Today German Bundestag Live Committee Discussion of “Citizen Engagement” via Sortition

With the title, “A New Form of Citizen Participation,” a special subcommittee of the German Parliament [of the Bundestag or popular assembly] convenes a “technical discussion” of experts on October 6 at noon Berlin time on the upcoming citizens’ assembly on “the role of Germany in the world.” It will be live-streamed at http://www.bundestag.de.

“A lot-based Citizens Council will produce a report on Germany’s role in the world. This project will be implemented as an independent undertaking of the More Democracy association [Mehr Demokratie e. V.] under the patronage of the President of the Bundestag,” reads the announcement of the Bundestag.

It continues that this kind of participation has been practiced in Ireland since 2012 as “Citizens’ Assembly.” The ambassador of Ireland will be a special guest of the committee to report on the Irish experience with “citizens’ councils.” [In Germany the term Buergerrat or “citizen council” has come to mean an allotted body of either the size of a panel or an assembly; it seems, the literal translation of assembly has the connotation of an Ekklesia or gathering of all.]

  • Dr. Nicholas O’Brien, Ambassador from Ireland
  • Roman Huber, Executive Director, Mehr Demokratie e. V. [More Democracy]
  • Dr. Siri Hummel, Acting Director, Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society
  • Dr. Ansgar Klein, Managing Policy Director, Federal Network for Citizen Engagement, [Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement (BBE)] Advisory Board of Bürgerrat Demokratie [the organization which organized the CA on democratic reform in 2019]
  • Univ.-Prof. Dr. Roland Lhotta, Helmut-Schmidt-Universität Hamburg, Professor, Political Science, specializing in the German Federal System

https://www.bundestag.de/dokumente/textarchiv/2020/kw41-pa-buergerschaftliches-engagement-793926

More info in English regarding the upcoming CA on Germany’s role in the world: https://deutschlands-rolle.buergerrat.de/english/

8 Responses

  1. Here are my rough notes from the meeting of the “subcommittee on citizen engagement” in the German Bundestag; which I feel I owe since I posted the link less than 24 hours before it took place. Disclaimer: the notes are rather incomplete.

    Each invited expert was given 5 minutes to make a presentation regarding what “citizen councils” can or cannot offer for the purpose of “citizen engagement or participation.” The rest of the hour was left for questions from the audience, who were members of parliament (MdB’s) from each of the 6 parties in the Bundestag: CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, Greens, AfD, the Left. There was no one else in attendance besides a couple of staff, including the assistant/interpreter to the Irish Ambassador.

    Ambassador O’Brien gave a history of the Irish Constitutional and Citizens assemblies and described their composition. He emphasized that the the representativeness of the assembly (of 99 lay citizens) was key to its perceived legitimacy, which turned out to be the case in that the referenda passed by about the same margin by the public as in the assembly. These two processes were necessary in the first place because the Irish Constitution made changing the laws on marriage and abortion, among other things, more difficult legally and politically. The unintended consequence was that it raised the profile and legitimacy of these types of processes.

    Roman Huber (from Mehr Demokratie, the organization that lobbied for and coordinated the German Citizens Assembly [Buergerrat] on Democracy in 2019 and is currently organizing the 2020-21 Citizens Assembly on Germany’s “Role in the World’). He began that it was the success of the Irish Assembly/Convention that inspired his organization. Several of them traveled to Ireland and met with participants, members of civil society, and jurists regarding the Citizens Assembly. In his view, the success of assemblies/minipublics depends on creating an environment in which people can discuss in a friendly/confidential manner [vertraulich] and this requires letting “the quieter voices be heard,” via facilitation and organization. He said that by the end of the third and fourth day, the “quieter voices” are just as involved as all the others. It also means that the process needs to be inclusive by making sure than it is accessible by providing transportation, reimbursing costs, providing child care, etc. He gave an example of a blind participant who needed to bring a companion and have additional costs covered. He also mentioned how participants figure out by the end of the assembly, how to help themselves and help others articulate their concerns.

