What are deliberative mini-publics (DMPs)?
Deliberative mini-publics (DMPs) are participatory processes in which a randomly selected and heterogenous group of citizens are invited to work together for period to develop recommendations, ideas or solutions on a specific issue. DMPs have been employed by political bodies and decision-makers on all levels of democratic governance to enrich political decision-making processes with the unique – and often otherwise unheard – perspectives of citizens. In democratic practice, DMPs span a variety of formats, including citizens assemblies and citizens’ councils.
The participants’ task is to propose solutions and ideas in response to policy issues or to recommend new ways to approach them. The citizens are supported within the process by professional facilitators. These ensure, through deliberative and co-creative methods, that all participants get to contribute their experiences, ideas and opinions and that, as far as possible, the group achieves consensus. Depending on the issue in question, the DMP process can also include input from outside experts, stakeholders or people representing different positions on the issue, in order to build a common understanding for subsequent deliberations.
As informal participatory processes, DMPs are not governed by fixed rules and therefore take on very different forms depending on the context, issue in question, or the political level at which they are formed. For example, DMPs at the national level, such as citizens’ assemblies, typically involve a much more detailed process, both in terms of the number of participants and their duration and scope. State-wide or national citizens’ assemblies often involve more than 100 people, who may meet repeatedly over a period of months. On the other hand, local DMPs (e.g. citizens’ councils)often comprise merely 15-25 people and issue their results within just a few days. DMPs typically convene in person. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many DMPs took place online or in a blended format.
The ways in which DMPs augment the work of policymakers and public administrators varies greatly. These range from one-off events to institutionalised committees comprised of randomly selected citizens. Such long-standing and institutionalised bodies may also table issues and questions on which upcoming DMPs can be convened.
The role of deliberative mini-publics in sustainability policy
DMPs are generally seen as having great potential to bring new ideas and perspectives to the public discourse on complex challenges such as climate protection, energy supply, or mobility, and to help achieve consensus, especially on issues where people have strong differences of opinion. They also promote an active understanding of citizenship and generate democratic experiences of self-efficacy for those involved. For this reason, they are increasingly used at all political levels and on different issues (See www.buergerrat.de for an overview of the different contexts in which DMPs have been formed in Germany). The principle of random selection ensures a high level of diversity in the composition of the groups. It also ensures that participants do not represent special interests or organisations and approach the issues in question primarily on the basis of their personal realities. DMPs are a particularly useful tool for dealing with sustainability issues because they make the everyday knowledge of citizens accessible as a resource to inform complex decision-making processes. Moreover, several studies have shown that DMPs can help find sensible and broadly beneficial solutions to controversial problems.
The work of RIFS with deliberative mini-publics
RIFS monitors and supports DMPs through a variety of competences and roles.
Depending on the issue or question the DMP was convened to discuss, it may be beneficial to involve experts or evidence-based knowledge in the process. RIFS researchers have, for example, provided expert advice and sat on the advisory board for the civil society-initiated, national Citizens’ Climate Assembly. RIFS was also involved in the Berlin Citizens' Climate Assembly, helping to develop realistic everyday scenarios in advance, which formed the basis for the Assembly’s recommendations for climate policy in Berlin.
RIFS researchers also carry out scientific evaluations and quality assurance for numerous DMPs. Recently, RIFS, together with the Institute for Democracy and Participation Research at the University of Wuppertal, evaluated the Citizens’ Assembly on Germany’s Role in the World and drafted a set of recommendations for the Bundestag on the institutionalisation of citizens’ assemblies. RIFS also evaluated the "Forum Covid-19" citizens' assembly in Saxony.
In addition, RIFS researchers regularly contribute to the design of DMPs with process-related expertise. Like other forms of civic participation, DMPs require a variety of preconditions in order to deliver their intended results as well as the desired side effects. These preconditions must be determined in advance, which requires close collaboration with policymakers and public administrators as well as experts and civil society actors. RIFS advises various initiatives on the strategic and operational planning of DMPs. Currently, for example, RIFS is working with the German direct democracy NGO Mehr Demokratie e.V. as part of the LOSLAND project, which is setting up future councils in ten German municipalities.
RIFS researchers publish their reflections and findings on DMPs in academic publications. Some recent examples can be found here, here and here. Within international networks and research associations such as Participedia, Democracy R&D, or the Knowledge Network on Climate Assemblies, RIFS researchers work closely with partners from around the world to implement joint projects, for example the first worldwide citizens’ assembly, the "Global Assembly", which met in 2021.
Deliberative mini-publics as a foundation for vibrant democracy
DMPs are just one of many ways to enrich and strengthen democratic decision-making and transformation processes – especially when it comes to finding workable solutions to major challenges in the field of sustainability. The RIFS research area "Democracy and Sustainability" brings together a variety of research projects and transformative activities aimed at enriching democratic structures and cultures. The work of RIFS in monitoring and supporting citizens’ participatory processes, its work in policy advice, and its disciplinary scientific research all come together in this field of study, collaboratively generating new insights for democratic theory and practice through joint learning and reflection.
|RIFS role in the citizens’ assembly
|Participating RIFS staff members
|Links to findings
|Tempelhof-Schöneberg Citizens' Assembly
|Official project website Website of the initiators
|Head of local authority A. Schöttler
|7 citizens’ assemblies in all districts of Tempelhof-Schöneberg Question: "How can we ensure that our district remains liveable and shape the future together?"
