Citizen Assemblies: An Interview with Marjan Ehsassi

March 7, 2024

Around the world, citizen assemblies take on their own unique shape, one that reflects the community they’re in. In Europe, the Federation for Innovation in Democracy, known as FIDE (say it with us: “FEE-day”), has been teaching people how to design and run high-quality assemblies on all kinds of topics in all kinds of places.

Now, the U.S. has its very own resource for people working to expand deliberation: FIDE North America. We recently interviewed the organization’s founder and executive director (and Civic Genius advisory board member!), Marjan Ehsassi.


Question: What motivated your move away from international development and governance to working on democratic innovations?

Marjan: It’s a good but complicated question. There were several reasons for my pivot away from international development, but the decision was largely driven by two underlying factors. After 15 years in international development, I had a growing desire to give back to the United States. Around the same time, we had just gone through a challenging 2016 election, and a post-election United States that was deeply divided. Our democracy felt fragile, and I was eager to understand the deficits of our representative system.

I joined the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins to pursue my doctorate degree focused on citizen disengagement from political institutions mainly in Western democracies. While searching for solutions that address this disconnect, I became steeped in democratic innovations and deliberative democracy, and the rest is history! While certainly not a panacea or a solution to all deficits, I am excited to be working on Citizens’ Assemblies (CAs) as an impactful way to strengthen representative democracies and rebuild civic muscle in the United States and Canada.


Q: You’ve been involved in citizens’ assemblies across various countries.  What experiences would you highlight and how have these shaped your thinking?

Marjan: In the past few years, I have been fortunate to be deeply involved in over six CAs. First as a researcher and more recently as a guarantor and on oversight committees working on design and implementation in France, Belgium, Canada and the United States. My firsthand experience tells me that when designed and implemented well, CAs can be transformative and, as I lay out in my book, Activated Citizenship, they radically change people’s sense of their place in a democracy.

There are lots of great stories of young adults who are selected through democratic lottery to participate in a CA. At first, they’re a little shy or timid but the more time they spend learning, hearing from experts and other participants, meeting with elected representatives who are seeking their input, they become more enthusiastic about the process. They also learn about the trade-offs and the complexities of government decision-making. But most importantly, their relationship with government is forever altered, as is their belief in their own ability to contribute to their democracy.


Q: How do you think deliberative democracy can help in the North American context and the US in particular? What are some of the deficits that Citizens’ Assemblies can address?

Marjan: Our systems of governance, particularly in the U.S., are currently facing lots of challenges. But our democracy is not broken; in fact, it is working as designed. It is severely outdated and in need of structural and procedural changes to bring it into the 21st century.

Deliberative democracy and citizens’ assemblies introduce a number of elements that are currently missing in our representative systems. For instance, the use of democratic lottery and sortition in the recruitment of participants is key to bringing a diversity of voices that is broadly representative of a community. In addition, assembly members go through a learning phase that accounts for about 1/3 of the process. Participants receive materials, meet with a diversity of issue experts and advocates, hear testimony from those with lived experience, and go on site visits before moving into deliberation and proposal writing. At a time of deep polarization and pervasive mis/disinformation, this coming together to learn and consider one’s position on issues in a trusted and balanced environment is critical to building social cohesion and community.

Another important characteristic of a CA is government accountability. In our current American model, the public cannot hold representatives accountable in between elections. A robust CA has a built-in mechanism that requires the government body commissioning the CA to receive proposals from participants at the end of the process and to follow up within six months.

Finally, if these elements are baked into the process, resulting proposals are the result of informed and considered judgement and representative of a broad range of perspectives. And, even consultative mandates can hold government accountable. These measures can strengthen our democratic culture, build civic muscle and improve the quality of American democracy.


Q: When you look at the U.S. in 2024, what leverage can policymakers and institutions employ to decrease polarization and speed democratic renewal?

Marjan: First, thanks to the hard work of many advocates and practitioners, there is more awareness around Citizens’ Assemblies in the United States than a year ago. This is a positive sign. More generally though, there is growing recognition of the importance of civics learning. While this is a key component of democratic practice, we tend to ignore the need to combine this learning with “doing” civics. Citizens’ Assemblies provide this opportunity in abundance.

In addition, CAs are non-partisan and bring together a broadly representative group of residents from all sides to learn, deliberate and offer policy proposals. Research shows that, during these processes, participants shift their opinions, and, as anyone who has been involved in a CA has witnessed, even in the face of disagreement, participants are able to respectfully discuss issues and reach consensus.

Finally, contrary to our current obsession with outcomes, these processes highlight the importance of democratic processes. They bridge social divides, build communities, strengthen civic muscle and bring about the much-needed democratic renewal our representative systems of government desperately need.


Q: Why FIDE –  North America, why now and what is its focus?

Marjan: Interest in CAs is growing in North America, and the timing is right. People want to do democracy differently. Every week, we hear from individuals across the continent and present to organizations everywhere interested in deliberative democracy. Elected representatives are also curious about Citizens’ Assemblies and eager to find innovative ways to engage with constituents. There is a need for an organization that brings the local expertise together to address shared challenges and together preserve the quality of these processes. Leveraging the current context, we have designed a three-pronged strategy, which I describe as scaling deep, out, and up.

The scaling deep pillar includes our advocacy and awareness-raising work. We need to change the way we talk about our democracy and place a greater emphasis on holding government accountable in between elections and bringing marginalized voices to the table. FIDE – North America is involved in several initiatives at the national, state and local levels. We are on the Steering Committee for the Global Innovations in Democracy, an international parliamentary exchange with Members of Congress, taking place this April.  We are also organizing our first Capacity Building School in Washington, DC between April 18-20 in partnership with the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University and the Local Policy Lab. This will be a unique opportunity for city officials, staff, practitioners and advocates to learn about the design and implementation of Citizens’ Assemblies from leading international experts.

The second pillar –scaling out– involves technical guidance, oversight and design support at no cost to Citizens’ Assemblies. This allows us to bake good governance into CAs across North America and bring best practices into their design and implementation. We are also excited about our Learning Agenda Working Group which is creating a methodology to observe, collect survey results and conduct in-depth interviews across Citizens’ Assemblies. This will allow us to produce much-needed evidence-based data for practitioners, researchers and advocates.

Finally, scaling up will include incubating movement-building ideas that explore processes for embedding Citizens’ Assemblies.


Q: European and North American democracies, as many other Western countries, suffer similar challenges. What role can FIDE, as a transcontinental hub for democratic renewal, play in helping liberal democracies tackle these challenges?

Marjan: There are lots of initiatives that come to mind but let me describe two of the most consequential and critical ways that I think the global deliberative community can reach significant milestones.

First, we need a comprehensive strategy for narrative change in the way we talk about our democracy. We have lost our imagination and vision in demanding a more citizen-centric, inclusive and responsive governance structure. Together, we must create this much-needed collective narrative: one that emphasizes the need to hold government accountable in between elections, for policies to reflect the preferences of people and finally, to bring all voices to the table. We need bold and courageous donors who will fund a communications campaign to do this in 2025. This is essential.

Second, not all Citizens’ Assemblies are designed or implemented well. The potential of CAs and the actual practice of CAs must be discussed separately. If we are to accelerate the number of CAs at different levels and move towards embedding these processes in governance structures, then we need to define success and engage in frank conversations about how to strengthen our processes to ensure greater efficacy, meaningful co-creation and ultimately consequential voice for citizens. This is an area where FIDE – North America’s Learning Agenda will be useful. In collaboration with FIDE Europe, newDemocracy and others doing similar work, this will allow us to produce much-needed evidence-based data for practitioners, researchers and advocates.


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