During Systems Week 2021 we discussed the power of community mobilisation for systems change, and heard from Claire Mellier on the power of Citizens’ Assemblies to identify more ambitious policies than politicians do – for example around climate change and reproductive health rights. Right now, the Citizens’ Assembly model is being used at a global scale for the first time: The Global Citizens' Assembly for COP26, which will convene a proportionately representative group of 100 people from around the world to engage in deep deliberation about the climate crisis and present proposals at the UN COP26 climate conference next month.
“Business can’t take democracy for granted.” Professor Rebecca Henderson’s clarion call to business leaders in the wake of the 6 January 2021 US Capitol Attack was clear: “Free markets cannot survive without the support of…government…And only democracy can ensure that governments are held accountable”.
Business needs democracy to thrive. Yet there is low satisfaction with the way democracy is working: in a recent Pew Research Center poll, only 45% of citizens in 27 global democracies said they were “satisfied with the way democracy is working” in their country. Lack of progress on “wicked problems” like climate change and income inequality has likewise led to much discontent. This is bad news for businesses.
Henderson’s inspiring article lists many ways businesses can help reverse this decline of democracy: speak out, act collectively, and address the roots of the problem. In addition, a new form of representative democracy could hold another key: Citizens’ Assemblies.
Citizens’ Assemblies as summarised by Claire Mellier and Rich Wilson, are “gatherings of people...selected to be a true snapshot of the place in question (say, a country or city) based on demographic criteria such as gender, age, income and education level. The citizens are selected by lot, as you would for jury service; and great efforts are made to ensure anyone can participate, such as paying for attendance, providing childcare and improving accessibility for people with disabilities. They usually meet over a number of weekends to discuss a controversial issue of public importance and come up with a set of recommendations for the way forward.” The model was first used in 2004, when a group of 161 people were randomly selected to deliberate on an alternative voting system in British Columbia.
Often cited as a tool to ameliorate democratic dysfunction, the OECD has described the recent proliferation of Citizens’ Assemblies as an increasing “deliberative wave”, particularly after an Irish Citizens’ Assembly unexpectedly led Catholic Ireland to legalise abortion in 2018.
Citizens’ Assemblies’ benefits include:
- Ambition: particularly key in climate initiatives such as the Race to Zero, assemblies often recommend bolder actions than politicians believe feasible: e.g. the 2020 French climate assembly voted to enact much more robust recommendations than parliamentarians.
- Empowerment: involving citizens early in the design and decision-making around a particular project or policy helps them feel a sense of ownership, aiding bold initiatives’ implementation and acceptance.
- Diversity: Citizens’ Assemblies gather a plethora of opinions grounded in different backgrounds, shaped by age, ethnicity, religion, and cultural or socio-economic position. This diversity of thought permits complex and nuanced issues to be properly explored and garners more legitimacy to policy recommendations.
Given these benefits, Citizens’ Assemblies can help strengthen civil society’s engagement in democratic governments. Yet with so many different parties represented, designing and implementing them is not easy; conveners must take design principles into account to have a greater chance of success, considering appropriate incentives, remuneration, moderators’ qualifications and methodology, and appropriate communication of Assembly outcomes.
So far Citizens’ Assemblies have only been used in the context of public policy. But as public opinion shifts on the role of business, their scope may increase. For example, the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat (which used the Citizens’ Assembly model) has inspired a process to engage businesses on climate change in France.
What about business?
Business is now more trusted than government: according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer report, citizens in 18 out of 27 countries report higher trust in business than government, and business was seen as the only type of organisation to be both competent and ethical (compared with NGOs, media and government). Moreover, 92% of respondents in the 2020 report said CEOs should be speaking out on issues such as climate change, automation, and the ethical uses of tech. However, despite these views, ultimately businesses are not accountable to these citizens, nor necessarily acting in their interest, which is why one of the biggest critiques of Citizens’ Assemblies is around accountability mechanisms.
Where citizens and businesses meet
Ultimately, businesses depend on trust and relationships to operate: knowing customers and anticipating their needs is the name of the game. Many mechanisms currently exist for this of course: polls, focus groups, advertising data, etc. But an independently run Citizens’ Assembly could offer the social scrutiny needed to connect business decision-making processes to society.
Businesses adopting Citizens’ Assemblies could be a part of stabilising democracy, benefiting both from a more informed, participative, and democratic citizenship and the ability to make better-informed decisions through citizen engagement.
Boardrooms of the (not too distant) future…
We imagine a future where all business boards engage with Citizens’ Assemblies. In fact, this is one of the recommendations for consideration in B Lab UK’s Boardroom 2030 initiative, whose Activation Kit provides materials on Citizens’ Assemblies for businesses interested in exploring new ways to make decisions as they imagine what their boardroom will look and feel like in 2030. According to Claire Mellier, businesses such as Northern Gas Network have already begun using sortition selected citizens’ panels to inform their strategic decisions. If businesses can implement them appropriately, Citizens’ Assemblies could become an effective additional decision-making strategy for businesses of the 21st and 22nd centuries, enabling business choices necessary to transition to Net Zero models and “just transitions” that consider citizens’ expertise and concerns. These decisions will require as much mandate and agency as possible – and the voice of citizens through Citizens’ Assemblies could help provide this extra salience and legitimacy to see businesses through to the 22nd century.
How can I get involved?
If you are a business leader interested in piloting the Citizens’ Assembly approach, we want to hear from you! There are multiple opportunities to get involved with this emerging connection between business and deliberative democratic techniques. To learn more and get involved in Boardroom 2030 you can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.