Can citizens’ assemblies save our ailing democracies?

Experimentation with citizens' assemblies is flourishing throughout the world. Using Ireland as a case study, Colm D. Walsh finds that, while these assemblies offer democracy great promise and have strong citizen support, ensuring equal participation in them remains a challenge

Ireland and the revitalisation of democracy

Many across the globe are dissatisfied with how democracy is working. Citizens do not feel they have any influence on political decisions. Politicians seem corrupt and out of touch. Thus, democracy needs revitalising. And innovators can point to Ireland, a country which stands out for its recent extensive use of citizens’ assemblies in national policymaking.

There, citizens’ assemblies have driven considerable policy change and impactful referendum initiatives, on marriage equality in 2015, and abortion in 2018, delivering real change, and significantly liberalising life and policy in Ireland. Indeed, to some observers there appears to be an embedding of deliberation in Ireland and its representative structures.

In Ireland, citizens’ assemblies have driven considerable change, and have strong support

And these new deliberative forms have popular support, too. A survey finds strong support in Ireland for citizens’ assemblies, and a willingness to participate in them. Over 75% of respondents agree that there are benefits in implementing them. The survey also found that 54.5% indicate they would very probably participate (the highest response option available).

Although social desirability bias may drive at least part of this, the results suggest deliberative assemblies have much to offer in changing and expanding our democracy. They can help to legitimise political decisions because they are the result of mutual understanding, publicly expressed reason that can withstand scrutiny, and broadened political inclusion.

But who is participating?

This is not to suggest, however, that these new deliberative processes are without problems. There has been much debate in Ireland about the merits of deliberation, especially in relation to the contentious topic of abortion laws. Views differ greatly. Some praise that particular citizens' assembly for its 'transparency and fairness'. Others argue that it was a 'stitch up, not democracy'.

The main issue is exactly who is participating in citizens' assemblies. If support for them is high in Ireland, it is driven primarily by citizens who are ‘engaged’ or ‘dissatisfied’.

Educated, interested, or dissatisfied people are most likely to engage with citizens' assemblies

My recent research article with Johan A. Elkink, on which this blog post is based, shows that well educated, politically interested people are more likely to participate in citizens’ assemblies. We also find other groups more likely to engage with this process. These include people dissatisfied with the political status quo, and those who think there is corruption in public life. It also includes people who see themselves as financially worse off now compared to last year.

The citizens’ assemblies used polling companies to recruit a group of ordinary Irish people, broadly representative of society as reflected in the 2011 Census. Yet, important as these voices are, legitimate questions remain. Are the people who have the time to devote to these deliberations entirely representative of the public at large?

Our research suggests that not everyone is equally likely to participate in these sometimes long, drawn-out deliberative processes. Deliberative forums do not, in short, appeal equally to everyone.

The future of citizens’ assemblies

More effort needs to be made, therefore, to engage with different cohorts of people. The goal must be to ensure the participation of a genuinely representative cross-section of society.

To do this, organisers do not only need data on age, gender, social class, regional spread, etc. They also need data on specific attitudes to ensure assembly members are representative of the public. Take the example of an assembly on political reform. If you ran one of these, you would need to avoid attracting only citizens with an existing interest in politics, or who find its current workings dissatisfactory.

Citizens’ assemblies demonstrate that the public were well ahead of Irish political parties on the issues of marriage equality and abortion

This is not to criticise the citizens’ assemblies that have been used so far. Nor is it a criticism of the polling companies that helped select the individuals who participated. Indeed, the citizens’ assemblies seemed to demonstrate that the public were well ahead of Irish political parties on the issues of marriage equality and abortion.

A staggering 66.4% backed repealing the current constitutional ban on abortion. That citizens' assembly also demonstrated that even on this polarising and divisive topic, attendees could engage with the issues. Opinions visibly shifted following the deliberation process. This is a real achievement, and one that could have similar benefits in many other policy areas.

Manufacturing consent

To some, the purpose of the citizens’ assembly was to give politicians space to decide whether to set up a referendum on abortion. However, these processes can also be seen as a successful way to manufacture consent for controversial issues that politicians know they have to deal with, but don't want to. An investigative and satirical publication in Ireland noted:

'When politicians want an issue to go away, a favourite ploy is to bury it alive in a talking shop. If that was the real motivation behind the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly, they appear to have made a major miscalculation…'

And that is probably the best argument for the continuation and expansion of the experiment.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Colm Walsh
Colm Walsh
PhD Candidate, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin

Colm's research focuses on citizen preferences towards political reforms and political decision-making processes.

He tweets @ColmDWalsh

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