What is a Citizens’ Senate?

A petition system such as described above would be the first stage in merging representative democracy with direct democracy. It is a vital element in such a new model of democracy, which gives citizens the power of executing continuous accountability of the law-making body such as a parliament by scrutinizing the working of the existing law as well as directly contributing to creating new laws. However, in order not to choke the parliamentary legislative process, a valid petition requiring a debate in the parliament would have to be carefully examined first by an independent body to debate the issue – a Citizens’ Assembly. This would require some changes both in the selection process of representatives to a Citizens’ Assembly, as well as of the running of debates.

Citizens’ Assemblies, as mentioned earlier, are becoming a powerful tool in improving democracy in the age of rising populism, making citizens more closely involved in taking important political decisions. However, the way in which members are selected to these Assemblies and how they operate is not right for their purpose. In most cases the way in which Citizens Assemblies have been operating so far is quite close to the Roman procedures for calling members for a jury service, which are still in use in a judicial process in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The basic principle that the members of a Citizens’ Assembly should be selected randomly from an electoral roll, as is the case for a jury system, seems to be right. However, the subject matter debated by a Citizens’ Assembly is entirely different from that discussed by a jury in a judicial court. In a jury service, the only decision that a juror must make is always a binary one: guilty or not guilty. In a Citizens’ Assembly, delegates must make many decisions on usually very complex problems, where there can be many recommended solutions with a wide variety of opinions among the delegates. That requires a certain degree of knowledge, which is usually not essential in the jury service. Thus, for an effective running of a Citizens’ Assembly a certain minimum education may be required as one of the selection criteria.

Secondly, a decision to call a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss constitutional matters would usually be made by parliamentarians, i.e. those who hold all the power in setting up a new law. To rebalance the current situation, it should be the citizens of a country who should decide on calling a Citizens’ Assembly, as has been proposed here via a petition system.

Thirdly, Citizens Assemblies only operate at the time, when there is a need to apply this method for making an important political decision, for example, as a substitute of a referendum. If we want to establish a continuous accountability of parliamentarians and the laws they pass to their voters, we need a permanent legal structure – the second house of a parliament.

But should Citizens’ Assemblies be used on a larger scale to improve democracy by becoming the second chamber of a parliamentary system, such as a Citizens’ Senate, as proposed in this paper? If we accept that as possible in principle, then any proposal for a Citizens’ Senate would have to provide answers to the following questions:

  • Should Citizens’ Senate debates be held secret or made public? Secrecy can enhance deliberation, prevent corruption, and protect members from embarrassment, but it risks undermining accountability.
  • Should there be some minimum level of competency, e.g. education or experience required, even if this undermines the principle of perfectly random selection of population’s representation?
  • Should a Citizens’ Senate have the right to propose legislation on their own (set the agenda) or only vote on the legislation proposed by the lower chamber of a parliament?
  • Does a Citizens’ Senate need a special body covering administration or supervision on formal matters only, or which will also be engaged in improving the quality of a deliberation?
  • How should the relationships between the Citizens’ Senate and the lower chamber of the parliament (the elected MPs) be regulated? Should both houses of the parliament have equal powers of approving or rejecting legislation or one of the chambers would have the ultimate ‘upper hand’?
  • How to ensure quality debates by the Citizens’ Senate? Should it be supported by a special independent ‘advisory’ body or a period of training and coaching/mentoring by experts before the member could take part in voting a legislation?

There are already a number of proposals answering some of the above questions. For example, Tom Malleson in his research paper: “Should Democracy Work Through Elections or Sortition?”[1] proposes a solution to the problem of lack of sufficient knowledge by the selected members. He suggests supporting them with experts that would be part of an independent body ‘running the sortition’ as e.g. Citizens’ Support Office (this is now almost routinely used in Citizens’ Assemblies – TC). Using this knowledge, it would be plausible to envisage a well-functioning (though imperfect) Citizens’ Senate as the second chamber of a parliament.

The existence of two chambers implies that an optimal democratic system would need a mechanism for putting legislative proposals into law. The main reason for having a bicameral system is that elections and a random selection each offer a different type of representation. In an elected chamber, the aim is to have representatives who would consider the needs of the entire population. By contrast, in a Citizens’ Senate, the aim would be to have a statistically accurate sample of the population. The randomly selected members are not delegates as such (they represent themselves) and therefore have substantial independence to change their minds. In other words, combining both mechanisms would allow the society to benefit from having representatives of actually existing interests and needs of the whole population as well as hypothetical interests and needs generated by totally independent people. Both points of view are valuable and would result in a much better fulfilment of what a given nation really wants and how it wishes to be governed.

