For all practitioners who’ve been in a devising rehearsal room, the rehearsal space often has elements of democracy playing out – participation, ensuring inclusive agency, making space for multiple voices and multiple opinions and more. However, when we think of democracies around the world today, citizen empowerment may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet understanding the world of participatory and deliberative democracy can be useful to running devising rooms in a better way. How can citizen participation and assembly be weaved into the theatre? What are their common denominators, if any?
To help us understand what actually happens in the world of deliberative democracy, Ieva Česnulaitytė, founding head of research and learning at DemocracyNext, shared her thoughts at a recent Unrehearsed Futures conversation. DemocracyNext is an international organisation that seeks to shift political and legislative power to people by designing, embedding, and empowering Citizens’ Assemblies as defining institutions of a new paradigm of citizen-led democracy.
Responding to this season’s call of There Will Be A Time… Ieva shared show she would finish that sentence: “To me, there will be a time when… democracy will meet our expectations, and enable everyone to be a part of taking decisions that affect our lives, all the while showing us that everyone has value, capability and the trust of others to take those decisions.”
Hailing from Lithuania Ieva spoke about her motivation to explore citizen participation and citizen assemblies to build a democracy that justifies people’s expectations. For her, a way to improve that is to address the main elements of the crisis of democracy, which is the lack of representation. At present several groups, minorities and others areeveryday people are not necessarily included in the public decision-making process in a meaningful and ongoing way. One of the ways democracies around the world solve this is through elections. “That’s how we define democracy at the moment.”
Working towards a shared consensus
Over the past 30 years, a new field has emerged of deliberative democracy, which places deliberation at the centre of the public decision-making process. “Deliberation is really a moment where people are meeting each other and considering each other’s perspectives,” says Ieva, “and in an informed manner, they discuss issues that affect them all, and come to a shared decision. It’s really an empowering thought, because it’s about the belief that everybody is capable of understanding participating in taking those decisions.”
In deliberative democracy, the ideas around deliberation have been coupled with another crucial idea – sortition or a random selection of people. “This idea was born used in ancient Athens but then waslargely forgotten. In its modern version, it means that one can select people randomly, ensure they meet the demographic criteria of the society to form this group that is demographically representative of a community,” expands Ieva, “And if we put them in thea conditions where they can learn about a policy issue and deliberate, we enable them to be empathetic with one another, and to work towards a shared consensus.” In a world that is rife with polarization, disinformation and populism, there aren’t many spaces where one can do so. In her work Ieva combines such deliberation and random selection into citizen assemblies. When she worked at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), she collected examples of nearly 600 citizen assemblies that took place around the world and looked into how they work, what their best practices are and more.
These citizen assemblies not only include marginalised groups but all other groups to improve the outcomes of public decision making. “What’s important to note here is that it takes people through a process of empowerment,” she explains. Imagine you receive a letter inviting you to participate in such a process, with a group of people that encapsulates the diversity of your community that you would never otherwise have a chance to talk to. “People that respond to such an invitation are usuallyinclude those who have also perhaps never participated before, never voted before, or have never been part of such a thing,” shares Ieva. “You come together with an invitation from a public authority to really consider a policy issue that’s important for everybody and you have the opportunity to learn about this policy issue from different stakeholders from a diverse set of information.”
The way a citizen assembly works is akin to devising rooms – one goes through the process of weighing the trade-offs involved in the decision, understanding other people’s points of view, how a certain decision would affect other groups that one might never otherwise have thought about. From this, one starts understanding that one is different and sees the world in a different way, but we all want what’s best for everyone – we might see it in a different way, that’s all. “So, you gain this sense of empathy and understanding, an ability to listen, to reason better, to deliberate, to justify your point of view but you also develop a mobility to see another person’s point of view,” believes Ieva.
Being in a rehearsal roomcitizens’ assembly is like developing one’s democratic muscles of active listening, empathy, the ability to express one’s opinion, the bravery to speak and express, the ability to think and evaluate information critically. By the time the group arrives at a consensus, they have learned not to see the world in black and white but to find an agreement and understand that taking public decisions is very complicated. Through this practice one also understands that democracy can be done differently and one’s words and opinions do matter, as these recommendations go back to a public authority which is committed to responding to them. For Ieva, it is a journey of regaining one’s agency. “It is leaving behind that learned helplessness and redefining your relationship with others, with the public authority. And when you go back to the world, you have a whole set of different skills that enable you to be a better citizen every day.”
