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Photo: Lari Karreinen

The wave of citizens’ assemblies reaching Finland – what are the benefits to political parties?

Citizens’ assemblies can hold the key when political decision-making is in a deadlock. In an assembly, a randomly selected group of citizens study the issue and by the end of the assembly, give their collective, informed opinion to support decision-making.  

Citizens’ assemblies have been used in several countries to mediate or resolve complex issues that have involved values, varying impacts of different policy options and long-term issues. Assemblies are also an opportunity to test the acceptability, weaknesses or strengths of new approaches. If political decision-making fails, public opinion can provide the backing to make difficult decisions. Some of the best-known citizen’s assemblies include the citizens’ assembly on the Irish abortion vote and the UK and French climate panels. 

In its report, the OECD estimates that we are currently living through a wave of citizens’ assemblies. Has this wave reached Finland? And what are the benefits for political parties in strengthening participation and making more sustainable policy in the long-term perspective? 

Citizens’ assemblies have been successful in tackling difficult social issues 

Citizens’ assemblies are based on the theoretical framework of deliberative democracy. According to this theory, the legitimacy of policy decisions is built on discussion between citizens from different backgrounds, that is based on expert knowledge and where the participants of the deliberation share a common goal. 

What makes citizens’ assemblies special is that participants are randomly selected to represent the population, for example by age, gender, place of residence and occupation. This avoids a situation where only the already active people or the most vocal interest groups participate in the social debate. 

The commitment of decision-makers to take the citizens’ assembly’s declaration into account is essential for success.

The selected assembly will hear independent experts and the arguments of representatives of different positions. On this basis, the panel will formulate a statement setting out the key facts and main arguments for the policy direction the assembly supports. The declaration will be published and used to support decision-making.  

The commitment of decision-makers to take the declaration into account is essential for success. Decision-makers will discuss the issue with the members of the assembly and provide a reasoned response. In this way, the process strengthens the link, communication and trust between citizens and decision-makers. 

Good experience of citizens’ panels in Finland  

In Finland, citizens’ assemblies have been used in particular at local levels of decision making, as well as in ministries, to support to decision-making. 

In Mustasaari, for example, a citizens’ assembly discussed the merger of municipalities with Vaasa, which had risen controversy. Before the actual referendum on the issue, the citizens’ assembly produced a list of arguments for and against the merger. The list was sent to all residents before the vote. According to a survey, the majority of Mustasaari residents were aware of the citizens’ assembly’s statement and considered it to be useful and a more reliable source of information than politicians and the media.  

In Turku, the citizens’ assembly was used in the debate on transport arrangements in the city center, linked to the city council’s decision on the urban master plan. 172 Turku residents participated in an online assembly. They familiarised themselves with the background information on the topic and discussed in small groups. After the discussion, each participant chose one of three scenarios on traffic management and answered questions regarding traffic management. More than 90% of participants felt that they had learned to understand views that differed from their own in the process.

Citizens’ assemblies can increase understanding between different views, enhance the experience of inclusion and strengthen trust in information and decision-making.

On the national level, the Citizens’ Parliament brought together 671 randomly selected citizens to discuss citizens’ initiatives related to drug legislation and fuel taxation in autumn 2023. The research showed that the participants’ level of knowledge increased significantly, which also influenced their opinions. These implications are important for the acceptability of decision-making and for the fight against information warfare and the increasing disinformation generated by artificial intelligence. The results of the assemblies were taken to the committees responsible for the citizens’ initiatives.  

Citizens’ assemblies have also been used at the EU level. In 2021, the European Parliament’s Renew Europe group wanted to find out how citizens feel about issues such as climate and the environment, migration, democracy and EU foreign policy. Two Finnish parties, the Swedish People’s Party and the Center Party, are members of the Renew Europe group in the European parliament. The group organised citizens’ debates in all EU countries, with participants from political parties and ordinary citizens. This was a way to consult both their own supporters and the wider EU public and to take the results back to the party leadership. An EU-wide citizens’ panel on reducing hate speech is currently underway, involving citizens from all EU countries. 

Studies have shown that the opinions of the participants in the citizens’ assemblies have often converged. Assemblies can increase understanding between different views, enhance the experience of inclusion and strengthen trust in information and decision-making.  

For political parties, citizens’ assemblies are an opportunity for more sustainable long-term policy-making 

Even in a representative democracy, it is not enough for citizens to be involved in decision-making only every four years by voting in elections. In a fast-paced political environment, parties and politicians are constantly looking for ways to consult, involve and engage in dialogue with citizens. For example, social media can be an effective way to reach like-minded people, but it is increasingly difficult to find a framework for constructive debate between people from different backgrounds and with different opinions. Therefore, deliberative citizens’ assemblies can benefit political parties in three key ways.  

Firstly, a citizens’ assembly can increase acceptance of decision-making. It can be useful when considering, for example, the impact of and adaptation to difficult economic decisions in welfare regions or municipalities. Or when the aim is to tackle long-term problems, such as climate change, and it is important to uphold consistency between elections and despite changes in government. In a citizens’ assembly, a limited number of participants engage in an in-depth study of the issues at stake, usually over several days. Before or during the assembly, it is also possible to reach a much wider audience by conducting polls or opinion surveys using digital tools. This will give the panel the necessary visibility.

A citizens’ assembly can increase acceptance of decision-making.

Second, political parties are themselves arenas for democratic action. Parties could make greater use of deliberative democracy and deliberative assemblies to prepare their own programmes and to seek positions on sensitive issues. A citizens’ assembly could be a test case for how an initiative would be received by the public. Citizens’ assemblies could be used to bring together a diverse group of political party members and to generate experiences of being heard within the party. 

Thirdly, by promoting the introduction of citizens’ assemblies in Finland, political parties would have the opportunity to increase the experience of participation of citizens and residents and thereby, strengthen democracy. We, the authors, hope that strengthening democracy will become a key issue in the 2025 municipal and regional elections.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demo Finland.

This text was written in co-operation by Demo Finland and Deliberatiivisen demokratian instituutti (“Institute for deliberative democracy”).

Demo Finland is a co-operative organisation of all Finnish parliamentary parties. It enhances democracy by strengthening the political participation of women, youth and persons with disabilities in particular and by supporting dialogue between political parties.

The purpose of Deliberatiivisen demokratian instituutti is to promote citizen participation in decision-making, to complement democracy through deliberative citizen participation and to strengthen transparent and conversational decision-making in Finland.

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