First German National Citizens’ Assembly on DemoPart: the Rise of the “Alloted Citizen”

On September 28 in Leipzig, “Phase 2” of the first ever German citizens’ assembly “Bürgerrat Demokratie” concluded its second and last weekend of deliberation on whether and how to “complete or improve [ergänzen]” Germany’s representative democracy “with elements of direct democracy or citizen participation.” On November 15, a day dubbed “Tag für die Demokratie,” the 160 participants, together with 100s more from the “regional conferences” from Phase 1, will ceremoniously present their recommendations to the President of the Bundestag, Dr Wolfgang Schäuble. I was present in Leipzig on all four days of the assembly as observer along with a few researchers, journalists, and an evaluation team from Goethe University’s “Democracy Innovation” lab. A camera crew filmed the entire event, including the small group discussion at one of the tables. The documentary will be released sometime in 2020.

This was a civil society initiative prompted by the “Grand Coalition” [GroKo] agreement between the SPD and CDU/CSU. Article 13 (pg 136) of that agreement includes a promise to research (via an expert commission) the possibility that “our precious representative parliamentary democracy could be completed with elements of direct democracy or citizen participation.” Nearly two years later, that expert commission has still not even begun to materialize. Seizing the opportunity, a civil society initiative called Mehr Demokratie (more democracy) raised money and organized this even in “four phases” with the help of two institutes that run participatory fora for local and regional governments and organizations: Nexus and Ifok. Of high interest to “sortinistas” will be this brochure about “Losverfahren” (procedure by lot) also handed out to the participants last Saturday at the end of the assembly.

Also of high interest to Kleroterians: one of the closing speakers was the State of Baden-Württemberg’s “Advisor on Civil Society and Citizen Participation,” Gisela Erler who coined the term “Zufallsbürger” or Allotted Citizen. See this video (German) explaining sortition on the Bundesland’s participation portal.

The “allotted citizen” plays an important role in this podcast from journalist and “Aleatory Democracy” advocate named Timo Rieg, whose 2013 book treats democarcy outside the party system. He recently started a podcast called “?Macht:Los!,” a triple pun on the words “powerless,” “do it,” and “lot.” [Roughly “do it by lot.”]

Returning to the “Bürgerrat Demokratie” event (citizens’ council democracy), the procedure involved presentations by panels of experts (academics, functionaries, and civil society organizations) on topics such as Lobbies, Online Participation, “Direct Democracy” in Switzerland, and the Irish Citizens’ Assembly; followed by discussions in small groups of seven participants to one facilitator and one note taker. For 160 participants that meant 23 tables spread over two conference rooms.

The four days proceeded roughly as follows: Day 1 Friday: After an opening by a likable retired politician, Dr. Günther Beckstein, former jurist and P.M. of Bavaria, the topics of discussion were “challenges to representative democracy.” Presenters included an academic critical of the “representativeness” of Germany’s political system and another less concerned with that aspect; a professional lobbyist and a director of a citizens group called “LobbyControl.” Day 2 Saturday: The theme was participation and online participation. Presenters were functionaries and bureaucrats charged with participation from Leipzig and Baden-Württemberg, as well as a participation researcher from U of Wuppertal’s “Institute for Democracy and Participation Research.”

Day 3 Friday: The theme was direct democracy, referenda, and citizens’ initiatives. Several pro and contra positions were taken by academics and journalists from Switzerland and Germany. Quite notably, four of the five participants praised Oregon’s CIRs (Citizens’ Initiative Reviews) as an excellent model to do direct democracy in a rational way, because it combines direct democracy and participation/deliberation. Day 4 Saturday: The morning was dedicated to the Irish Citizens’ assembly as a model of combining direct and participatory (deliberative) democracy. Prof. Rachel Walsh of Trinity College Dublin, who was an expert advisor to the 2016 Irish Citizens’ Assembly, answered questions via video conference. The rest of the day involved working out concrete recommendations and then voting on them by secret ballot.

Here are a few of the key findings. By an overwhelming majority 156-1, the Bürgerrat assembly recommends some kind of combination of direct and participatory democracy be instituted at the national level in the Federal Republic. By a unanimous vote of 157-0 they recommended that a citizens’ council by lot and to be as representative as possible whenever a citizens’ participatory body is employed. By a vote of vote of 156-1, that any form of direct and participatory democracy be state-funded (so as to avoid undue influence). Also by the same vote, easily understood and neutral information should be available through redundant channels. Lastly, of interest is that by a vote of 152-5, political education should be intensified, especially regarding democratic participation.

[P.S. There are a couple of other recent development in Germany and East Belgium that I will probably report on later, especially the “Demokratie Konvent” from February in Frankfurt, and the pilot of the Citizens’ Council in Belgium.]

14 Responses

  1. It will be interesting to see the filmed discussion (although I am against filming citizens at such an event). In most cases I saw so far this are no ‘common citizens’ but people who are used to attend meetings and discuss topics. This is the kind of people who are interested in participating and volunteer for such events. Of course with ‘good results’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Ahmed,

    Thanks for the report.

    Any information about the selection procedure?

    Regarding the votes – who phrased the questions? The generality and the unanimity indicate that this was more of a rally than a decision-making session.

    What are the expected next steps?

    What is your sense of how useful this was and what is the expected impact?