There is already a proposal put forward in Scotland by the Electoral Reform Society to convert a Citizens’ Assembly into a Citizens’ Senate. It is to be called the Scottish ‘House of Citizens’ and is to be a revising chamber made up of ordinary voters in Scotland[2]. It is supported by the Scottish Citizens’ Assembly, which the ruling SNP party wants to make a permanent legal body in Scotland.[3]

However, to replicate the operation of a Citizens’ Senate as a traditional second chamber of a parliament, where the delegates would serve a whole 4-year term, may not be a good solution. Yes, the Senate should be a permanent institution as such but that does not mean that it should operate in a similar way as a typical second chamber of a parliament. Instead, a Citizens’ Senate session should deal with one case, as raised in a petition.

The main reason for proposing such an arrangement is that if the selected members (Senators) were to serve the whole parliamentary term of a Citizens’ Senate, the result could have been similar to that delivered by elected representatives. In a representative democracy, legislative elections give unprecedented power to MPs. That’s why they are lobbied by large corporations or rich individuals to introduce laws, which would serve particular interests of the lobbyists. That is what a lobby system has been about since 13th century in England, initially intended as a noble intention, giving access to any citizen to lords of the land and later on to MPs. However, it is enough to look at a potential scale for corruption in the USA, where there are on average 20 official lobbyists per Congressman. The lobbying system as such is anachronistic and should be replaced by a properly legislated system of petitioning, perhaps such as proposed here.

Therefore, to avoid such lobbying pressures, a Citizens’ Senate session should only consider one issue. For each such session, a new lot of citizens will be randomly selected. Once Senators have passed a resolution, a session will be closed, and the delegates will complete their service. A Citizens’ Senate may also be established at a regional level, where the rules may differ from country to country, but this article focuses only on a Citizens’ Senate as the second chamber of a parliament.

To reduce the chance of biased verdicts the number of delegates to the Senate should be higher than is currently practiced for Citizens’ Assemblies. Generally, for most countries that number should broadly equal the number of MPs. In both Irish Constitutional Citizens’ Assemblies, the number of delegates was slightly lower than the number of MPs (100 vs. 160 MPs), which is generally thought was one of the reasons why the planned duration of the proceedings had to be extended. Thus, it seems reasonable that there should be a certain minimum number of delegates, perhaps about 150, irrespective of a country’s size. The number of delegates to the National Citizens’ Assemblies in the EU, set up as part of the current Conference on the Future of Europe, is 200. This number seems to be the right one to ensure both a true randomness as well as the efficiency of the debates in the Senate.

Setting up the upper limit of the delegates for the Citizens’ Senate session is also important to assess the logistics of carrying out the debates. If we take the UK example, there are about 30 Acts of Parliament passed every year. It is assumed that only a few of them might be successfully contested annually via the petition system, i.e. reaching at least 5% of the required supporting signatures. Additionally, there may be several new legislations proposed annually by the Citizens’ Senate. Therefore, there may be on average about 10 Citizens’ Senate debates triggered by a petition system annually.

But where should the Citizens’ Senate conduct its debates? If we want to rebalance the power of the land between the governed and the governing, then it is obvious that the Citizens’ Senate should have its sessions within the House of Parliament. This should be much easier logistically, if we consider that most of the Senate’s sessions would be carried out during the weekends, as is the case with Citizens’ Assemblies. If the number of delegates is limited to 200 then most parliaments have large enough chambers to hold such sessions in there. Assuming Senators will deliberate only during the weekends on average for 5 weekends, then some of the sessions may have to be conducted simultaneously in different locations but preferably still within the Parliament’s buildings.

The selection of the candidates for the Citizens’ Senate would be made far in advance of calling the Senate’s session, so that its members would be properly prepared for taking complex political decisions before they actually make them. There have been just a few examples when the members of the Citizens’ Assembly have been selected in advance, before the need for such an Assembly had arisen, e.g. in the Irish Constitutional Citizens’ Assembly in 2016-2018.

In the approach proposed in this paper, a Citizens’ Senate would be the second element in a new type of democracy, Consensual Presidential Democracy[4]. The actual setup of the Citizens’ Senate will depend on the legislation system in a given country. In the European Union, it might be established following the recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe. The overall objective in setting up a Citizens’ Senate should be a minimal disruption to the existing legal system to enable a quick start of this new institution, bearing in mind, as mentioned, earlier, that the pace of change is now nearly exponential. Therefore, what is being proposed here is just a general ramification for the introduction of a Citizens’ Senate as part of a country’s legislation. Figure 2 shows an overview of the proposed Citizens’ Senate role in a new model of democracy:

Fig. 2. An overview of how a Petition system, a Citizens’ Senate and a parliament might function