Action and rhetoric
Ieva also cautions that for citizen assemblies to work effectively, it is necessary for a trustworthy government to be in place that engages with citizens through action, not just rhetoric. It’s important to note that most participation isn’t necessarily quality participation. The main motivation for people to participate in citizen assemblies is the clear connection to decision making. “Because when people feel their time is wasted, they don’t want to participate. They don’t want a consultation that isn’t designed for people to provide meaningful input,” says Ieva. This lack of action is what we should be moving away from, she emphasizes. But the exciting and inspiring thing about citizen assemblies is that they provide an example of how things could be radically different.
Ieva shares her observations of how citizen assemblies look like from the outside, and a lot of parallels can be drawn to how individuals function within a rehearsal room. People are generally quite excited when they receive the invitation to participate in a citizens assembly. “There is also this moment where you doubt if you know enough, if you’re capable enough to even take part in the citizens assembly,” shares Ieva and adds that these assemblies comprise people who have a demographic representation of a community in terms of gender, age, location, education, employment and other socio-economic criteria.
There are also people who are used to participating and having their voices heard and people who have never had the privilege of an invitation to participate extended to them in such a clear and direct fashion. That’s when the impostor syndrome kicks in, and they start wondering if they should wear a suit to the assembly to fit in. In fact, one of the frequently asked questions, shares Ieva, is if one should wear a suit. Wearing a suit can often become a barrier to participation and is antithetical to the purpose of the exercise. “You must let them know how things are going to go, so that they feel comfortable. You do the most you can to make them feel invited and reassure that everybody is welcome, and this is the cognitive diversity we are looking for. They are there for what they can offer,” says Ieva.
Citizens assemblies are some of the most diverse spaces Ieva has come across in her life, where people who wouldn’t usually interact with each other get to engage with each other. Initially citizens learn about a particular policy issue from different policymakers and experts. They go through a process of acquiring this knowledge and sharing how they understand it. Next, they share their personal reactions and opinions before rational discussions take place. Sometimes, people have strong opinions and reactions and can feel them very personally too, expressing their emotions. After all opinions are acknowledged and validated, smaller moderated group discussions take place and then larger group discussions where they begin to develop informed judgements and a shared understanding and someconcrete recommendations.
Moderation is a crucial element of citizen assemblies. Like any rehearsal room, there are people who tend to overtake the group and have the loudest voice, while there are others who need more encouragement to speak up. In citizen assemblies, facilitators are present to ensure is a good balance maintained between the two. They create an environment of trust and balance and ensure everyone’s voices are heard. It also develops a respectful and safe space, says Ieva, and one also witnesses these longer deliberative processes that are sometimes on the national level as well. By the end of these assemblies, people become impassioned about the specific issue and that propels them to share the knowledge with the broader public.
The intention of such assemblies is to come to a shared agreement and to be able to do that one has to understand the other and the other has to understand you; it’s a dance one has to go through to get to this shared consensus. Through this process, people also develop skills of compromise, and there is a sense of pride when one presents what they developed on behalf of their fellow citizens to the public authority.
Need such spaces more
The need for such spaces is increasing, especially in a world where there is greater polarization and there are more and more ecosystems promoting hate and violence. “There are no other spaces I know of that allow us to come together in such a genuine manner, putting aside our differences. There’s a rigourous methodology in these assembles that enables you to do that,” shares Ieva. “We have learned to identify with certain things so strongly, and we’ve become so polarized that we don’t see a way forward. And yet, somehow,” she continues, “we see in all these assemblies that people can do so under the right circumstances.” Ieva believes polarization hasn’t transformed humans to a point where it is hard to go back to empathy and understanding. Rather, it is about the environment that has conditioned humanity and put us all in tiny silos which are truly echo chambers. “Maybe I’m too hopeful to believe that polarization has transformed our essence. I believe our essence is in the shackles of polarization and when given an opportunity to connect with others in a genuine way, we do so and citizen assemblies show that this is still possible,” she says, as the conversation comes to an end.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
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