Imagine a democracy where people come together and their voices are heard and are translated directly into policy. Frontline workers, doctors, teachers, friends, and neighbors — young and old — are brought together in a random, representative sample to deliberate the most pressing issues facing our society. And they are compensated for their time.
The concept may sound radical. But we already use this method for jury duty. Why not try this widely accepted practice to tackle the deepest, most crucial, and most divisive issues facing our democracy?
The idea — known today as citizens’ assemblies — originated in ancient Athens. Instead of a top-down government, Athens used sortition — a system that was horizontal and distributive. The kleroterion, an allotment machine, randomly selected citizens to hold civic office, ensuring that the people had a direct say in their government’s dealings.
Our polarized electoral democracy could take a lesson from ancient Athens. Localities across the globe are experimenting with this method of collaborative governance. You may have heard of citizens’ assemblies in European cities such as Lisbon, Milan, Brussels, and Paris. You may not be as familiar with their counterparts right here in the United States.
For example, Oregon has had a Citizens Initiative Review (CIR) in place since 2011. From 2010 to 2016, the organization Healthy Democracy hosted seven CIR sessions where a stratified random sample of citizens gave input on ballot initiatives. The organization even hosted an online citizens’ assembly pilot during the summer of 2020 to develop recommendations for an equitable pandemic recovery.
In April 2022, Petaluma, Calif., held the state’s first municipal citizens’ assembly with 36 lottery-selected citizens who helped determine the future of the city’s “publicly owned, underutilized” fairgrounds facility. After 80 hours of deliberation over the summer, they submitted a self-authored report to the Petaluma City Council, detailing their hopes and visions for the 55-acre park. One participant said, “You have 36 people [from] different backgrounds. Most of them wouldn’t know each other. And we were able to work together.” Another participant said, “I think this is the perfect way to [make] politics not so political.”
Democracy Creative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Vermont, is developing a citizens’ assembly model that can be used in that state and beyond. Among the tools the group is developing to promote participatory democracy is Assemble, an online open-source platform to help people organize and participate in citizens’ assemblies.
Another budding US-based organization, RadicalxChange, helps cities host quadratic voting events, where citizens can express the strength of their opinion on various issues using a method that protects the interests of smaller groups of voters. The organization has implemented online participatory budgeting polls in New York City’s Harlem District 9.
RadicalxChange’s president, Matt Prewitt, points out that common citizen feedback formats such as town halls “often fail to synthesize opposing views and/or amplify voices that are not necessarily representative of the population.” Citizens’ assemblies and similar gatherings like the ones his organization facilitates, he says, “deliver more meaningful deliberation, synthesis across disagreements, and actionable inputs than town halls.”
There are many more opportunities for groups in the United States to learn from overseas efforts. For example, DemocracyNext is an international advocacy nonprofit that translates lessons from citizens’ assemblies across the globe for wider dissemination.
Citizens’ assemblies offer one potential remedy for a democracy where people do not feel like their voice matters and trust in government is declining. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recommends that Congress convene citizens’ assemblies. Meanwhile, 61 percent of Americans believe we need “significant changes” to the fundamental “design and structure” of American government. Citizens’ assemblies across all levels of government — local, state, and federal — may be just the kind of change people seek.
Hollie Russon Gilman is a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America and an affiliate fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Amy Eisenstein is a political reform consultant with New America and a juris doctor and master in public policy joint-degree candidate at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School.