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See also: Citizen Reflective Councils


A Citizen Deliberative Council (CDC) is a temporary council of citizens convened to deliberate about public concerns (either about a specific issue or the general state of the community and its future) and to provide guidance for officials and the public.

Although "citizen deliberation" happens in many forms, a Citizen Deliberative Council is a special form of deliberation structured and convened to inform officials and the public about what The People as a whole really want.

These councils are appearing around the world and have the potential to make governmental systems more answerable, effective and wise.

Citizen Deliberative Councils are liberating latent and previously untapped levels of collective intelligence within civil society and applying that intelligence to the formulation of public policy around the globe.

CDCs are a demonstrable world-wide movement facilitating the emergence of deep levels of collective wisdom necessary to transform our troubled global culture.

* * * *

This article offers a working definition for "Citizen Deliberative Councils," a brief history of their evolution and specific examples of how these councils are being used to make significant improvements in civic life on a wide variety of issues around the world. See also Using Citizen Deliberative Councils to Make Democracy More Potent and Awake for an extensive list of how such councils can be integrated into representative governance.

Citizen Deliberative Councils

All these approaches add to a democratic society's ability to function more wisely and fairly. But here I am focusing on a particular form -- citizen deliberative councils -- which I believe has a unique and pivotal role to play in bringing the wisdom of citizens to the formal structures of politics and governance. These temporary councils of citizens reflect the diversity of the population, so when they're convened to deliberate on public concerns and provide guidance for officials and the public, they have a special legitimacy.

This is the primary thing that makes them special -- that they are made up of ordinary citizens whose diversity embodies the diversity of the population from which they were drawn. They are, in essence, an ad hoc microcosm of a community, state or country, convened to reflect the views and concerns of that community, state or country, in an interactive setting. Participants may be selected randomly or scientifically -- or by a combination of both methods. But they differ from participants in most other forms of citizen deliberation in that they are not chosen as representatives, stakeholders or experts. They are themselves, and they show up simply as peer citizens. In their role as a citizen council, however, they may consult with representatives, experts or other stakeholders, to improve their understanding of the issues they're exploring.

There are many varieties of citizen deliberative councils, but they all share one purpose and seven characteristics.

The purpose of a citizen deliberative council is to inform officials and the public of what The People as a whole would really want if they were to carefully think about it and talk it over with each other.

The seven characteristics shared by every citizen deliberative council are:

  1. It is an organized face-to-face assembly.
  2. It is made up of people selected so that their collective diversity fairly reflects the diversity of the larger community from which they were chosen. (In this context, "community" means any coherent civic population, whether a block, a citizens' organization, a city, a province, a country, or any other such public grouping.)
  3. It is convened temporarily, for a limited number of days -- almost always for more than a single day -- usually a few days to a week of actual meetings, sometimes distributed over several weeks.
  4. Its members deliberate as peer citizens, setting aside any other role or status they may have.
  5. It has an explicit mandate to address public issues or the concerns of its community.
  6. It uses forms of dialogue, usually facilitated, that enable its diverse members to really hear each other, to expand and deepen their understanding of the issues involved and to engage together in seeking creative ways their community might address those issues.
  7. At its conclusion, it issues findings and/or recommendations to concerned officials and to the larger community from which its members came and to which they return when their reports are submitted. Usually there is an expectation of further community dialogue stimulated by the report, and this is sometimes intentionally included as part of the overall process.

Although few people realize it, hundreds of these groups of ordinary citizens have been formally convened all over the world for over thirty years. They have involved tens of thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of people in both "developed" and "developing" nations. This is happening in many places right now. Here are four examples, just to give you a taste:

  • Poor Indian farmers held a deliberative council investigating approaches to economic development -- and decided they wanted to continue their subsistence farming.
  • Some Britons passed official judgment on whether their local HMO should offer chiropractic services.
  • Australian suburbanites deliberated on what to do about pollution and erosion associated with rainwater that was wrecking their beaches.
  • Eighteen down-home Americans became expert enough in a few days to tell Twin Cities municipal authorities how to deal with the area's solid waste disposal. They wanted more sustainable practices.

In every case, ordinary people reviewed the facts and came up with common-sense solutions. In all four of these examples, the format used was a citizens jury, a group of 10-20 people who select and cross-examine diverse experts on an issue and then present recommendations to a convening authority. This approach was created by Ned Crosby in the U.S. in the early 1970's and developed by him and his nonprofit Jefferson Center over the next three decades.

The citizens jury model was picked up by English activists who carried it around the world. Many other people have since started using it. In its many variations,* the citizens jury is the most widely used and tested model of citizen deliberative council in the world, and has inspired many creative applications and visions -- including evaluating politicians and ballot initiatives:

  • In his book By Popular Demand, John Gastil suggests that randomly selected citizen panels could be used for evaluating candidates and ballot initiatives (with their recommendations distributed to every voter and reflected on the ballot, itself) and also to generate public judgment about controversial legislation before it is voted on.
  • The National Initiative for Democracy advocates a national ballot initiative process in which anyone can propose a law, which is then reviewed by randomly selected citizen councils -- along with many other qualifying steps -- before it can be voted on by all citizens.
  • Plan for a Healthy Democracy (founded by Ned Crosby) envisions a randomly selected citizens jury which studies issues, initiatives, candidates or public officials carefully and then interacts with a closed-circuit television audience of hundreds of fellow citizens before making its final recommendations.

