Using Citizen Deliberative Councils to Make Democracy More
Potent and Awake
by Tom Atlee
This article proposes that "Citizen Deliberative Councils"
 can and should be used in a wide variety
of ways to increase the potency of our democracy. Citizen Deliberative
Councils can increase both the power of "We the People"
and the quality of the decisions made and implemented with that
Citizen Deliberative Councils (CDCs) are temporary, face-to-face
councils of a dozen or more citizens whose diversity reflects
the diversity of their community, state or country. Usually council
members are selected at random, often with additional criteria
to ensure gender, racial, socioeconomic and other diversity.
These diverse ordinary citizens convene for two to ten days (and
occasionally longer) to consider some public concern -- to learn
about it (often by hearing and cross-examining diverse experts),
to reflect on it together (usually with the help of a professional
facilitator or moderator), and to craft a collective statement which
they then announce to the public and/or relevant officials and agencies,
often through a press conference.
After that they disband. In current democratic visions featuring
CDCs, they have no permanent or official power except the power
of legitimacy and widely-publicized common sense solutions to
compelling public problems.
Hundreds of CDCs have been held worldwide. It is now well
demonstrated that with this method ordinary citizens have a remarkable
capacity to grapple with complex problems and come up with useful
recommendations that serve the common good, thus realizing the
elusive dream of democracy.
Yet most citizen deliberative councils have been convened as isolated
events or sophisticated focus groups by organizations or agencies
seeking input from the public. Only in British Columbia, Canada,
has one CDC, the Citizens
Assembly on electoral reform, been given the power to put a
proposal directly to a vote by the people in a regular election.
And only in Denmark are a form of CDCs, the
consensus conference, officially convened as a periodic function
of government to advise both the legislature and the citizenry on
major public issues.
This paper outlines how citizen deliberative councils could be
used much more broadly to further the common good. We hope this
will help catalyze a movement to establish them at all levels of
our barely democratic systems.
FORMS OF CITIZEN DELIBERATIVE COUNCIL
The primary forms of CDC currently in use are the following:
CITIZENS JURIES - The basic and most widely practiced CDC,
outlined above, with 12-24 participants. Pioneered in the US. <http://www.jefferson-center.org>
CONSENSUS CONFERENCES - Like citizens juries except
(a) panelists participate more in selecting experts to testify
before them, (b) testimony is taken in a public forum and (c)
a panel's final product is a consensus statement. Pioneered in
PLANNING CELLS - Numerous simultaneous 25-person citizens
juries (cells), all addressing the same subject. Participants spend
much of their time in 5-person subgroups. The cells' diverse final
statements get integrated into one "Citizens' Report."
Pioneered in Germany. <http://www.planet-thanet.fsnet.co.uk/groups/wdd/99_planning_cells.htm>
CITIZEN ASSEMBLIES - In 2004 British Columbia,
Canada, convened a panel of 160 citizens (one man and one woman
randomly selected from each legislative district) to study and make
recommendations on electoral reform. They met every other weekend
for a year, generating recommendations for citizen approval in an
election which, if approved, become law. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens'_Assembly_on_Electoral_Reform_(British_Columbia)>.
Ongoing news on the spread of the Citizen Assembly model to other
provinces and countries is available from
Jim Snider's blog.
There is also a new form of CDC which, unlike the models above,
does not start off with issues and experts: The WISDOM COUNCIL
is an experimental council using a proven form of open-ended,
creative group process to explore whatever citizens feel is important.
It is currently being piloted in several U.S. communities. <http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-wisdomcouncil.html>
Finally, back in 1991 there was a one-time nationwide experiment
in Canada that offers a provocative glimpse of what might be possible
with a national Wisdom Council, "THE PEOPLE'S VERDICT."
Maclean's magazine, Canada's leading newsweekly, scientifically
selected a dozen seriously different ordinary Canadians and then
used world class facilitation to help them come to an agreement
on the future of Canada. Maclean's then gave extensive
coverage to both the process and the results. <http://www.co-intelligence.org/S-Canadaadvrsariesdream.html>.
Several additional forms of CDC have been proposed (especially
by John Gastil and Ned Crosby) which are variations of the existing
models above. Most are outlined in the remainder of this article.
CDCs constitute only a small sample of the rich variety of
approaches that exist for citizen deliberation.
