A Citizens’ Assembly movement is stirring in Los Angeles. Amidst fall-out from the audio leak of former LA City Council president Nury Martinez and intractable governance challenges like homelessness, nearly 200 people joined the Berggruen Institute in December to learn how democratic lotteries and citizen deliberation could help resolve growing distrust in City Hall.
The online educational event co-hosted by the Institute and six groups advocating for Citizens’ Assemblies is the first step in instituting a Citizens’ Assembly in LA. The “teach-in” introduced Angelenos to this democratic process that engages citizens directly in government decision-making. Attendees heard from a global panel of deliberative democracy advocates and experts about case studies from California, Chile, and Paris and the democratic process’ relevance to Los Angeles.
Also referred to as citizens’ panels, citizens’ juries, or lottery-selected panels, this form of collaborative democracy has helped citizens resolve public issues since Ancient Greece. Yet only recently did they begin again to gain traction in democracies around the world, especially in Europe.
With authoritarianism on the rise, a symptom of the breakdown of the institutional trust on which democracy has long relied, Citizens’ Assemblies are a powerful way towards a more expansive and representative democracy. By putting citizens at the center of governing, a shift towards collaborative democracy can help rebuild public trust, solve complex policy issues, and depolarize communities.
Much like the way juries are convened to deliberate on matters of justice, citizens’ assemblies bring together a representative cross-section of residents to carefully consider important policy matters and ultimately produce recommendations to lawmakers. Assembly members meet to examine an important public issue in an environment designed to reduce the influence of political bias and instead put the focus on collaborative problem-solving and evidence. They take testimony from experts and stakeholders and deliberate among themselves in a structured process, ensuring that all voices are heard.
“It’s time for democracy to live up to the promise of being a government for people,” Berggruen Institute Executive Vice President Dawn Nakagawa told a reporter from Downtown LA News. “And the current form of democracy we have — our electoral representative democracy — doesn’t effectively do that. It hasn’t for a long time.
Despite Citizens’ Assemblies’ momentum across Europe, they are still relatively unknown in the U.S. Getting them off the ground in the U.S. requires buy-in from the public and lawmakers alike. The public needs to be persuaded of their value and barriers to their participation, such as inability to take time off work, child and elder care, or language barriers, need to be addressed. Similarly, lawmakers must be persuaded that assemblies can help them solve the most pressing policy challenges rather than an encroachment on their authority.
The public event educating Angelenos about deliberative democracy is just the first step in instituting a Citizens’ Assembly in Los Angeles. Next the Institute will work with its partners, including Healthy Democracy, The American Public Trust, Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, Abundant Housing LA, and Public Access Democracy, to introduce the idea to lawmakers and garner their support, with the goal of finding at least one lawmaker willing to sponsor the idea and bring it in front of City Council for consideration. The swelling public appetite for change and the array of controversial issues from redistricting to homelessness make the opportunity ripe for this new version of democracy which places the citizen at the center of the democratic process.