Overline: Participation
Headline: Top Marks for Citizens’ Assembly on Germany’s Role in the World

The citizens’ assembly “Germany’s Role in the World” convened in January and February of this year. The ten meetings held online saw 152 randomly selected citizens deliberate on German foreign policy and develop recommendations for the Bundestag and Federal Government. What worked well and what improvements need to be made for the future? Who participated in the assembly and how did the virtual format shape the process and its results? The Institute for Democracy and Participation Research (IDPF) at the University of Wuppertal and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam presented their analysis on 20 May.

A studio image of the citizens’ assembly on “Germany’s Role in the World”.
A studio image of the citizens’ assembly on “Germany’s Role in the World”. Mehr Demokratie/CC BY-SA 2.0

The team of researchers, including IASS Scientific Director Ortwin Renn, presented their findings based on quantitative surveys, accompanying observations, qualitative interviews, and a survey of the organizers and facilitators. The team also published a handout with seven recommendations for the future use of citizens’ assemblies, their optimal design, and their integration within the democratic landscape:

(1) Institutional integration

In order to strengthen the political resonance of assemblies and improve their integration, political actors at different levels should be involved across the entire process as well as representatives from relevant administrative organs. This was achieved in the case of the Citizens’ Assembly “Germany’s Role in the World”. This integration is also necessary to facilitate the adoption of recommendations in complex thematic fields over the longer term.

(2) Media and social visibility

The media response to the citizens’ assembly on “Germany’s Role in the World” was substantial. The assembly’s role as an instrument for citizen participation was widely noted in reporting. The media resonance in the wake of the process and addressing the assembly’s findings was less pronounced. A stronger focus on the work of the assembly and its outputs would have been desirable.

(3) Broad diversity of opinions

The group of randomly selected participants should be as pluralistically representative as possible in order to reflect the diversity of opinions in debates, the potential for different points of view, and the full spectrum of opinion. The Citizens’ Assembly “Germany’s Role in the World” achieved this both in terms of its demographic composition and with respect to the political convictions declared by participants. Beyond this, however, there is a need to ensure the systematic representation of diverse and controversial opinions in debates in order to enhance the potential for deliberation as a means to engage with different viewpoints.

(4) Appropriate choice of topics and focus

Commissioned by the Bundestag’s Council of Elders, the topic “Germany’s role in the world” was too broad and lacked specificity in some areas. This made it difficult to convey its relevance to the life-worlds of the participating citizens. As a result, discussions were often not very controversial. A focus on specific dilemmas that were more “tangible” for participants would have been extremely helpful.

(5) Appropriate Use of Expertise

The use of experts to support citizens’ assemblies is advisable irrespective of the topic at hand. The Citizens’ Assembly “Germany’s Role in the World” was supported by a diverse selection of experts of various backgrounds. However, the views expressed in their presentations were often not very controversial and the quality of presentations varied considerably. In order to avoid this from occurring, experts should be selected with a view to ensuring that deliberations and presentations include diverse perspectives including more controversial positions where possible and appropriate.

(6) Pronounced deliberative culture

A culture of deliberation that is inclusive, fair, respectful, and informed, and which is allowed to evolve within a generous schedule, will empower participants and enrich their discursive competence and understanding of the topic at hand. In the case of the Citizens’ Assembly “Germany’s Role in the World”, deliberation was an integral part of the format and capacity building a systematic focus. Rules for discussion and careful facilitation to balance interactions (talking time) were particularly important, as was the effective and goal-oriented organization of the debates by moderators.

(7) Appropriate distribution of resources

The Citizens’ Assembly “Germany’s Role in the World” was planned and carried out under pandemic conditions and within a short timeframe. Significant time and human resources had to be devoted to addressing the challenges of putting the assembly online and its thematic and methodological operationalisation. In addition, the entire process was funded by civil society actors, making the financial situation more volatile than would be the case with institutional funding. The adoption of a suitable institutional format, coupled with clearly defined development and organizational processes, could add considerable value in future.

All in all, the evaluators conclude that the Citizens’ Assembly “Germany’s Role in the World” meets the requirements for a new form of inclusive citizen participation at the national level and is a successful prototype for a digital citizens’ assembly.