The Co-Intelligence Institute and several other advocates of
deliberative democracy point out, however, that the CDC model
is uniquely applicable to a large number of situations and provides
special leverage to dramatically improve democratic politics
and governance. In particular, the disciplined
sampling that selects the members of a CDC and the quality of
information and deliberation available to them make CDCs potentially
an especially trusted voice of We the People -- a voice that
may prove worthy of considerable empowerment.
SOME VALUABLE ROLES FOR CITIZEN DELIBERATIVE COUNCILS
Among the many functions CDCs could play are the following:
Studying issues on behalf of the public and public officials.
After studying balanced briefings and cross-examining a diverse
spectrum of experts, randomly selected CDC members could provide
voters and decision-makers with informed guidance about an issue,
grounded in the values of the community. Legitimate issue-oriented
CDCs could be convened by the mandate of legislatures, citizen
petitions, prior CDCs or by other means established by law or
popular acclaim, when and as needed. They could address issues
broadly, identifying new possibilities -- or they could choose
from a given set of options (in which case attention must be
given to how those options are chosen and by whom). Annual CDCs
could be convened in specified issue areas -- economic policy,
the environment, education, defense, welfare, etc. -- to provide
an ongoing sense of the best "general interest" thinking
in each of these areas. These Annual Issue Dialogues could be
set up such that the CDCs conferred with hundreds of their fellow
citizens in the random "jury pools" from which they
were selected, in televised forums viewable by the entire population
-- a process that would be very educational for everyone, especially
if people were engaged in other forms of grassroots dialogue
and deliberation  around these issues
as part of the same participatory effort.
Reviewing proposed ballot initiatives and referenda.
The randomly selected members of a CDC could interview both advocates
and opponents of specific ballot measures, and then share with their
fellow voters (through voter information pamphlets, the Web and
the media) their best judgment about the merits of those initiatives
or referenda. Such a Citizen Initiative
Review (CIR) could be put in place by a ballot initiative or
by legislation establishing a governmental office to convene CDCs
in a timely way to review all -- or certain kinds of -- qualified
initiatives. This would significantly reduce both the special interest
manipulation and the mass thoughtlessness that has recently beset
the initiative process, thus cleaning up and revitalizing what should
be one of our best tools for popular empowerment.
Ensuring sober public evaluation of controversial legislation.
Laws could be passed stating that if a city council, state
assembly or national legislature is preparing legislation that
a certain large number of people petition to suspend pending
review by a CDC, then that legislation is immediately suspended.
A group of (say) 50 citizens might then be drawn from a jury
pool and given 24 hours to hear arguments from both advocates
and opponents of the legislation and to decide by majority (or
supermajority) vote whether to lift or sustain the suspension.
If they decide to lift the suspension, then the legislators can
proceed with their vote. However, if the initial jury sustains
the suspension, then a full CDC must be convened to study the
legislation in detail and cross-examine expert advocates and
opponents. After the CDC's findings are broadly publicized, the
legislature can then proceed with its vote under the watchful
eyes of their now-well-informed constituents.
Reviewing candidates for elected public office.
Three interrelated approaches have been recommended for this:
issue-centered, qualification-centered and interview-centered.
Issue-centered evaluation would involve a CDC evaluating
candidates' positions on key issues (perhaps compared to positions
favored by prior CDCs on those issues, such as by the Annual
Issue Dialogues mentioned above, or by the CDCs evaluating key
pieces of legislation described below). For example, four issue-centered
CDCs could be convened before a particular election to evaluate
each candidate in depth on the economy, the environment, security
and education, including review of their record and interviews
with the candidates, their supporters and their detractors.
Qualification-centered CDCs would ask experts and the
candidates themselves what criteria should be used to evaluate
candidates for a particular position. Once the CDC chose its
criteria, it would have the candidates discuss their own and
each others' qualifications in terms of those criteria. Partisan
and non-partisan experts could also testify on candidates' qualifications.
Although interviews would usually be part of all candidate
evaluation CDCs, interview-centered CDCs would more deeply
engage with the candidates, not limiting themselves to positions
and qualifications, but reaching into the candidates' character,
responsiveness to the public, management style, and even undefinable
"gut feelings." Having each candidate face various
challengers or challenging scenarios for several hours in the
unscripted presence of a randomly selected citizen panel could
be very revealing.
