Representative Citizen Involvement


What is democracy? Is it simply to show up and vote in the national election every four years—or could you imagine that the citizens were directly involved in policymaking?

Together with the democracy advisors at We Do Democracy, we design and implement citizens' assemblies, which are a relatively new tool for giving rise to democratic participation. In contrast to the classic, municipal citizens' meetings, where it is typically the same people who participate and whose opinion is heard, with the citizens' meetings we ensure a wider participation. We bring young people to the table and we ensure that the often underrepresented voices are heard.

After all, we were really just a group of ordinary citizens who were interested in climate. It was super cool to see how everyone came up with their own input. One was a carpenter, one was an engineer—they each brought their own knowledge. We were all a group of citizens who took an interest in our municipality.
Participant in Greve Municipality's climate citizens' assembly

Our methodology

Typically, the municipalities send out invitations to a large section or all of the municipality's citizens, so that everyone has the opportunity to register for the citizens' assembly. Among those who wish to participate, we make a stratified lottery, so that we ensure that the citizens' assembly will be representative of the municipality based on certain parameters that have been chosen in collaboration with the municipality.

It could be gender, age, education and where in the municipality you live. In matters of traffic planning, it could be relevant to ensure a representative distribution of car owners, and in matters of inclusion and well-being, it may be extra important to ensure minority votes.

We draw lots and typically select a group of 36 citizens who, together, best represent the municipality in its whole.

I was a little surprised at how many there were and how different the people were. There were so many from different age groups. I can't think of any other situations where you work so hard across age groups. But even though we were different, we got some good recommendations made, I think, which were also quite creative.
Participant in Greve Municipality's climate citizens' assembly

Typically, the citizens' assembly meets approximately 5 times and works in depth on a specific topic. It could be "How should the municipality adapt to become CO2 neutral?" or "How do we ensure well-being and space for everyone in the municipality?". The citizens' assembly is presented with a number of expert presentations and has the opportunity to work on the issue in groups and in plenary.

Citizens' assemblies are a deliberative democratic process, and deliberation can be understood as "consultation" or "thorough consideration". After meeting, working, listening, discussing and deliberating, the citizens' assembly comes up with a series of recommendations to the municipality, which the municipality is obliged to listen to and take forward.

Put to the extreme, it is always the same 10 angry citizens who show up to citizens' meetings with the attitude: "Now the municipality must do something!" Everyone is shooting at the municipality. But at the citizens' assembly, the citizens were quite differently constructive. They took responsibility and expressed that you also have a responsibility as a citizen. In the citizens' assembly, it is not citizen against municipality. Here, the citizens are united in solving problems on behalf of the municipality.
Former Director of Roads, Utilities, and Enviroment at Greve Municipality

Hvad kommer der ud af det?

Our evaluations show that both citizens and municipalities experience the citizens' meetings as good and beneficial. From the citizens' perspective, it makes a difference that they are invited into a process where the government and policies are open to discussion. The citizens are involved from the start; they get time and resources to, thoroughly, delve into a topic, and they experience having a real opportunity to influence the subsequent policy. This is in contrast to the citizen meetings, where the municipality already has a finished plan on the drawing board. As one of the participants in Greve's climate citizens' gathering said in the evaluation, there is a difference between being "involved" and just being "heard".

From the municipality's perspective, the citizens' meeting is also a more meaningful form of citizen involvement. Where citizens' meetings are often characterized by conflict and by "the same 10 angry citizens showing up and shooting at the municipality", as the former Director of Roads, Utilities, and Enviroment in Greve Municipality put it, the citizens' meeting has been an expression of a more constructive and nuanced form of citizen involvement, where citizens have taken responsibility. The experience is that citizens and the municipality have been "on the same team" to a greater extent when it comes to solving some challenges than at the citizens' meetings, where it is citizens against the municipality.

In the citizens' meetings we have carried out, the recommendations of the citizens' meeting have been given a further life in the municipalities. For example, the citizens' assembly on traffic and urban life in the medieval city of Copenhagen led to a recommendation to strongly reduce the number of parking spaces in favor of more green, non-commercial areas. Copenhagen Municipality is currently implementing that recommendation.

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