Funded by the City of Berlin Initiated by a citizens’ group
|Citizens' group “Nur Mut” ("Courage!”) Adribo (Evaluation) 5 freelance moderators
|Consulting (initiation phase; process design; implementation)
|Final report Evaluation Adribo
|Creation of a staff unit for "dialogue and participation" at the local authority. Follow-up projects with the local authority to strengthen its culture of citizen participation Inclusion of citizens’ assemblies in the "district guidelines on citizen participation".
|Democracy Experiment on "Rethinking Democracy" in Magdeburg
|MDR documentary, which reports on the experiment
|3 citizens’ assemblies with different process designs for the same issue: "How can Magdeburg city centre be made more attractive for pedestrians?"
|MDR television team (WTS Mixed Media) 2 freelance moderators
|Process design and research in the form of an explorative study
|Dorota Stasiak; Dirk v. Schneidemesser; Giulia Molinengo; Daniel Oppold; Nicolina Kirby
|Paper by Giulia Molingeno
|Influence of the findings as recommendations for the further elaboration of an urban development plan
|Citizens' Assembly on Democracy
|Bundestag President Schäuble as patron
|First citizens’ assembly at the federal level. Conceived by Mehr Demokratie e.V. and partner organisations, and funded by foundations
|Consultation in the early preparatory phase of the Citizens' Assembly (no involvement in the actual project!)
|Patrizia Nanz Daniel Oppold
|Citizens' Assembly on Germany's Role in the World
|Council of Elders of the Bundestag as initiator
|Second citizens’ assembly at federal level on the question of what role Germany should play in the world. The question was voted on in advance in the Council of Elders of the Bundestag.
|IDPF Wuppertal; Mehr Demokratie e.V.
|Formative evaluation of the citizens’ assembly
|Nicolina Kirby Daniel Oppold Ortwin Renn
|BR Evaluation Report Recommendations to the Bundestag
|Numerous follow-up workshops and discussions. Announcement in the coalition agreement to convene further citizens’ assemblies at federal level.
|Citizens' Climate Assembly (initiated by civil society at federal level)
|BürgerBegehren Klimaschutz e.V. (not commissioned by parliament or similar)
|Citizen’s assembly on climate policy initiated and financed by civil society.
|Expert advice (Ortwin Renn as chair of the scientific advisory board)
|Ortwin Renn, Mark Lawrence (Member of the Advisory Board)
|The citizens’ report was personally given to all leading candidates in the Bundestag election campaign.
|Berlin Citizens’ Climate Assembly
|Senate Office for the Environment, Consumer Protection, and Transport Berlin/ Berlin House of Representatives
|Citizens' assembly at the level of the entire city; nine meetings; development of climate policy recommendations for the Senate and the House of Representatives. The discussion is based on everyday scenarios, which the participants use to discuss the pros and cons of various measures and to recommend specific actions in the areas of transport, buildings & heat and energy that are oriented towards the common good.
|Nexus Co-participation in climate decision-making
|Advice/selection of the scientific experts Preliminary work for the everyday scenarios
|Charlotte Unger Melisa Özcelik, (Daniel Oppold)
|Not yet available
|Not yet known
|Citizens' Assembly Forum Covid-19 Saxony
|Website of the Ministry Website of the implementers Website of the IASS evaluation
|Saxon State Government
|In several sessions 50 randomly selected residents of Saxony came up with 43 action recommendations for politicians. First citizens’ assembly in the Federal State of Saxony Topics: Health, the Economy, Education and Culture, Politics & Administration Initiator: State Ministry of Justice and for Democracy, Europe and Equality Purely digital citizens’ assembly
|nexus was a project partner of IASS. The citizens’ assembly was conducted by the Open Society Initiative
|David Löw Beer Victoria Luh
|Final report was submitted in May 2022 and will be published shortly.
|Various citizens’ assemblies are to follow. The Citizen Participation Funding Guideline (Förderrichtlinie Bürgerbeteiligung) is intended to provide comprehensive support for citizen participation in Saxony. Establishment of a specialist network for citizen participation in Saxony to support municipal participation in particular, as well as a political advisory network.
|Mayors and local town/city councillors
|Accompaniment of 10 municipalities in the implementation of "Future Councils": Citizens' assemblies that focus on the question of shaping a future fit for our grandchildren – adapted to specific local issues.
|Mehr Demokratie e.V. Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung) The 10 municipalities
|Project development Project co-ordination Participation process development with local actors Consulting services Research in a separate team
|Daniel Oppold (+ other members of the co-creation team)
|Various blog posts on www.losland.org/blog
|Substantive progress in/for local politics Recommendations to state and federal policy-makers on improving the framework conditions for local citizen participation processes
|Initiated by civil society
|Citizens' Assembly with 100 participants from all over the world. Development of climate policy recommendations for COP 26 in Glasgow
|Azucena Moran (+ other members of the co-creation team)
|Evaluation report in progress
|Influencing the COP negotiations in Glasgow