The deliberative wave bursts into the Miramar Palace at the conference dedicated to International Citizens’ Assemblies 

Herritarren Batza

The Miramar Palace in Donostia hosted the conference organised jointly by the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, Arantzazulab and the TMeLab Social Innovation Lab with the aim of raising awareness of International Citizens’ Assemblies. Under the title ‘The deliberative wave in the world: Citizens’ Assemblies. International experiences’, the event brought together approximately one hundred people, both at the Miramar facilities and via streaming. The conference focused on disseminating the International Citizens’ Assemblies promoted in different European countries (Denmark, Scotland and Ireland, for example), and to generate knowledge among the network of local agents with the aim of setting up the Gipuzkoa Citizens’ Assembly.

At the opening of the event, held on Tuesday afternoon, Markel Olano, Head of the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, stressed that “what we see is that in Gipuzkoa or Denmark, there is a concern about this distancing between society and institutions and, here and there, we are working to develop and promote new models of collaborative governance “. Urko Aiartza (director of TMeLab) and Arantxa Mendiharat (Deliberativa) explained the objectives of the conference and presented the existing principles of deliberative processes. The opening talk, given by Claudia Chwalisz, representative of the OECD, focused on the deliberative wave in the world, its current context and its challenges. The international expert on deliberative democracy and democratic innovation has analysed several cases and published different pieces of reference research in the last five years within the framework of the OECD. These include the report Catching the Deliberative Wave.  “We have gathered evidence from 600 cases around the world and we understood that if these processes are well designed, we can have a bigger Impact in redesigning democratic institutions”, emphasised Chwalisz. 

The conference was followed by a presentation of the experience of the Scottish Citizens’ Assemblies by the experts Stephen Gethins (University of St. Andrews) and Óliver Escobar (University of Edinburgh). “As somebody who has been involved in politics, answers and solutions very often do not come from the political level, it is civil society solutions in our communities who drive transformation“, said Gethins, who is a former Scottish MP and the advisor to the Scottish First Minister on Energy and Climate Change. In turn, Escobar, a researcher in the first Scottish Citizens’ Assembly (2019-2020) and member of the Scottish Climate Assembly Governance Group (2020-2021), has underlined: “In Scotland we have had 2 Citizens’ Assemblies and different deliberative experiences. The field of democratic innovation is developing and is trying to reorganise the space in between public institutions and citizens”. 

After the Scottish experience, the focus turned to the Danish Citizens’ Assembly with the presentation given by Lars Klüver. (Danish Board of Technology). With more than 35 years of experience in citizen and stakeholder participation related to policy advice on important social issues, Klüver, who has facilitated the two Danish national citizens’ assemblies on climate, said that “Citizens’ assemblies are one of the important instruments for democratic justice. In Denmark the processes have been found to be valid for the government”. Graham Smith (KNOCA), Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster (UK), also spoke at the final part of the conference. This expert, who is president of the Knowledge Network on Climate Assemblies and of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, emphasised: “Most of these processes happen once and do not happen again, but some European cities are creating permanent assemblies, institutionalising citizens’ assemblies, and that is exciting”.

Gipuzkoa Citizens’ Assembly 

The presentations made by the international experts have shown that an innovative approach is being developed on the international scene,  the Citizen Assemblies that were presented at the event, which are spreading all over the world and represent one of the most outstanding and visible initiatives of the so-called “deliberative wave”. In the current context, with the conviction of promoting new forms of collaboration between citizens and public institutions to explore responses to the complex and interconnected challenges we face, different experiences have been initiated in the territory. On the one hand, the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, in collaboration with Arantzazulab and the TMeLab, has promoted a Citizens’ Assembly that links the protection of the rural environment with the climate emergency, in order to highlight the role of the rural environment and agricultural activity in standing up for climate change. This initiative is currently in the design phase, and the aim is to implement the process in late 2022 and early 2023.On the other hand, together with the Gipuzkoa project, Arantzazulab, together with the Tolosa City Council and the OECD, have launched he Tolosa Citizens’ Assembly. At the same time, Arantzazulab aims to generate knowledge about these processes and analyse the possibilities of institutionalising deliberation processes. Keep posted, we will share more information soon.

To close the conference, Naiara Goia, managing director at  Arantzazulab, presented the two citizens’ assemblies activated in the region Gipuzkoa and stressed the importance of the event at the Miramar Palace. “We want to go deeper into new forms of collaborative governance with citizens, promoting a more inclusive governance and giving a leading role to citizens in public decision-making. Therefore, deliberative democracy is a tool , among others, to deepen this collaborative governance. Learning from the experts who have visited us and having their support in the processes we have undertaken in our country is important to acquire knowledge, develop local capabilities and create the conditions to extend and institutionalise these first experiences”, Goia underlined.