In all cases the evaluations of the CDC would be made available
to the voters through the media, the Web and voter information
An interesting variant for legislative races proposed by John
Gastil envisions a CDC convened to pick what We the People feel
are the ten most important bills proposed or voted on since the
last election. Legislative candidates would be required to state
their views on each of these pieces of legislation. (The voting
records of incumbents would already be available on bills that
were passed or defeated.) Then full CDCs would review each piece
of legislation in the same manner that they might review a ballot
measure. If a supermajority (67 percent or more) of their members
supported or opposed a piece of legislation, their judgment would
be recorded as "the People's preference." The percentage
of times a candidate's record or position aligned with this "People's
preference" would be published in the media, on the Web
and in voters' pamphlets, along with the CDCs' and candidates'
explanations of their views).
These ratings would be much like the ratings that organizations
like the NRA or the Sierra Club give to Representatives and Senators,
except that they would be from a "general interest"
perspective rather than from a particular special interest perspective.
The CDCs' rating (say, 20 percent -- or 90 percent -- agreement
with "the People's preference") would not tell voters
how to vote, but would provide a useful "rule of thumb"
to add to the guidelines most of them use -- party affiliation,
last name, gender, interest group recommendations, etc. A further
(and controversial) option would be to list the candidates and
their "People's preference" ratings right on the ballot
-- in descending order.
Reviewing government budgets.
To be effective this would take several CDCs. The first CDC
could review the budget proposed by the chief executive (mayor,
governor, president). Another could review the version provided
by the legislative budget committee as it completed its work.
Other CDCs could review the budgets of past years, or budgets
proposed by various interest groups, to suggest more general
citizen guidelines for budgeting, or to review the effectiveness
of past budgeting efforts.
Interestingly, when citizens are allowed to deliberate in
an informed way about budgetary matters, they tend to choose
higher taxes to cover services they believe necessary for a healthy
community or country, rather than cutting taxes to have more
money for themselves. This fact could have a profound impact
on the current budgetary crises at all levels of government,
if there is a citizens' movement to empower informed citizen
deliberations like CDCs to evaluate budget proposals and publicize
their public judgment to counter special-interest manipulation
of poorly informed public opinion and votes.
Reviewing government or corporate performance.
Again, using the same model of hearing testimony from all
sides of an issue, a CDC could hear defenders and critics of
the performance of a public official, public agency, or corporation.
This would be a particularly useful tool for periodic citizen
review of corporate charters. In all cases, such a system of
highly informed and impartial answerability could greatly increase
the quality and responsiveness of all forms of power exercised
over our collective life.
Accessing the latent insight of We the People about the
state of our communities and countries, the directions
we're heading and our possibilities for a better future.
Not everything in politics and governance boils down to issues,
proposals, politicians, budgets and performance evaluations.
Properly designed CDCs can act as a "time out" for
a community to reflect on where it is and where it is headed,
and to creatively tease out new directions and options. Such
councils would tend to have more or less open-ended conversations.
If the randomly selected participants were given tasks to do
in such councils, they would tend to involve the exploration
of values, visions and scenarios more than studying facts and
existing proposals. No experts may be needed except for the citizens
themselves. The Wisdom Council and Maclean's experiments
both fit this model.
The broad citizenry could, if it chose, ensure that its general
interests were well and dependably articulated through the use
of randomly selected citizen deliberative councils. The quality
of deliberation involved could replace or shape public opinion
polls as an indicator of the public will and the general welfare.
Their randomness and brief existence could make them at least
as resistant to manipulation as juries. Well-monitored facilitation
and information could help them produce sophisticated, common
sense results. Their rootedness in community values could counter-balance
the growing greed, power-hunger and shortsightedness rampant
in both public and private sector decision-making.
CDCs are so flexible they can evaluate issues, proposals,
legislation, candidates, public officials, and the general state
of the community. In each case, the kind and quality of information
and perspectives supplied by a CDC is unique -- and UNIQUELY
A breakthrough insight is the realization that nowhere else
do we have a trustworthy source of public judgment and community
wisdom arising from high quality investigation by and dialogue
among significantly diverse ordinary citizens deliberating together
away from the shallow, one-sided PR manipulations of special
Whatever issues, candidates or proposals most excite our passion,
we can reflect on the fact that they must pass through the decision-making
processes that are built into our systems of politics and government.
Are these systems set up to make sensible decisions on behalf
of the long-term common good? If not, we have CDCs as a tool
to inject community wisdom and popular will into that decision-making.
We can give that collective wisdom and will as much power as
These reforms should probably be started at local or state
levels (e.g., evaluating local issues and mayoral or gubernatorial
candidates) before they are tried at national levels (e.g., evaluating
national issues and presidential or Congressional candidates).