Unbeknownst to Ned Crosby, a few years before he came up with the citizens jury idea, a German named Peter Dienel came up with a remarkably similar innovation he called "planning cells" (Planungzellen). These involved a number of simultaneous juries (or "cells"), each with about 25 members, all of whom were considering the same issue. The conclusions of the diverse cells were collected, compared and then compiled into one "citizen report" by the organizers/facilitators. Once the report was cleared through the participants, it was presented to the sponsor, the media and other interested parties. A few dozen of these have been held in Germany, and the method is still being used there. (See Fairness and Competence in Citizen Participation: Evaluating Models for Environmental Discourse, edited by Ortwin Renn, Thomas Webler and Peter Wiedemann [Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995] pp. 117-156.)

More than a decade after Crosby and Dienel's innovations, another form of citizen deliberative council was instituted in Denmark. In this model, experts testified to the citizens' council in open public hearings, after which the council was facilitated to a consensus before they issued their report. Since the mid-80's, these Danish consensus conferences have been convened by an official parliamentary office to review controversial technological issues being considered for legislation. Denmark may be the only place in the world where citizen deliberative councils are institutionalized as part of the operations of government. In addition to the Danes' official consensus conferences, a couple of dozen of them have been held unoffically elsewhere in the world.

(Research opportunity: Quite a number of consensus conferences and other types of citizen deliberative council have been convened to consider "the genetic engineering of food." The popularity of this topic means that findings and recommendations from diverse countries could be fruitfully compared.)

The most empowered form of Citizen Deliberative Council so far held is the Citizens Assembly in British Columbia, Canada. This panel of 160 citizens (one man and one woman randomly selected from each legislative district) was convened in 2004 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.

Citizen Consensus Councils

Since the Danish model and some other forms of citizen deliberative council use consensus process (in which all participants agree on their final statement), I call them "citizen consensus councils." I believe they deserve their own category because the search for consensus demands a particular kind of creativity to work through the differences between diverse participants, and thus has special potential to produce wisdom, particularly when it's done repeatedly over time. Other examples of citizen consensus councils include:

·Jim Rough's Wisdom Councils. This innovation involves selecting one to two dozen citizens at random at least once a year to articulate The People's concerns and perspectives. This form of citizen consensus council uses a particularly powerful process, dynamic facilitation, that can uncover unexpectedly innovative approaches to problems -- and transform the people involved -- simply by following the group's interests and energy. This process tends to turn any existing conflict into a stimulant to engage people's co-creativity. (See also Citizen Reflective Councils)

An experimental citizens' panel organized by Maclean's magazine in Canada in 1991. Maclean's convened a dozen Canadians scientifically selected to represent the demographic and political diversity of Canada. After two days of intense conflict moderated by expert facilitation, they finally discovered their common fellowship and, on the third day, finalized a consensus vision for their entire country. Maclean's provided about 40 pages of coverage, in addition to an hour long feature TV documentary about the process and its results.

A Citizens Deliberative Movement?

Organizers of citizens juries and all the other citizen deliberative councils function in far-flung, decentralized, leaderful networks that are just beginning to see themselves as a movement. But I believe it is already a movement.

A major reason I believe that is that there's more involved than just the actual councils. For example, dozens of brilliant investigators and academics are describing, researching and critiquing a wide range of citizen deliberations. They're asking excellent questions about the functioning of these groups and their role in the world. In particular, more and more practitioners, activists, and academics are looking at how to increase the power of citizen deliberative bodies so that they actually impact official policy and the behavior of communities and countries. They are setting the stage for powerful conversations and community wisdom to transform our cultures.

The growth of their inquiries and work is reflected in the fact that's listings for "deliberative democracy," "citizens juries," and "citizen deliberation" doubled in the year and a half between June 2002 and December 2003.

If you want to go directly to some great overviews and descriptions of widespread use of citizens' juries and other such deliberative processes, take a look at these two excellent compilations:

"Scientific Deliberative Polling and Deliberative Democracy"


"Participatory environmental policy processes: experiences from North and South" (or click on "IDS Working Paper 113" at the bottom of

Increasingly, investigators of this phenomenon are realizing that conversations are not just a tool for change. They are the medium through which all of us together understand and create the realities we live in. Citizen deliberative councils promise to uplift the quality and power of every conversation that happens among citizens, to shift the entire "conversational field" in which we shape our past, present and future.

No longer need our collective stories be written by powerholders beyond our reach. They can be written by our own neighbors, as they search for deeper truths on our behalf, describing our experience and guiding our journey, in full view of the rest of us.

I find tremendous hope in that possibility.


* The Jefferson Center has trademarked the capitalized version of the phrase Citizens Jury®, and has reserved the use of the phrase in the United States for citizen deliberative councils overseen by them. Similar efforts that don't use that phrase, or that are undertaken in other countries, do not require their involvement or approval.

See also:

Can Citizen Deliberative Councils Legitimately Claim to Generate a 'People's Voice' on Important Public Concerns? - a reflection by Tom Atlee, July 2, 2002

Using Citizen Deliberative Councils to Make Democracy More Potent and Awake for an extensive list of how such councils can be integrated into representative governance.


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