DemocracyNext: How to supercharge democracy in Austria

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The following op-ed by our Founding Head of Research and Learning Ieva Česnulaitytė first appeared in the German-language Vienna newspaper Die Presse.

To address increasing polarisation before the upcoming elections, Austria should tap into its superpower—its own citizens.  

Over the past decade, Citizens’ Assemblies have been gaining prominence worldwide because they have been shown to address many of the underlying drivers of polarisation, populism, and democratic decline, as a recent OECD study shows

As governance systems are failing to address some of society’s most pressing issues and trust between citizens and government is faltering, these new institutions embody the potential of democratic renewal.

Citizens’ Assemblies are democratic spaces for everyday people, selected via lottery, to grapple with the complexity of policy issues, listen to one another, and find common ground. They give citizens a meaningful say in shaping decisions affecting their lives, counteract feelings of powerlessness, strengthen trust, and lead to better public policy decisions.

Austria has quietly been leading in this area. The OECD database has documented 46 Citizens Assemblies, Panels, and Councils in Austria since 2003. From local to regional and national examples, Austrians selected by sortition and broadly representative of society have deliberated and provided recommendations to governments on issues of climate, urban planning, transportation, health, culture, and more. And it doesn’t stop with the government.

Earlier this year, Austrian heiress Marlene Engelhorn launched an unprecedented initiative to let a randomly selected citizens group decide how she should give away €25 million she inherited from her grandmother.

Citizens’ Assemblies have been strikingly successful in tackling policy problems and have been entrusted with complex and difficult questions over the years. Last year in France, 185 people selected by lottery from across the country were convened to deliberate on whether France should amend its existing legislation on end-of-life issues, and, if so, how. After deliberating for 27 days over four months last year, they reached 92% consensus on 67 recommendations. In Ireland, Citizens’ Assemblies have become common practice at the national level over the past decade.

As divisions and polarisation increase in anticipation of the upcoming Austrian parliamentary elections in autumn 2024, Citizens’ Assemblies could be just what’s needed to defuse tensions. By establishing Citizens’ Assemblies on difficult issues that people are concerned about, governments can create opportunities for citizens to work on them constructively, promote considered judgment, and enable greater societal consensus. This would reduce the possibility of a thorny issue being weaponised to widen social divides for political benefit.

To extend the benefits of deliberation beyond ad-hoc, one-off assemblies, an ongoing way of involving citizens on a national level could be considered. Permanent Citizens’ Assemblies are already established in Paris, Brussels, and in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg.

Internationally, Vorarlberg is well known for its model of embedding citizen deliberation in a systemic way. 1000 citizens’ signatures trigger a Citizens’ Council on an issue of citizens’ choice, enabling them to start an informed deliberation on a pressing policy issue. It is one of the first places worldwide to practice such a model.

More than 700 examples of Assemblies have provided abundant evidence that deliberative democracy “works” when these processes are designed well. Just as with elections and other democratic processes, we know that certain conditions and design criteria need to be in place for these processes to be truly effective, democratic, and legitimate.

There needs to be a commitment from decision-makers to respond to and implement the citizens’ recommendations. The selection by lottery needs to ensure that everybody has an equal chance of being selected. Sufficient time—usually at least four to five days—is required for people to be able to understand the complexity of an issue and collaborate on developing solutions. 

Because Members of Citizens’ Assemblies have the additional benefit of not needing to be elected or re-elected, they have the freedom to put the common good first. They also bring to light that each and every one of us is equally worthy and capable of being involved in shaping the decisions that affect our lives.

A vision for change and a more hopeful democratic future in Austria exists and has been taking root. We just need to give it a chance. 

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good