Citizens' Assembly on Improving Citizen-Politician Communications (Lisbon)

Citizens' Assembly on Improving Citizen-Politician Communications (Lisbon)


Problems and Purpose

The Fórum dos Cidadãos, a civil society project, non-partisan and without political or ideological orientation that aims to establish itself as a new institution in Portuguese civil society. The central problem that the Fórum observes is the current democratic deficit and the widening gap between the representative and the represented: the disparity between the political elites and citizens demands. Thus, being convinced with the importance of a linking organ between these the agent (representative) and the principal (the citizen) at national level – the Fórum aims to translate the national agenda to the citizens and vice versa. One of the questions the first Fórum tries to tackle was "how can we improve the communication between citizens and their representatives?" and Fórum dos Cidadãos has a broad mission which reads we bring something new to the political debate in Portugal: The informed and reflected views of ordinary citizens.

Fórum dos Cidadãos held its first forum called “Citizens´ Forum” – from January 07 to 08, 2017. The purpose of the the Fórum is to reinvigorate Portuguese democracy by making the informed and informed voice of ordinary citizens heard on major issues.1 Thus, the the Fórum works towards bringing the voice of citizens to the centres of decision. In other words, it serves as alternative to the populist currents that rage for Europe and beyond. Its mission is to strengthen democracy in Portugal through encouraging the informed and reflected voice of Portuguese citizens.3 One of the positive side of the Fórum is that the leaders are professional political scientists, authors and professors in higher institutions – and working to bridge the divide between the citizens and representatives in Portugal. 

Background History and Context

Democratic deficit – a mismatch between expectation and reality – which in turn give rise to public dissatisfaction. Often it is argued that deliberative democracy will fill this gap. Dryzek notes that the term deliberative democracy was first used by Joseph Bessette (1980) in the context of an interpretation of the United States constitution as a set of principles to ensure effective public deliberation, especially within Congress (Dryzek 2000: 12). For Avritzer “public sphere lies between the market and the state and involves individual communications and deliberations trough face to face interaction” (2002: 5). Thus, it is worth noting that deliberative process is not just simply looking for your own idea in the mind set of others, rather it is with awareness of differences but not complete otherness and open to other person´s perspective that transcends the deliberation: a “transformation of preference” (Young 1996: 128). 

Cognisant of the growing democratic deficit and the importance of "transformative" nature of deliberative democracy, the Fórum dos Cidadãos was established in 2017 and organized its first Citizens' Assembly in January of the same year. The Assembly was designed to give randomly selected citizens the ability to deliberate over issues and develop critical reports for concerned bodies.

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

The Forum was funded by the New University of Lisbon and the Gulbenkian Institute of Science and has the support of personalities such as former CDS-PP leader Adriano Moreira, State Councilor Eduardo Lourenço, the former Presidential candidate Henrique Neto, and former ministers David Justino, Margarida Mano, Manuel Maria Carrilho. Most of the organization's full time staff include academics from the University of New York, the University of Leeds, the Gulbenkian Institute of Science, and the Instituto Superior Tecnico. Their Advisory Board is made up of various professionals in the field of democratic innovation including the Jefferson Center's Kyle Bozentko and Kenneth Carty of the University of British Columbia and a lead architect behind British Columbia's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. 

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The selection of the participants is as follows. A panel of 15 citizens—picked at random to capture the diversity of Portuguese society—discussed different proposals for improving the communication between citizens and their representatives. Their goal was to identify the most promising ones and elaborate a brief proposal summarizing them. Introductory lectures were given to the participants by political scientists, journalists and MPs. 

Methods and Tools Used

The Fórum's events use the Citizens' Assembly methodolgoy, bringing together ordinary citizens with experts, facilitators, political analysts and other professionals. Once a deliberation is accomplished, the Fórum develops recommendations and disseminates them through online and offline services. These Citizens' Assemblies are regularly organized on diverse and timely issues so public debate can be properly informed and structured , making the pondered, informed voice of the public heard.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

The first Citizens' Assembly, brought together 15 randomly selected representatives of society to deliberate over a proposal – “to improve communication between citizens and politicians.”6 In its kind, it is the first time where deliberative event took place (January 07 and 08, 2017). 

The following are the proposals the participants brought to the table:

1.The platform “Eu Conto” + Citizens' Councils: is a platform where citizens are able to express their concern regarding a particular legislation. That is, legislations that could get majority support of the citizens shall be analyzed by the "citizens’' council" – an independent body would consist 20 (twenty) randomly selected experts, citizens who expressed an interest in that bill and citizens drawn at random from the electoral rolls. Finally, the findings of the Citizen´s Council shall be made public – in the national parliament ahead of the parliamentary vote.

2. Educating for Citizenship: aims to promote democracy in everyday practice of citizenship and it covers all levels of the school system. Thus, the proposal is that students are involved in collective decision-making, from early age, on issues which are relevant to their daily lives. This proposal takes a radical approach – in a sense that – students will be considered as citizens and continuously included in decision-making process that is appropriate to their level of understanding.

3. "Verifier": This is a platform where citizens can take part in deliberative process through online channel – citizens can question, comment or support certain motion. “Verifier” – is an NGO – impartial and independent body – and serve periodically as "promise checkers" and "explainers".  

Influence, Outcome. and Effects 

On January 17th, the participants brought their proposals to the President of the Republic as well as to the public. The participants were from among the well-known names in Portuguese civil society, academics and other interested members of the public.7 The Fórum could bring together prominent politicians, MPs and citizens. The President of the Republic also gave recognition to the Fórum. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The Fórum's civil society-organized Citizens' Assembly was not only the first for the organization, but was the first of  its kind in Lisbon focusing on how the politicians should listen to the public views. The main achievement was that – the divide between the representatives and the represented – could be   brought together. This work of bridging the gap – and the proposals developed to address this issue are fundamental. The proposed strategies and areas of focus – deliberation on the future of bills – is broad enough to translate the interest of the public to the representatives and vice versa.

See Also

Citizens' Assembly

Jefferson Center

British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform


Avritzer, Leonardi (2002) Democracy and the Public Sphere in latin America. Priceton University Press.

Drzek, John S. (2000) “Deliberative Democracy and Beyond. Liberals, Critics, Contestations.” Oxford University Press.

Young, Iris Marion (1996) “Communication and the Other: Beyond deliberative democracy.” In: Democracy and Difference. Contesting the boundaries of the Political. Prince University Press. New Jersey.

"Quem Somos" (2016). Forum dos Cicados.

External Links


Lead image: Fórum dos Cidadãos/Facebook

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