Berggruen Institute Report: Historic California Citizens' Assembly Dramatically Increases Political Engagement, Builds Community and Social Cohesion Among Participants

Christopher Eldred

Berggruen Institute Report: Historic California Citizens’ Assembly Dramatically Increases Political Engagement, Builds Community and Social Cohesion Among Participants

Service on randomly selected panel tasked with helping city resolve a local policy issue caused significant shifts in civic outlook, finds democracy scholar Marjan Horst Ehsassi

LOS ANGELES (July 27, 2023) – A landmark citizens’ assembly in a California city bridged political divides, energized civic engagement, and heightened trust in institutions among participants. That’s according to a new Berggruen Institute analysis of the Petaluma Fairgrounds Advisory Panel (PFAP), the first randomly selected citizens’ panel to partner with local government and feature extensive deliberation in America’s largest state.

PFAP convened 36 randomly selected residents for 102 hours of information gathering, mediated deliberation, and writing of recommendations for the future development and use of a major public property in Petaluma, a city of 60,000 approximately 40 miles north of San Francisco. Report author Marjan Horst Ehsassi, a Berggruen Fellow and democracy scholar, uses direct observations from these proceedings, subsequent interviews, and participants’ survey responses to assess the impact of PFAP and make recommendations for similar efforts in California and across the US.

Some of Ehsassi’s most notable findings from this study include:

As a result of their participation in the Petaluma deliberative process:

  • 65 percent of participants report a growing sense of community with other panelists
  • 39 percent report that they have become more politically active
  • 92 percent report that they feel that their input is meaningful and important in local decision making
  • In interviews, participants report “greater understanding of the complexities involved in governing” and new levels of empathy for politicians and civil servants that they had not previously possessed
  • In interviews, participants explain how the experience bridged traditional divisions and built social cohesion
  • In interviews, participants describe optimism, pride, renewal and “hope that democracy can exist”

“Disengagement and distrust are driving forces behind democratic decline here in the US and around the world,” said Ehsassi. “While small in scale, these findings are a concrete example of how deliberative democracy can be an effective tool for putting the public back into policy, arresting these trends, and enabling healthy and constructive political engagement. The Petaluma Fairgrounds Advisory Panel can serve as an important proof of concept for deliberative democracy in the United States.”

City Manager Peggy Flynn and the Petaluma City Council chose the citizens’ assembly process as an innovative way to acknowledge and channel community perspectives into policymaking on the future of the Petaluma Fairgrounds, public space that for 50 years has played a uniquely central role in civic life. PFAP was administered by Healthy Democracy, a US-based non-profit.

This analysis of PFAP is the latest Berggruen Institute project to track the spread of what the OECD calls a “deliberative wave” of citizens’ assemblies globally. The Institute hopes that citizens’ assemblies can promote social cohesion, reduce polarization, and alleviate other root causes of democratic decline.

Other work includes Berggruen Fellow and deliberative democracy pioneer Carsten Berg’s 2022 report on the EU Citizens’ Panels, the first instance of citizens’ assemblies convened across national and linguistic boundaries. Another is Sense LA, which uses a methodology called “creative assemblies” to build social cohesion among communities and government in Southern California. Deliberative democracy is also a core idea in Renovating Democracy: Governing in the Age of Globalization and Digital Capitalism, the 2019 book authored by Institute co-founders Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels.

“Healthy democracy in the 21st century will require radical institutional innovation,” said Dawn Nakagawa, Executive Vice President at the Berggruen Institute. “We’re becoming a hub for knowledge and exchange about citizen’s assemblies and democratic innovations that people are experimenting with around the world.”

An expert on deliberative democracy, Ehsassi was appointed and served as guarantor of France’s Citizens’ Convention on the End of Life, a recently-concluded citizens’ assembly whose landmark report included recommendations to create a statutory right to die (2023). She was on the Oversight Committee of the Belgian G1000 We Need To Talk Citizens’ Panels (2023), and has researched other recent instances of deliberative democracy: the French Citizens’ Convention on the Climate (2020), the Parliament of Brussels Deliberative Committee on Homelessness (2020), and the Canadian Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Expression (2021).

“The Petaluma Fairgrounds Advisory Panel had a meaningful impact on the lives of participants, and can serve as the beginning of a positive evolution in the city’s democratic culture,” said Ehsassi. “Other localities in California should take this opportunity to deepen engagement with their citizens on local policy issues.”

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About the Berggruen Institute
The Berggruen Institute’s mission is to develop foundational ideas and shape political, economic, and social institutions for the 21st century. Providing critical analysis using an outwardly expansive and purposeful network, we bring together some of the best minds and most authoritative voices from across cultural and political boundaries to explore fundamental questions of our time. Our objective is enduring impact on the progress and direction of societies around the world. To date, projects inaugurated at the Berggruen Institute have helped develop a youth jobs plan for Europe, fostered a more open and constructive dialogue between Chinese leadership and the West, strengthened the ballot initiative process in California, and launched Noema, a new publication that brings thought leaders from around the world together to share ideas. In addition, the Berggruen Prize, a $1 million award, is conferred annually by an independent jury to a thinker whose ideas are shaping human self-understanding to advance humankind.

About Marjan Horst Ehsassi:
Marjan H. Ehsassi is a strategic policy advisor, practitioner, movement builder, and a fierce believer in the need for meaningful, inclusive, and impactful government-led engagement that provides citizens with a consequential voice. She has traveled to and worked to enhance space for civil society in some of the most complex environments including Iran, Ukraine, and North Korea.

A lawyer and international governance expert, she recently received her Doctorate in International Affairs (DIA) from SAIS, Johns Hopkins University with a concentration on democratic innovations, design integrity, and government-initiated Deliberative Mini-Publics (DMPs). She has studied and produced case studies on the impact of citizens’ assemblies on participants in France, Belgium, Canada, and the United States. Marjan is on several boards including Healthy Democracy and has been invited to serve as Independent Guarantor in the Collège des Garants of the French Citizens’ Convention on the End of Life (Convention Citoyenne sur la Fin de Vie).

As a Berggruen Fellow, Marjan supports several initiatives to raise knowledge and test deliberative platforms in the United States, including the implementation of a Legislators’ Forum on Innovations in Democracy, the Working Group on Deliberative Democracy for the Second Summit on Democracy, the Future of Institutions Working Group on Deliberative Democracy, the Democracy Action Fund, and the design and implementation of the first State-wide Citizens’ Assembly in the United States.

Media Contact
Christopher Eldred, Berggruen Institute
(310)-550-7083 – Office
(857) 654-8850 – Mobile

composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.