can also visit our website howtocitizen.com, which has all of our shows, full transcripts, actions, and more. Finally, see this episode show notes for resources, actions, and more ways to connect.
How To Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeartRadio podcasts and Rowhome Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston and Elizabeth Stewart. Our lead producer is Allie Graham. Our associate producer is Danya AbdelHameid. Alex Lewis is our managing producer and John Myers is our executive editor and mix engineer. Original music by Andrew Eapen with Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio and Layla Bina.
Next time on How To Citizen, what happens when you take Urban planning and small d democracy, and apply them to an internet community? What if that community has a bank with millions of dollars in it?
Alex Zhang 1:07:33
So much of civics is boring right now and unengaged. Ultimately, we're interested in shifting that narrative and that perception of civic participation to not just equating to voting in a presidential election or voting in a local district election, but instead voting in spaces you care about. Digital being one that our kids are probably spending 80% of their days and lives in.
I think creating more interesting ways for people to have a say in their digital spaces that doesn't need to feel so complicated but can feel fun is something that we really, really care about. How I think about it is, imagine if the first thousand users of Facebook could actually weigh in on the advertising model. Would that have changed the outcomes?
Baratunde Thurston 1:08:18
Listen to our next episode with Alex Zhang, mayor of the online Web3 community, Friends with Benefits. Rowhome Productions.
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