  3. The organizers contacted 98 cities and towns for their “Melderegister,” the list of residents. In Germany, you are allowed to request such data if it is for a purpose of the “common good.” Of these 76 communities complied with the request. 4,362 citizens (the list specifies who is a citizen) were invited by post, and 250 accepted the invitation for a 5.7% response rate, supposedly right around the norm for this type of event. 160 of these were chosen to be representative by sex, age, geography and immigration background. They say they succeeded on all four of these except geography, where oddly cities of medium size turned out under-represented, and a few States were also underrepresented, like Hessen. This info is publicly available I believe.

    Phase 3 is the public event in Berlin on November 15, aimed at getting some attention to the assembly’s work and to put some political pressure on the Coalition to take the recommendations seriously.

    Phase 4 is a basically networking between the participants and lobbying their representatives to get some of the recommendations implemented.

    The organizers seem pleased for two reasons. There was a significant, if not spectacular, media presence. Mitteldeutscher Radiofunk, Deutschland Radio, and about three or four newspapers from Munich, Berlin, Leipzig, and Frankfurt (if I remember right). Second, the organizers believe they now have the experience and know how to organize another Federal level Citizens’ Council on relatively short notice.

    As for the critic of “rally,” their response would be that they had balanced presenters. For example, they gave a journalist who is VOCAL critic of any kind of direct or participatory democracy the first and last word during that part of the presentation. Here’s one of his many essays critiquing “more democracy”

    [I am also fowarding this to one of the organizers and perhaps they will chime in.]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Fila Sophia and commented:
    There is something happening worldwide regarding the understanding of “democracy.” All over the world, more and more people are beginning to see representative party democracy as incomplete at best, highly problematic at worst.


  5. @A.R.Teleb @Yoram Gat: Thank you very much, Ahmed, for your answer and explanation.I agree with everything you wrote. Concerning media coverage: We had about 400 media contacts during the whole process. About 115 of them were requests for interviews or background information. The rest of it were articles, interviews etc., many of them in the regional print sector. Speaking to the radomly selected people of “their” region obviously was very interestig for journalists. Concerning our “learnings”: Yes, we learned a lot about how to organize a Citizens’ Assembly on the national level. We will draw our conclusions and try to organize further processes, e.g. concerning climate change…
    Anne Dänner (head of public relations for the Bürgerrat Demokratie)

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Ahmed:> 5.7% response rate, supposedly right around the norm for this type of event. 160 of these were chosen to be representative by sex, age, geography and immigration background.

    Does it not concern you that (assuming opting in is a significant population parameter) this leaves 94.3% of the citizen body unrepresented? Democrats agonise over the fact that up to half of all citizens don’t generally bother to vote, but would an election in which 5.7% participated be viewed as legitimate?


  7. Keith, thanks for the question. Re response rate and representativity, I have been meaning to respond since the discussion here around the French Climate Assembly. I did not chime in then, because my response requires an entire separate post, which will follow in the next few hours.

    In short, from my perspective looking for a “perfectly representative” sample at best amounts to a limited view of what minipublics do/can do, at worst a distraction from what the goal of participatory innovations are meant to do.

    Here’s an outline of my coming post “The Representativity Trap”:

    I. Preventing corruption and preventing factional interests are at least as important as “representativity.” I’d cite Peter Stone & Oliver Dowlen

    II. Democracy is ultimately about self-government. The only way you can do that is to increase the GENERAL LEVEL of participation and informedness. I’ll cite Christine Lafont and Carol Pateman.

    III. Minipublics are/can be a unique space (not easily corrupted)–unlike activist enclaves, unlike street demonstrations, unlike townhalls–for genuine political action that can proliferate out into the wider public. Moreover, there is no “truth” out there to be probed with a sample, like a blood test. I’ll claim some originality on this point. This might be where my research is heading.


  8. Ahmed, thanks for acknowledging that you aren’t interested in representation. Unfortunately most of the organisations working in this field do make (spurious) claims regarding “representative samples”


  9. Ketih, that’s not quite my view. What I do hold is that STRICT representativenss is a) impossible unless you have an illiberal (or even totalitarian) regime and b) distracts us from the OTHER very important and very salutary effects of minipublics. Moreover, ROUGH representativenss, a.k.a., inclusivity, is enough to facilitate the other benefits.

    But the topic of this discussion is the civil-society led Citizens’ Assembly on improving democracy in Germany. What are the take-aways from that? One is this. >

    Despite Trump, Brexit, “rise of the right”, a roughly representative (non-exclusive) sample of Germans STILL want more direct or participatory democracy if: 1) it is transparent; 2) inclusive (roughly representative); 3) informed (neutral information); 4) deliberative

    Is this not a reasonable conclusion to draw from the vote results?


  10. What do you mean by inclusivity?


  11. Why is roughly representative inclusive, given that mini publics exclude the vast majority of citizens? It is only inclusive to the degree that it is representative. By all means experiment with deliberative democracy, but stop pretending it’s a representative sample.


  12. not systematically keeping anyone out (people with children, introverts, the poor, people who work weekends, etc.) for reasons OTHER THAN desire to participate.

    of course, I agree concern with representativiity would be more important if the group was making final decisions–a trial jury; that’s why trial jury duty (at least in theory) is mandatory.


  13. […] English Information see: Equality by Lot Ein bundesweites Bürgergutachten zur Demokratiereform realisiert derzeit ein Bündnis von […]


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