However, public servants at any level (including the national)
could always convene CDCs to advise them (if they are politicians)
or their agencies (if they are bureaucrats) -- or to influence
their fellow public servants, other institutions (like corporations)
or the public at large towards more wisely democratic policies
Underlying all these details about citizen deliberative councils
is a larger purpose: To bring about the urgently needed next
great step in the evolution of democracy, itself. It is desirable
and likely that regular use of CDCs can help transform "We
the People" from a patriotic myth to a highly conscious
and intelligently coherent political force. It can help bring
real vitality to this ultimate democratic authority that is currently
fragmented, entranced and unable to act clearly and consistently
on its own behalf.
The revolution in decision-making that Citizen Deliberative
Councils offer us is of comparable magnitude to the revolution
in decision-making created centuries ago by the idea of majority
vote. It can be applied virtually anywhere, and it could make
all the difference in the world.
1. The term "citizen deliberative councils"
is a category created by me, Tom Atlee, to embrace the forms of
citizen deliberation described and listed in this article. I promote
this term in many other writings, including my book THE
TAO OF DEMOCRACY. Many advocates of the form (notably John Gastil)
prefer the simpler term "citizen panels." Jim Rough prefers
the term "citizen reflective councils" (see <http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-CRC.html>)
to accurately describe and include more open-ended, creative forms
like the Wisdom Council. Any reader or editor may replace the term
"citizen deliberative council" (CDC) with the term "citizen
panel" or "citizen reflective council" (CRC) if they
2. My working definition of "citizen
deliberation" is "consideration of diverse perspectives
on public affairs by diverse citizens conversing together in
search of greater shared understanding of the common good."
Other leading forms of citizen deliberation include Study Circles
America Speaks 21st Century Town Meetings <http://www.americaspeaks.org/>,
National Issues Forums <http://www.nifi.org>,
Deliberative Polling <http://www.la.utexas.edu/research/delpol/>
and Our Media Voice Citizen Feedback Forums <http://www.ourmediavoice.org/>
3. For detailed descriptions and advocacy
of CDCs and their role in politics and governance, see the following
Atlee, Tom. THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY: USING CO-INTELLIGENCE TO CREATE
A WORLD THAT WORKS FOR ALL (Writers Collective, 2003). Covers all
types of CDCs, including a detailed report on the Maclean's
experiment in Canada. <http://www.taoofdemocracy.com>
Crosby, Ned. HEALTHY DEMOCRACY: EMPOWERING A CLEAR AND INFORMED
VOICE OF THE PEOPLE (Beaver's Pond Press, 2003). Focuses on Citizens
Juries and their potential applications.
Gastil, John. BY POPULAR DEMAND: REVITALIZING REPRESENTATIVE
DEMOCRACY THROUGH DELIBERATIVE ELECTIONS (University of California,
2000). Covers a wide range of deliberative practices, focusing
on citizen panels and their potential applications.
Joss, Simon, and John Durant (eds). PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN SCIENCE:
THE ROLE OF CONSENSUS CONFERENCES IN EUROPE (Science Museum,
UK, 1995). Focuses on consensus conferences.
Leib, Ethan J. DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA: A PROPOSAL FOR
A POPULAR BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT (Pennsylvania State University Press,
2004). Proposes a CDC-style fourth branch of government integrated
with the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
Renn, Ortwin, Thomas Webler, and Peter Wiedemann. FAIRNESS
AND COMPETENCE IN CITIZEN PARTICIPATION: EVALUATING MODELS FOR
ENVIRONMENTAL DISCOURSE (Kluwer Academic, 1995). Focuses
on Citizens Juries and Planning Cells, as well as many other
forms of citizen participation.
Rough, Jim. SOCIETY'S BREAKTHROUGH: RELEASING ESSENTIAL WISDOM
AND VIRTUE IN ALL THE PEOPLE (1stBooks, 2002). Focuses on Wisdom
4. Forms of DELIBERATION are listed in
note 2 above. Among flexible approaches
that generate the most potent and popular forms of public DIALOGUE
are Conversation Cafés <http://www.conversationcafe.org>,
The World Cafe <http://www.theworldcafe.com>,
Open Space Technology <http://www.openspaceworld.org>,
Listening Circles (Council process) <http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-listeningcircles.html>,
and various forms of facilitated dialogue <http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-dialogue.html>.
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