Do citizens’ councils bring a democracy update for cantons and communes?

In many countries, participatory and deliberative approaches have been used in recent years to increase the direct involvement of citizens in political decision-making processes. Apart from a few pilot projects, Switzerland is still largely outside this trend. In this paper, two examples are given to illustrate how such approaches could complement existing democratic institutions at the cantonal and local levels.

For some years now, it has become clear that modern democracies are in crisis. On the one hand, the number of democracies worldwide has been steadily decreasing since 2005. More and more countries are sliding into authoritarian regimes or even dictatorships. On the other hand, even the established, “old” democracies are increasingly showing signs of wear and tear, such as stagnating or declining voter turnout, a growing loss of trust among citizens in the government, parliament and parties, or rampant polarisation.

As a response to this development, often referred to as “democratic backsliding” or “democractic recession”, new participatory and deliberative approaches are increasingly used to involve citizens directly in political decision-making (see this blog post). One of the best-known examples is the Irish “Citizen Assemblies”. These are committees of up to 100 randomly selected citizens who, instead of parliament, are commissioned to develop proposals for solutions to certain social challenges, which are then presented to the electorate in referendums. In Ireland, for example, legal regulations for abortion or same-sex marriage were introduced in this way.

In addition to this form of citizen participation, there is an almost unmanageable number of similar procedures in use worldwide (for an introduction, see OECD or buergerrat.de). This article focuses on a still rather rare form of citizen participation: the so-called “Citizen Councils”. These are similar to the Irish “Citizen Assemblies”, but in contrast to them, they are not only supposed to make decisions on a certain topic and then be dissolved, but rather as permanent institutions – comparable to a second chamber of parliament – to complement the existing democratic instruments of democracy.

Still to be presented are the preliminary results of a study conducted within the framework of the “Basel Democracy Laboratory”. Within the framework of the study, a possible model of a “Citizen Council” was developed for the cantonal and the municipal level, based on examples from abroad.

Cantonal level

How such a deliberative approach in the form of a permanent citizens’ council as a “second chamber of parliament” could be inserted into the existing democratic institutions of a canton is shown in Figure 1 using the example of the canton of Basel-Stadt.

Basic elements:

  • For a canton the size and structure of Basel-Stadt, a citizens’ council consisting of 60 members would suffice. In the present example, the term of office was also set at one year and it was determined that young people from the age of 16 could also sit on the council. Of course, it would also be possible to determine these details differently (e.g. longer terms of office or that foreigners could also sit on the council).
  • The members of the citizens’ council are not elected, but selected at random from the register of residents(citizens’ lottery).
  • A secretariat supports the citizens’ council administratively and carries out the annual drawing of lots for the citizens’ councillors. For reasons of efficiency, the existing secretariat of the Grand Council could also be used for this purpose.

Optional elements:

  • The Citizens’ Council has the right to hold citizens’ assemblies on specific topics (e.g. a specific bill). These assemblies are dedicated to this one topic for a few months and are to draw up recommendations and proposals for the attention of the Citizens’ Council. The members of the citizens’ assemblies are also selected at random with the help of the citizens’ lottery. Citizens’ assemblies can be considered as temporary commissions that receive their mandate from the citizens’ council.
  • In some examples abroad, oversight committees have also been designated to evaluate the work of citizens’ councils. However, they do not have the authority to intervene directly in their work.

Powers/competences:

  • The citizens’ council is basically free to choose the issues it wants to deal with. However, it is also conceivable that, in addition to topics of its own choosing, it may also receive “assignments” from the government or the Grand Council. The Grand Council is obliged to answer or deal with concerns and commissions from the Citizens’ Council after six months at the latest.
  • The Citizens’ Council may submit interpellations, which must be dealt with in the Grand Council in the same way as parliamentary motions submitted by its own members.
  • In addition, the Citizens’ Council can demand evaluations of certain policy areas.
  • The Citizens’ Council can also submit legislative proposals, which are then discussed and, if necessary, amended in the Grand Council.
  • It would also be conceivable to go one step further and allow the citizens’ council to submit citizens’ council initiatives. These would have to be dealt with by the Grand Council in the same way as popular initiatives. However, it cannot change the content of these initiatives, but only recommend to the population that they be accepted or rejected or, if necessary, prepare a counter-proposal.
  • Another optional element would be the participatory budget. Here, the citizens themselves can decide for which projects they would like to use a certain part of the cantonal budget. The citizens’ council would set a general topic of “environmental protection” or “schools” once a year.

Figure 1: Embedding a permanent citizens’ council at the cantonal level

Local level

Figure 2 shows how a permanent citizens’ council could be embedded in existing structures at the local level. However, this model is not intended for cities with their own parliaments – for these, a model similar to the cantons would be more appropriate – but rather for smaller municipalities with 3-5,000 inhabitants.

Although the central elements such as the citizens’ council and the citizens’ lottery have been retained, much has been simplified and adapted to the requirements and structures of local democracy. It is important to note that in this example, too, the citizens’ council has the option of submitting not only non-binding proposals to the municipal council, but also binding citizens’ initiatives, which are then decided directly at the municipal assembly or in a referendum. It is thus also clear that the citizens’ council in this model is conceived as a supplement to the municipal assembly and not as a substitute for it.

Figure 2: Embedding of a permanent citizens’ council

Conclusions and outlook

In contrast to many other European countries, the development towards participatory and deliberative approaches to democracy has not yet really taken off in Switzerland. Although some pilot projects have been launched in recent years (especially in larger cities), they are almost exclusively of a consultative nature. Almost never have these projects delegated concrete decision-making powers directly to citizens. However, this is a central aspect of the approaches presented here. The participation of citizens is not only limited to feedback and non-binding suggestions, but in addition, part of the decision-making power is shifted from the previous institutions (and from politicians) to the citizens’ councils. Experiences abroad have shown that this is appreciated by citizens. They want to be taken seriously, are willing to contribute and take responsibility.

Nevertheless – or precisely because of this – approaches such as the citizens’ councils outlined here are still likely to have a difficult time in Switzerland. Politicians are very sceptical about these approaches, as can be seen from the reactions to the proposal to establish a “climate council”. Moreover, the problem pressure on Swiss democracy seems to be less pronounced than abroad. However, Swiss democracy is not immune to the challenges mentioned above. In this respect, it would be regrettable if such approaches were not increasingly tried out at least at the local and cantonal level and adapted to the specific framework conditions of Swiss democracy and politics. This would be an opportunity to further expand and modernise democracy that we should not miss.


About the “Basel Democracy Lab

More information about the lab can be found here. The project team will report continuously on the projects and the insights gained from them in a series of articles.

So far, the following articles have been published:“Exploring Democracy 2.0 with Experiments” and “TheFuture of Democracy: Why the Trends Participation and Deliberation Give Hope“.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Jan Fivaz

Jan Fivaz is a research associate at the Institute Public Sector Transformation at BFH Wirtschaft. He is investigating the use of the online voting tool smartvote as part of a research project.

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