    Dr. Hummel highlighted that diversity/heterogeneity are important in participatory processes and that SORTITION was key in making that possible. She noted that these seem to be important learning processes for participants. On the other hand, if citizens assemblies/councils are not to INCREASE citizen disenchantment with politics [Politikverdrossenheit], then their recommendations should not “end up in the drawer.” She also mentioned that CA’s CJ’s cannot possibly substitute for civil society engagement.

    Dr. Klein, as his title would predict, stressed that “democracy cannot be reduced to [CA’s]” Engagement [activism], education, and experiences in civil society organizations are indispensable to a functioning democracy. “Experiences of self-efficacy” [Selbswirksamkeit] are extremely important for the formation of citizenship, whether it be in civil society or in citizens’ assemblies, and it is part of political formation [Bildung] and learning a “democratic bearing.”

    Dr. Lhotta, was perhaps the most skeptical. He said, referring to the name of the organization co-directed by Roman Huber, that he does not way to play “more” democracy against “representative democracy.” Democracy is “too complex” to be reduced to such simple formulations. Representativeness, however, should be something more ambitious than it is now. It should not be a duty of parliament ALONE but should be a goal of EVERY part of government.

    A couple of the noteworthy comments/questions by the Parliamentarians in the room. Dr. Christmann (Greens), who herself wrote a dissertation on deliberative democracy, mentioned that CA’s are part of making democracy “more lively” and a part of people’s lives.
    Nicole Hoechst (AfD) asked a leading question about the role of the family in political education. The MP from the Left asked a question about how CA’s can get around possibly reproducing the inequalities of their social context. This question was predictably answered by Huber and Hummel with the emphasis on facilitation, one of whom called it “the alpha and the omega,” be all and end all, of good deliberative processes.

    Overall the hour was not particularly exciting, but what struck me was how seriously participatory deliberative processes are being taken. There was a palpable belief in democratic ideals and trust in citizens present in the room, which bodes well for the future of these processes in Germany. Sadly, I do not get the sense that these are present in the US, or many other countries for that matter, at the moment.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks very much for the report, Ahmed.

    To me it seems the whole affair had the setup of a discussion where the adults of a household are trying to decide whether and how the children should be involved in household decision-making.

    Was the idea that the current system is dysfunctional and crisis-prone, or in any way severely deficient, ever brought up?

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  3. I forgot to mention the one point where there was a visible tension. It was when the AfD representative took one of the experts–I believe Dr. Hummel–to task for mentioning “populism” and voting for the “AfD” as one of the things that better citizen participation would “guard against.” Ms. Hoechst said, how is an expert supposed to be neutral if they are insulting one of the elected parties in parliament.

    Re your last question, other than a hint that the general public has a certain disenchantment with politics at the moment, no one took responsibility for having anything to do with that. The experts were not about to insult the MdB’s who invited them either. Does that surprise you? On the other hand, none of the parliamentarians seemed to feel threatened by the prospect of a more active role for citizens. Of course, this is also not surprising since this was a tiny subcommittee on “citizen engagement,” presumably MdB’s who are not against the idea to begin with.

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  4. > The experts were not about to insult the MdB’s who invited them either. Does that surprise you?

    I think that a sense of urgency and the notion that current system’s legitimacy should not be taken for granted can be conveyed without being insulting or disrespectful. After all this is a systemic issue, not a personal one.

    That said, no, I am not surprised that the tone was not what I would think is the appropriate one.

    > none of the parliamentarians seemed to feel threatened by the prospect of a more active role for citizens.

    In the same way that the adults of the family do not feel threatened by getting input from the children when they are making their decisions. This discussion was not really about sharing power, and certainly not about the elite losing its privileged status.

    > voting for the “AfD” as one of the things that better citizen participation would “guard against.”