This is how a Citizens’ Senate might work at a parliamentary level. However, it would be fairly easy to adapt it to other levels of governance. In a detailed description below all numerical values are just suggestions:

  • A Citizens’ Senate, called the Senate, is a legislative body, which has the power to propose a new legislation or an amendment to the existing legislation passed by the MPs in the Lower House of Parliament. (It can also function at a regional level, like in a small German minority of 13,000 citizens, in Ostbelgien, in Belgium[5]).
  • The opening of a Citizens’ Senate is triggered by a Petitioning system, described earlier, which will also become part of the legislature
  • A Citizens’ Senate will be summoned every time when at least 5% of the voters on the electoral register support debating a certain issue, the need to pass a new law or amend an existing law. The validity of a petition will be checked by an independent Electoral Commission of a country, which will ascertain that it fulfils all the required criteria and that it needs to be debated by the highest law making body – the Parliament. This may include the following:
  • The need to scrutinize an Act of Parliament. Such a petition might be started immediately after the legislation has been approved by the parliament but not signed by the Head of State. It would thus supersede in some cases the powers of the Head of State, giving those powers to randomly selected citizens. Signing the Act of Parliament by the Head of State will still be needed, since not every legislation will be contested
  • Proposing a new legislation (perhaps just a few successful petitions annually)
  • Recalling an MP (at a constituency level only)

Therefore, on average there may be about 10 successful petitions annually to be debated by a Citizens’ Senate but that of course depends on specific circumstances in a given country

  • A Citizens’ Senate session will debate only one issue and once the Senate has passed a recommendation to the parliament, the session will be closed, and all Senators relived from their duties. Thus, the Senate will be dormant between the sessions similarly to a court sitting only where there is a case to be adjudicated
  • The Senate sessions will normally be carried out every weekend (rather than monthly, as was the case in the Irish Citizens’ Assembly), and a session will usually last between 2 to 10 weekends
  • The Senate will not include any MPs, to preserve the Senate’s integrity
  • To select members of the Citizens’ Senate, a country will usually use the existing parliamentary districts as a territorial reference
  • Each parliamentary district will have the same proportional number of seats in the Senate to the number of voters in that district. A recommended minimum number of senators is 150. For larger countries that number should not exceed 200, otherwise the Senates’ debates may become less effective
  • The whole process will be supervised by an independent Electoral Commission of a country, working closely with regional electoral commissions and local Councils
  • Once the legislation for creating a Citizens’ Senate has been passed, local electoral commissions will begin a random selection of citizens from a national register of voters’. They will join a local pool of candidates to the Citizens’ Senate
  • The candidates will be selected using certain criteria, such as age, education, gender, socio-economic class, ethnic group, geographical location, or political preferences. There could also be more complex criteria for selecting candidates, but perhaps more beneficial for the society. This might include selecting randomly, say 30% of the candidates with no initial pre-screening for education, another 40% with a minimum secondary education, the next 20% might include university graduates, and the final 10% might consist of technology specialists, scientists, lawyers, voluntary sector etc.
  • The selected candidates will have the right to decline to serve as a Senator. That’s a departure from the Anglo- Saxon Jury service, where a person called randomly to serve on the Jury must perform his duty, since this is a legal requirement
  • Once a candidate passes the selection criteria and agrees to serve as a member of the Senate, he/she joins a Stand-by Pool of the candidates for becoming a Senator in the Citizens’ Senate. For each seat in the Citizens’ Senate session there may be 3 candidates in the Stand-by Pool (the practice will show if this is the right number)
  • Before becoming a Senator, the candidates in the Stand-by Pool will undergo coaching on how the government works and what are the rights and obligations of a Senator
  • Once a petition triggers the opening of a new session of the Senate, a member of a Stand-by Pool will be randomly selected from that pool to serve as a Senator in just one session of the Senate. The remaining candidates in the pool will wait for their selection to the next session of the Citizens’ Senate
  • The candidates will remain in the Stand-by Pool for a period of 1 year. After that they will be released from their duty, unless they have been selected as a Senator, in which case they will have to serve until the end of the Senate’s session. They can resign from the service upon giving a notice to leave
  • Once a Senator is selected, a new candidate for the Senate will be randomly selected from the electoral register to replace him in the Stand-by Pool, so there will always be 3 candidates in the pool
  • If a senator resigns from the Senate session, he will be immediately replaced by another member from the Stand-by Pool.
  • The candidates in the Stand-by Pool will be regularly informed on the current proceedings of the Senate and may attend the sessions as non-voting representatives via video-conferencing
  • The candidates in the Stand-by Pool will be paid an allowance and any expenses for as long as they are the candidates to the Senate
  • Once they have been selected as a Senator, they will be paid a daily allowance equal to that of an MP, for each attendance at the session of the Senate.
  • Senators will have their job legally protected, should this be necessary. They will have a legal duty to provide all the information on their education and skills they have. They also may have to sign the Official Secrets Act and other necessary documents, swear under oath that they agree to represent their constituents honestly, without prejudice and maintain the secrecy of the debates, if required, under the same penalties as for government officials
  • Senators will be supported by a dedicated officer from the Senate’s Support Office, in all matters related to performing their duties
  • A Senator will not be recalled for any reason unless he disobeys the rules of the service. Since he will be accountable to nobody because he was selected and not elected, the only way of removing him would be by the Senators themselves, following the adopted procedures of a Senator’s recall.

