Citizen Assemblies: a TEDx talk


Do you trust your politicians? The people who represent you, and take decisions on your behalf about vital things, like health, education, national defence, and importantly where your taxes are spent Research data show that trust in politicians is at an all-time low across most liberal democracies. In fact, only 1 in 5 citizens trusts their politicians.

But why is that so? Well, first of all, let me say that the 4 out of 5 who do not trust politicians (and I count myself in that group) are right. There is a strong misalignment of goals between us citizens and our representatives, something that is often called the “principal-agent” problem.

In politics we are the principals and our representatives are our agents. They are supposed to do their best to maximize our well-being. But agents have their own priorities: the most important of which is to get re-elected. This means that they must often fall in line with powerful interest groups that influence the outcome of elections. Oftentimes agents, our politicians, must decide which one of their many constituencies to serve first. Various constituencies may have conflicting interests. Take for example what happened during and after the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. Politicians in Europe and the US prioritized saving the constituency of bankers banks at the expense of the constituency of taxpayers, a decision that in many ways set off the wave of populism we witness today.

So is there something we can do to solve the principal-agent problem in politics, and reclaim trust in democratic institutions? Could we the citizens – the principals – have more of a direct say into policy decisions? Referenda is certainly one way to do so, but they suffer from two very serious problems.

The first one is the asymmetry of knowledge. Not everyone is equally knowledgeable about everything. That’s why we have experts. We need to listen and trust their advice. In an ideal democracy citizens have access to knowledge they can trust, from where they can inform their opinions. But we all know that this is not really happening. Very often the necessary knowledge to understand the complexity of a problem is quite difficult to acquire. And, equally important, can you trust the source? The phenomenon of AI algorithms peddling “fake news” in social media makes this problem ever more acute. In fact it is nowadays so acute that many citizens do not trust the experts. There are people, for example, who contrary to all scientific evidence believe that inoculation causes autism, that the planet is not really warming up, and in extreme cases that the earth is flat and astronauts never landed on the moon.

The second problem is time. Getting involved in politics takes time. Time that needs to be taken out of the little time we have to spend with our loved ones or do the things we enjoy, or indeed do work and earn a living. Learning all you need to learn about climate change, or inoculations, or genetics, or AI, in order to have an informed opinion takes a lot of time. Given the lack of time to participate we will generally opt to form opinions based on the most digestible information available out there, which may not be right. Not having time to participate in politics was the reason we delegated the responsibility of government to our agents, the professional class of politicians.

So lack of time and the asymmetry of knowledge make citizen participation problematic. So we are stuck. Our agents, our representatives, the politicians, will always serve the interests of themselves, their powerful friends and their families above our own. If we do not like them, the best we can do is vote them out every four years. But four years in an interconnected world of accelerated change can be a very long time.

No wonder so many citizens are trusting democracy less and less.

But what if we re-imagined democratic politics by solving those two problems, the knowledge asymmetry and lack of time? There is indeed a way to do so, and it is called a Citizen Assembly.

Here’s how it works. You select a group of citizens by lot, by sortition. This group should be diverse enough to reflect the demographics of the wider social group. Then you bring those people together, and you give them the opportunity to learn, debate and query facts on whatever is that you want the Citizen Assembly to opine on. And you compensate them for their time.

I was personally involved in a CItizen Assembly made up of 140 citizens from 9 different European countries, who came together to discuss how should Europe fund research in neurotechnologies. The first reaction from those citizens, when they were told what was required of them, was one of suspicion and disbelief. No one had asked them ever before about anything. Why now? And why neurotechnologies, a subject they knew absolutely nothing about. Was the European Commission conspiring with big pharma?

But soon they realized the importance of their role. As citizens and consumers they represented the most important stakeholder in the future of neurotechnologies, and the Citizen Assembly offered the way to have their voices heard. A deliberation process ensued where citizens were given the opportunity to learn about the subject, and thus solve the knowledge asymmetry problem. Their time was compensated. And a year later they presented to the European Parliament a set of wide-ranging, common sense, policy proposals on how neurotechnolgoy research should be funded, and how the outcome of the research would go back to benefit society at large.

Citizen Assemblies have been used, with great success, to address and resolve very complex and highly divisive political issues. In 2016, 99 Irish citizens were randomly selected to form a Citizen Assembly, and debate issues such as abortion. Their deliberations were broadcasted on national television and viewed by thousands of citizens. In 2018, the Irish people voted in a historical referendum in favour of abortions by a resounding majority, resolving a political deadlock that had plagued Irish politics of years. The Citizen Assembly had contributed to the depolarization of the Irish society and the forging of a broader consensus. Examples such as these, have demonstrated that citizens can reach common sense decisions when given the opportunity to learn and deliberate. Indeed, citizen assemblies are capable of breaking political impasse where national parliaments were not. Parliaments are easily polarized by dividing along ideological lines. Citizen Assemblies do not suffer from such ideologically-driven polarization.

So why should we consider Citizen Assemblies as a way to enhance democracy? Because we need to reinvent democracy in order to preserve it. In a future where AI, robots and automation will impact jobs and increase wealth and income inequalities, democracy will suffer, and even disappear. The signs are already staring us in the face. It is so easy to imagine a dystopia of millions of jobless people falling prey to the false promises of a charismatic autocrat. It has happened before and it can happen again. If we are passionate about saving our democratic freedoms and liberties we need to reinvent democracy by increasing direct citizen participation into political decision-making. Citizen Assemblies provide an excellent way to do so.