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Using Citizen Deliberative Councils to Make Democracy More Potent and Awake

by Tom Atlee
November 2003

This article proposes that "Citizen Deliberative Councils" [1] 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 power.

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.


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. <>

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 Denmark. <>

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. <>

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. <'_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. <>

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. <>.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.


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 [4] 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 booklets.

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 VALUABLE.

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 interests.

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 we choose.

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 and behaviors.

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 <>) 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 desire.

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 <>, National Issues Forums <>, Deliberative Polling <> and Our Media Voice Citizen Feedback Forums <>

3. For detailed descriptions and advocacy of CDCs and their role in politics and governance, see the following books:

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. <>

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.


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 <>, The World Cafe <>, Open Space Technology <>, Listening Circles (Council process) <>, and various forms of facilitated dialogue <>.


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