November 20, 2017
Guest post by Tin Gazivoda, Senior Program Officer at The Open Society Initiative for Europe.
Big changes are underway in Gdansk, Poland today. Since July 2016, some of the city’s most vexing problems have been dealt with calmly – even enjoyably — by a changing, randomly-selected “citizens assembly” made up of approximately 60 ordinary city dwellers, who are brought together and given the authority to take action.
In just over a year, these assemblies have made sweeping, binding changes in city policy on flood mitigation, air pollution, civic engagement and the treatment of LGBT people. The most recent assembly concluded with some of the participants hugging each other.
Poland is an unlikely place for a heart-warming story about democracy. But as the Law and Justice Party, known as the PiS, took control of the Polish national government – stifling a system of checks and balances after winning less than 38% of the national vote – a different story has unfolded in Gdansk.
Last summer, Mayor Pawel Adamowicz faced a crisis following major flooding which caused millions of euros of damage and killed two Gdansk residents. The damage was severe, and – experts warned that due to climate change–the city was likely to face more extreme rainfall.
“The city’s response to these floods was inadequate in the eyes of many citizens,” said Marcin Gerwin, a resident of Sopot, a nearby town, who has been a driving force in helping to organize the assemblies.
Gerwin approached the mayor with an outside-the-box proposal: rather than act on a flood mitigation plan on his own, or in concert with the usual partners, he suggested a panel of the city’s citizens should hear expert testimony and design a solution themselves. The mayor agreed.
Other citizens assemblies, in some form, have been used in the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of Canada, and Ireland. They have proposed reforms on issues ranging from constitutional reform to electoral reform, to reforms in the banking industry.
The Gdansk assemblies have been ground-breaking in an important way: they have the power to make city policy and spend city funds.
“The mayor recognized that for the assemblies to become more than another advisory body, it had to have the power to act,” said Gerwin.
In Gdansk, great care is used to ensure citizen assemblies are made up of a balanced group of city residents.
“In creating a citizen assembly, we seek to recreate the city in miniature,” Gerwin explained in a recent interview.
Using the city’s voter file and number-crunching computer applications, organizers invite participants to the assemblies in a way that balances demographic and geographic considerations. The assembly itself – a group of 56 or 57 people in Gdansk – should represent a cross-section of the city’s population, organizers say.
The assemblies have, for example, the same percentage of senior citizens as the city. The group is controlled for other factors too, including education-level completed, sex and district.
The selection process for the assemblies ends with a roll of the dice. To promote transparency, assembly organizers say, the die-roll is broadcast live on the internet. In the end, Gerwin says the group should be large enough to reflect the city, but small enough to have one conversation.
“The idea is to use randomness and demographic information to bring together an entirely neutral and representative body,” Gerwin said.
Over four weekend days, a citizen assembly in Gdansk met to determine how the city should mitigate against future flooding.
They heard expert testimony, deliberated in small groups, and asked questions. Working together, they pared down everything they heard to 19 specific recommendations. Eventually, they voted and chose 16 of them.
Proposals that received support from more than 80% of the people participating were enacted.
The response in Gdansk has been favourable. In 2017 Gdansk flooded again, but this time – thanks in part to the citizen assembly’s work – the city responded faster.
Other Polish cities, including Warsaw and Lublin, have taken action to start their own assemblies.
Proponents of citizen assemblies in Gdansk say they should not be used to make all choices for governments. They take months to set up and then to act. They can also be relatively costly. (In Gdansk, each assembly has cost approximately 30,000 Euro.)
“But they have proven to be a good mechanism for solving controversial and politically difficult issues,” Gerwin says.
Topics like those the Gdansk assemblies have tackled are often put to a referendum.
“But many of the voters in a referendum may not have the time, or sufficient interest, to educate themselves about the issue they are voting on,” Gerwin says. “The quality of the decisions a citizen assembly makes are usually a lot better.”
One thing is certain: many of the people who participate appreciate the chance to contribute to the well-being of their city.
“These are not contentious meetings,” Gerwin says. “There is a lot of smiling, hand-shaking, and hugging.”
One participant came to a meeting straight from being discharged from a hospital emergency room. “She did not want to miss anything,” Gerwin explained.
“People are really appreciative of this,” Gerwin says. “For their whole lives they have been citizens, but they have never been asked to do anything significant to contribute. This feels important.”