A citizen's assembly (CA) is a randomly selected body of several hundred people, brought together to serve a single term on a single issue and then disbanded. The CA has three phases:
1. Intensive information gathering: participants get up to speed on the issue and have the opportunity to hear from a wide variety of witnesses who have relevant information.
2. Dialogue and deliberation: participants build trust first and only then enter into a process of deliberation over the specific question(s) they are charged with.
3. Vote: the CA is not required to be unanimous, but it may be considered void if it does not result in a strong majority in agreement.
We know how to create the conditions for good public participation:
1. Get everyone in the room. (No, not 300 million of us -- a representative sample will do, best of all if it is randomly selected, with required attendance, as juries are.)
2. Provide access to the best available information, including a range of experts, and allow participants to ask questions.
3. Create the conditions for honest, productive discussion and have a facilitator to help the process. Let people share their stories and values first, before digging into differences and debates.
4. Empower the group so that the outcome of their work actually matters.
These four principles have emerged from thousands of experiments in innovative forms of participatory democracy, ranging from small citizen's juries to large deliberative polls, from year-long citizen's assemblies to electronically-enhanced town meetings that take a day or a weekend.
When these conditions are satisfied, what we find is that:
1. People are willing and able to do it -- they defy "expert" predictions about how the subject matter is "too complex" or the amount of background information too large.
2. People generally like it -- in fact, they find it deeply fulfilling.
3. The product is generally excellent.
Any process that embodies these principles is likely to be a huge improvement on the status quo. The national citizen's assembly proposed here is likely to be better suited for large, complex issues than some of the other processes.
FOR MORE INFO
1. Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform (British Columbia) http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca
2. Future Directions for Public Deliberation (article by Levine, et al) http://services.bepress.com/jpd/vol1/iss1/art3/
3. Deliberative Democracy in America (book by Ethan Leib, 2004)
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