How Community Assemblies can Transform Decision-making

March 07, 2024

Imagine that everyone could help shape the policies that determine what their neighbourhood could look like for future decades. 

When it comes to making big decisions or crafting long-term visions for the future of a community, we are often used to politicians or experts discussing political issues and creating the solutions for us. While this kind of approach may allow for relatively quick decision-making and may be appropriate for certain policies in a representative democracy, it leaves out a large group of voices: the public. 

There are many ways for citizens to take an active role in civic processes, one of which is through community assemblies. A community assembly—also referred to as a residents' or citizens' assembly—can be a great way for residents to come together, share their perspectives and create solutions to pave the pathway forward. 

What is a Community Assembly?

A community assembly is a group of individuals who come together to learn, reflect, discuss a given topic and present actionable recommendations to decision-makers. The members of a community assembly are chosen randomly through a civic lottery to reflect the wider population along key demographic characteristics, such as age, gender, geographic location, etc. 

Civic lottery: a lottery-based method for randomly selecting members of the public for a public service or office

What makes a community assembly unique is that decision-makers hear from the broad diversity of their community; they help to create actionable recommendations based on reliable information and an understanding of the constraints faced by decision-makers and they provide an opportunity to build people’s trust in their neighbours and their government.

Why should community assemblies be a part of organizational, government and municipal decision-making?

1. Recommendations Put Forward by Assemblies Reflect a Fuller Diversity of Experiences 

All communities include people with diverse identities and life experiences, such as age, gender, family structure, or cultural background. However, traditional forms of public engagement tend to see greater representation from residents who have more time to participate, more confidence and familiarity with civic processes, or who face less barriers to accessibility. This can leave critical gaps in the information decision-makers receive from parts of the community, such as youth, new parents, newcomers to the country, or people with disabilities. 

The key innovation of a community assembly is that participants are selected through a civic lottery. In larger communities, invitations are first sent to random addresses in order to reach typically under-represented households, however in a small community all eligible residents may be invited. Out of the pool of residents who apply to take part, participants are randomly selected with a mathematical formula that seeks proportional representation of key demographics. Inclusion is further supported by offering tailored accessibility supports and inviting the broader public to provide input to the assembly through surveys or open houses. 

This approach to recruitment ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate. Other members of the community can see themselves reflected in the assembly’s participation, leading to greater confidence and public support of the outcomes, while decision-makers can ensure that solutions align with the fuller spectrum of needs, priorities and perspectives of the community.

2. Community assemblies are deliberative and informative

As opposed to a debate, where participants on opposing sides are trying to “win” by advocating for their own viewpoints, in a deliberative process participants engage in an informed discussion with each other, with the goal of understanding each others’ perspectives and trying to find common ground.  

A key component of deliberation  is a learning phase, where participants are presented with evidence-based information, current research and knowledge from a broad range of perspectives. In this informed environment, participants can gain more equal footing in terms of knowledge between themselves, the experts and the decision-makers. The learning phase helps dispel myths, misinformation and assumptions. By creating conditions for learning and informed input, community members are better able to understand the constraints faced by decision-makers and the nuances and subsequent outcomes of each decision.

Deliberative process: a process where participants engage in an informed discussion with each other, with the goal of understanding each other’s perspectives and trying to find common ground

3. Community Assemblies Bring People Together and Strengthen Existing Bonds

A 2017 pan-Canadian national survey conducted by the Centre’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative found that people with a strong sense of belonging are more likely to prefer democracy as a form of government and believe voting gives them a say in how the government runs things.

By strengthening community and neighbourly relations, community assemblies can help build the resilience of neighbourhoods and contribute to a sense of belonging. Through community assemblies, residents are able to share their perspectives, concerns and visions for the future, which helps facilitate social cohesion and strengthen a community’s bonds. Community assemblies also provide an opportunity for neighbours and community members to meet, get to know each other and share their unique stories. Through this process, there is potential to use dialogue to co-create solutions, resolve conflicts, build empathy and reduce interest-based polarization.

4. Community Assemblies Rebuild Trust and Make Room for Accountability from all Parties

Assemblies facilitate transparent communication between community members and decision-makers by allowing both parties to share their perspectives, concerns and goals. By having this direct line of contact, elected representatives and decision-makers can connect with their constituents, hear their perspectives and concerns and demonstrate how they have used community voices to inform their decision.

While the recommendations from the assembly are not usually binding, the process includes a structure for decision-makers to report back publicly on how certain recommendations were implemented and why certain recommendations may not have been chosen. Having a touchpoint where community members can share their perspectives with the promise of a response fosters a more accountable and responsive government, where their actions can be trusted to be in the best interests of the whole community.

In community assemblies, accountability is also shared with assembly members, stakeholders and the general public. Assembly members are responsible for learning about the topic, understanding the constraints faced by decision-makers and offering recommendations on how to navigate these in the best interest of their full community. Meanwhile, the role of the general public is to stay informed about the process and outcomes and give input through alternate engagement channels. The transparent reporting of recommendations and outcomes further allows media, stakeholders and voters to monitor progress, support action and hold decision-makers accountable. 

This transparency and direct communication available in community assemblies is not only essential for building trust between the public and the decision-makers, it facilitates mutual understanding and can help everyone involved see the “bigger picture.” 

Inclusive Decision-Making for More Resilient Futures

The impact of community assemblies is not limited to the assembly participants themselves and the decision-makers, but in certain instances they also provide an opportunity for the public to get engaged on the issues as a result of the assembly, participate in the process by giving feedback at key stages, and learn from the assembly proceedings both about technical issues and about community values. 

Community assemblies are meant to be fair, transparent, inclusive and effective. This innovative public engagement process allows community members to be involved in decisions and policies that affect them, resulting in better informed residents who come together to co-create solutions. Community assemblies also make processes more transparent to the public while increasing the political accountability of elected officials and organizations. Holding space for community members to gather and discuss emerging issues not only provides valuable insights to decision-makers, it creates stronger and more resilient communities that collaborate  towards solutions. 

To learn more, check out some of the community assemblies we're currently a part of:

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