    Heh – rather amusing. There you go, it turns out it is just fine to insult some of the MdB’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the summary Ahmed. My constant disappointment with these sorts of discussions is that only the interpersonal aspects of citizens assemblies are discussed. The idea that sortition can fundamentally alter the workflow of policy making doesn’t exist. I’m certainly glad that a blind participant was supported in participating, but is that really the limit of the potential they think sortition has?

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  6. Alex & Yoram, good point about why CA’s may not be felt as threatening. Organizations that are lobbying for citizens assemblies either to be funded or to be taken seriously are forced to threat the needle to make a case why these processes are necessary or beneficial but at the same time not threatening to “our beloved representative democracy.” What’s interesting however is that they don’t have to actually lie regarding “representative democracy,” in so far as current practices are not truly representative. What scares me about the situation in the US, is that a good part of the public and elites worship the Supreme Court while despising representative institutions, even in theory, because they deem a good portion of their fellow citizens irredeemable “deplorables.”
    So the irony of cute processes like America in One Room—harmless from the point of view is power—is that they may teach everyday people that their enemy is not other powerless everyday people but those who dominate and benefit from the status quo. There is a book by a pair of YouTube journalists who call the sleds populists of the left and right respectively, by the title, “The Populist’s Guide to 2020: A New Right and New Left are Rising,” which makes a similar argument starting from recent dismal policy outcomes. But perhaps it might be encounters with the “deplorables” from
    opposite sides of the so-called political spectrum that will at least deflate the anti-democratic political agoraphobia that politicians on the left and right use to shield themselves from scrutiny and rhetorically coerce voters to settle for lesser evilism and culture war politics.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, Ahmed, you had to go there. Ok, ok,
    …take the bait
    …don’t take the bait
    …take the bait
    …don’t take the bait
    …take the bait
    I’ll take the bait this time. (Just kidding, I always take the bait) The problems with U.S. governance run deep, but they have nothing do with sortition, they have to do with the fact that the constitution is unalterable and was written at the very peak of slave power. I disagree with you a bit about the source of our blind reverence for the Supreme Court: it’s because our constitution sucks, which causes a cognitive dissonance whereby the grotesque failures of the other branches calls out for a deus ex machina to save the (apparent) greatness of the constitution. And why is the Constitution held in such high esteem? That’s Stockholm syndrome. The Constitution is unalterable, so it is easier to believe that it is great than to admit that it sucks but you can’t change it.

    There are ways out of this situation, but they require balls, something the Democratic party notoriously lacks. There is the pack the union strategy–not sure if I saw this idea on EbL or somewhere else. A slimmed down version of this might be to cut California and New York into a bunch of blue states, with a much smaller number of red states as part of a “pack and crack” strategy. Brooklyn? That’s a state. Maybe two or three. Navajo nation? surely a state. An obvious benefit of this is that minority groups would get real representation in the Senate.

    The advantage of this is it only requires a majority in Congress. I don’t think the President can veto it, though a douche like Trump would probably refuse to enforce it. In practice it would probably require the President to at least go along. But it does answer the oft-stated complaint about the Constitution: that it is a white supremacist document. That’s only partly true. The document itself hasn’t been white supremacist since the 15th amendment was passed. It’s only white supremacist in combination with the location of state boundaries. Redraw those boundaries and the constitution becomes BLM’s charter.

    If it were up to me, I would use the “pack the states” proposal, then simply pass an amendment to change the way constitutional amendments are passed. It should be 60% of the House of Representatives, followed by a referendum at the next Presidential election. (Of course what I really want is my personal flavor of sortition, but I’m talking within the typical American context here). Probably should cram through some voting rights while we’re at it: every adult citizen can and must vote, and should be compensated for doing so. The electoral authorities must obtain a vote from every adult citizen. And make the House a proportional, rather than a territorial, body.

    See? That was easy. Now we just have to get er done!

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  8. […] in other countries as well. It was implemented or discussed in multiple contexts in Germany: 1, 2, 3, 4. Sortition was also implemented or proposed in Switzerland, Belgium, Greece, the United […]

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