A citizens’ assembly is a body formed from the citizens of a state to deliberate on an issue or issues of national importance. The membership of a citizens’ assembly is randomly selected, as in other forms of sortition.
The purpose is to employ a cross-section of the public to study the options available to the state on certain questions and to propose answers to these questions through rational and reasoned discussion and the use of various methods of inquiry such as directly questioning experts. In many cases, the state will require these proposals to be accepted by the general public through a referendum before becoming law.
The citizens’ assembly aims to reinstall trust in the political process by taking direct ownership of decision-making. To that end, citizens’ assemblies intend to remedy the “divergence of interests” that arises between elected representatives and the electorate, as well as “a lack in deliberation in legislatures.”
The use of citizens’ assemblies to reach decisions in this way is related to the traditions of deliberative democracy and popular sovereignty in political theory. While these traditions stretch back to origins in ancient Athenian democracy, they have become newly relevant both to theorists and politicians as part of a deliberative turn in democratic theory. From the 1980s to the early 1990s, this deliberative turn began, shifting from the predominant theoretical framework of participatory democracy toward deliberative democracy, initially in the work of Jane Mansbridge and Joseph M. Bessette. Since, citizens’ assemblies have been used in countries such as Canada and the Netherlands to deliberate on reform of the system used to elect politicians in those countries.
Ordinarily, citizens’ assemblies are state initiatives. However, there are also examples of independent citizens’ assemblies, such as the ongoing Le G1000 in Belgium or the 2011 We the Citizens initiative in Ireland.