Reflections on the representativeness of citizens assemblies and similar innovations

A blog post by Tiago C. Peixoto and Paolo Spada.


For proponents of deliberative democracy, the last couple of years could not have been better. Propelled by the recent diffusion of citizens’ assemblies, deliberative democracy has definitely gained popularity beyond small circles of scholars and advocates. From CNN to the New York Times, the Hindustan Times (India), Folha de São Paulo (Brazil), and Expresso (Portugal), it is now almost difficult to keep up with all the interest in democratic models that promote the random selection of participants who engage in informed deliberation. A new “deliberative wave” is definitely here.

But with popularity comes scrutiny. And whether the deliberative wave will power new energy or crash onto the beach, is an open question. As is the case with any democratic innovation (institutions designed to improve or deepen our existing democratic systems), critically examining assumptions is what allows for management of expectations and, most importantly, gradual improvements.

Proponents of citizens’ assemblies put representativeness at the core of their definition. In fact, it is one of their main selling points. For example, a comprehensive report highlights that an advantage of citizens’ assemblies, compared to other mechanisms of participatory democracy, is their typical combination of random selection and stratification to form a public body that is “representative of the public.” This general argument resonates with the media and the wider public. A recent illustration is an article by The Guardian, which depicts citizens’ assemblies as “a group of people who are randomly selected and reflect the demographics of the population as a whole”.

It should be noted that claims of representativeness vary in their assertiveness. For instance, some may refer to citizens’ assemblies as “representative deliberative democracy,” while others may use more cautious language, referring to assemblies’ participants as being “broadly representative” of the population (e.g. by gender, age, education, attitudes). This variation in terms used to describe representativeness should prompt an attentive observer to ask basic questions such as: “Are existing practices of deliberative democracy representative?” “If they are ‘broadly’ representative, how representative are they?” “What criteria, if any, are used to assess whether a deliberative democracy practice is more or less representative of the population?” “Can their representativeness be improved, and if so, how?” These are basic questions that, surprisingly, have been given little attention in recent debates surrounding deliberative democracy. The purpose of this article is to bring attention to these basic questions and to provide initial answers and potential avenues for future research and practice.

9 Responses

  1. In 2023, the key question would actually be:

    “Would such a body be more or less representative than existing governing bodies?”


  2. A rather standard anti-sortition piece, covering old (and well refuted) grounds. It is rather disappointing (although by now not surprising) that the argumentation regarding sortition seems never to show any progress.

    The first two arguments, regarding sample size and the supposed difficulty of creating a uniform sample of a target population are totally without merit. The first combines statistical innumeracy with the bizarre (or manipulative) notion that the question of whether the statistical uncertainty is the sample is 1% or 2% makes any difference. The second relies on the claim that “a police state” is required in order to create a list of all residents of country which is bizarre (or manipulative) as well.

    The issue of “non-response” (i.e., people not taking up offered seats in allotted bodies), is not completely without merit, but is treated here naively (or again, in a manipulative fashion). It is true that a sortition-based system that is not able to achieve high acceptance rates is dysfunctional. However, this is a matter of design. There is absolutely no reason to expect high acceptance levels with the current practices. The low acceptance rate associated with those practices indeed shows that they are poor and should be changed. However this in no way is an indication that high response rates cannot be achieved. On the contrary, there is every reason to think that if the body is powerful, if there is enough public interest in what the body does, if the compensation is high enough and if personal circumstances are accommodated, response rates could be very high.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brilliant post!


  4. Keith, we know the answer from the G1000 in Belgium : Citizens‘ assemblies shouldn‘t be about representativeness, but about diversity.


  5. Diversity is certainly de rigueur nowadays, what with EDI etc. But if a body is charged with legislative powers, then the democratic decision rule is always couched in majoritarian terms (albeit with liberal provisos). If a legislative body, notwithstanding its “diversity”, does not reflect the preferences of the citizen body, then it is hard to see that it would be perceived as legitimate. The recent difficulties of the Scottish government show what happens when diversity trumps representativity.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Speech delivered by Dr. Roslyn Fuller at the 2023 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Mexico City “ Sortition and the Undermining of Democracy”


  7. *** El_gallo_azul, on February 23, 2023 at 1:05 am said that the key question would actually be: “Would such a body be more or less representative than existing governing bodies?”
    *** This sentence is dangerous. We may understand that the main undemocratic character of polyarchy is that parliaments are not representative of the civic body along the classic demographic parameters: age, gender, religion, race, economic status, big town / countryside etc … That a “stratified’ parliament would be a good surrogate for the civic body. But actually, as a parliamentarian needs to be chosen as candidate by a big party, to be elected, to be elected again, he must take into account the social powers which act through money, through activism, through media influence … The Parliament is not an aristocratic sovereign, it is the body registering the parallelogram of social forces, the result of which may be quite different of a potential democratic choice. The social identity of the parliamentarian may be relevant sometimes, but not as a rule. The criticism of the so-called “representative democracy” must not be concentrated on the social identity of the “representatives”.


  8. Andre:> The social identity of the parliamentarian may be relevant sometimes, but not as a rule. The criticism of the so-called “representative democracy” must not be concentrated on the social identity of the “representatives”.

    Absolutely. The notion that parliamentarians passively reflect the social characteristics that “describe” them is an insult to the notion of free agency, and symptomatic of the current obsession with identity politics. One of the leading advocates of working-class interests (apart from Old Etonians like Clement Attlee) was the Rt. Honourable Anthony Wedgwood-Benn.


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