Every new law passed by the Parliament would have a period of at least 6 months of vacatio legis – a period between the announcement of a legislation and before it could be signed by the Head of State. If within 3 months from passing a law by the parliament, a valid petition to stop that law has been passed then a new Citizens’ Senate session will be open to deliberate such law. To stop a new law proposed by the parliament, or repel an existing law, a Citizens’ Senate would have to vote it down with a minimum of 66% of the votes. If such a minimum cannot be reached or the Senate will not reach an agreement within 10 weekend sessions, a proposed new law could no longer be contested, and it would be ready for signing by the Head of State.

To propose a new law, the Senate would have to support it with a minimum of 50% of votes. The new law will be prepared as a complete draft legislation, ready for the first reading in the parliament. This will enable the parliament to pass the legislation within 1 year, even if a new parliament would have been elected in that period. The proposed law could only be rejected by the parliament with 66% of the votes. If the parliament does not pass the proposed law within 1 year, then such law would be deemed to have been passed in the form proposed by the Citizens’ Senate.

If it sounds incredulous that a group of people with usually no legal background can prepare a draft law within several weekends then one only needs to point out that we live in the 21st century, where change happens at an almost exponential pace. We need to completely rethink how a new democracy would function, accepting that it should embrace all the benefits of a digital technology, and especially AI, which now enables a digital democracy. This will affect all aspects of citizens’ participation in governing a country, beginning with digitized elections.

Today, we already have AI-driven tools, such as eBrevia by Capterra[6], which are able to prepare complete court cases. It may take 2-3 years before a Citizens’ Senate becomes a reality in many states. By that time, an AI Assistant will be capable of proposing its own suggestions on the subjects discussed by a Senate, sometimes looking from an entirely different perspective, check the consistency and validity of the produced legal documents, and prepare a complete draft legislative proposals to the parliament. Additionally, it will be able to support the sessions in the Senate with an even more sophisticated debating system, such as Consensual Debating[7], which is available today.

[1] T. Malleson, “Should Democracy Work Through Elections or Sortition?” 01 2018, https://ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/929-utopias-2018/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Malleson-PS-special-issue-on-sortition.pdf.

[2] Willi Sullivan, Electoral Reform Society, 3/6/2021 ‘A Scottish House of Citizens would be the opposite of Westminster’s institutionally corrupt Lords’, https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/a-scottish-house-of-citizens-would-be-the-opposite-of-westminsters-institutionally-corrupt-lords/

[3] Alan Renwick and Robert Liao, The Constitution Unit Blog, 21/5/2021 in ‘The future of citizens’ assemblies in Scotland’, https://constitution-unit.com/2021/05/21/the-future-of-citizens-assemblies-in-scotland/ write: “SNP manifesto commitment also deserves the attention of those interested in the operation of the democratic system: namely, the party’s plan for citizens’ assemblies. Such assemblies have already emerged as part of Scottish politics in the last two years. Two have been held: first the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, with a remit to set out a broad vision for Scotland’s future; then Scotland’s Climate Assembly, focused on the path to net zero carbon emissions. These have been well received by all Scottish parties. Now the SNP wants to go further. Its election manifesto pledged annual citizens’ assemblies and made a commitment to ‘genuine public involvement in decision making’. There will also be a further assembly ahead of any independence referendum to help shape an independent Scotland, and an assembly to represent those aged under 16.

[4] Tony Czarnecki, Vol. 2 of “Posthumans”, ‘Democracy for a Human Federation’, second edition, Amazon publications, July 2020

[5] David van Reybrouck, ‘Citizens’ Assembly – Belgium’s democratic experiment’, Politico, 25/4/2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/belgium-democratic-experiment-citizens-assembly/

[6] Capterra, https://www.capterra.co.uk/software/201298/ebrevia

[7] Sustensis, ‘Consensual Debating for all levels of governance’, https://euro-agora.sustensis.co.uk/consensual-debating-for-all-levels-of-governance/