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Florence School of Transnational Governance

Odyssey Stories #2 - Designing a process that incorporates citizens’s input

Welcome to the second edition of ‘Odyssey Stories’, a new series of interviews with organisers and participants of citizens’ assemblies across Europe and around the world.

30 May 2024

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In this discussion, we spoke with Damir Kapidžić, an Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo, Weatherhead Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and a Fulbright Visiting Scholar. Professor Kapidžić has been involved as an expert with several citizens’ assemblies and has advised the Council of Europe, OSCE, and the Delegation of the European Union to Bosnia and Herzegovina. His area of expertise is deliberative processes in post-conflict and divided societies.

Again, we’d like to thank Professor Kapidžić for sharing his time and knowledge with us.

You have significant experience with deliberative democratic processes. Which citizens' assemblies did you take part in and in what capacity?

I co-designed four citizens’ assemblies in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 2020 and 2024. Three of these were at the local level, on issues ranging from city cleanliness to youth entrepreneurship, while one was national about electoral and constitutional reform. The first was the Mostar Citizens’ Assembly in 2021 where I was part of the design team, cooperating with the City of Mostar and the Council of Europe. The second was the Bosnia and Herzegovina Citizens’ Assembly in 2022 where I was leading the design team responsible for the process, in cooperation with the EU Delegation to Bosnia. The third and fourth were local assemblies in Mostar and Banja Luka in 2024, where I was part of the design team, in cooperation with the city administration and the Council of Europe. Additionally, I advised several more citizens’ assemblies in various capacities, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and elsewhere.

The topic selection process is particularly challenging. What are some advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to choosing a topic?

A basic level topic selection can be top-down and mandated by commissioning bodies or bottom-up and inclusive, designed to give voice to as many relevant actors as possible. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Having a clear topic from a commissioning body intuitively suggests that implementing recommendations would be more straightforward. However, we have seen that this is only sometimes the case. Opening topic selection up to include many actors or even all citizens, seems daunting and can create its own implementation and legitimacy issues if done incorrectly. A third option is a mix of the two where some topics are chosen top down. Others bottom up, such as is proposed in East Belgium, an iterative process, such as in Bogota, Colombia, or where topic selection involves consultations with bodies outside of the citizens’ assembly process, such as groups that consist of former members of citizens’ assembly that have already been completed. There is a clear need to balance mandate, time and cost, but the main goal should be to increase the legitimacy of the process starting with topic selection.

Can you share your experience with topic selection processes in post-conflict and divided societies? What approach can be used in such difficult circumstances?

In post-conflict and divided societies, there is a clear need to balance relevance and feasibility regarding topic selection. The most pressing issues are often not the best choice for deliberation in a citizens’ assembly. The reason is not because citizens would be unwilling or unable to deliberate on it, but because implementation of their recommendations is very unlikely. Topic selection for deliberation needs to involve decision-makers who will implement recommendations, and this is the biggest challenge. At the same time, post-conflict and divided societies have a plethora of relevant policy problems that require more inclusive and engaged input by citizens. There are ongoing discussions in the deliberative community about the limitations of deliberating, around dealing with a past or post-conflict governance. In any case, bringing policymakers on board during the topic selection process is a step to increase relevance and ease implementation.

The Citizens' Assembly of Mostar had a multi-layered and inclusive topic selection process. How did it work, what were the different steps? What challenges did you face?

For the 2021 Mostar Citizens’ Assembly the design team I was part of proposed and helped implement an inclusive topic selection procedure. This consisted of a five-step process where citizens, civil society stakeholders, and elected representatives could weigh in on the topic. The final remit was chosen and selected by the citizens themselves. Under circumstances where a selection of a relevant topic proved difficult, this inclusive approach allowed for different views and voices to be included. Details on this process have been published in the Deliberative Democracy Digest. But this does not mean that opening of topic selection is always necessary. It is a process that requires more time, resources, and political commitments. That said, allowing citizens to have some influence in shaping or deciding topics for any deliberation can be extremely beneficial. It increases the inclusiveness and legitimacy of not just the process but also of the institutions that initiate the deliberation.

The Citizens' Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina tackled much more controversial topics – reforms in the Constitution and the Electoral Law. How was this topic decided?

In this case, the topic presented itself as it was a high priority on the political agenda of both the National Bosnian Parliament and the European Union. Reform of the constitution and electoral law is one of the key priorities that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to tackle during its EU accession process. As part of political negotiations between leaders of different communities in the country, the EU Delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina decided to reach out to citizens for their input on how certain provisions in the electoral law and constitution should be changed. So, topic selection was essentially top-down.

From your experience, what would you recommend regarding topic selection in transnational citizens’ assemblies?

Topic selection for transnational citizens’ assemblies requires an agreement between decision-makers in different countries on what is policy-relevant and implementable, which can be very difficult to achieve in the first place. Designing a process that incorporates input from citizens on what matters to them can help. This would probably be a multi-stage process for which both time and resources need to be planned. I would be very cautious of just running a simple poll among citizens, either to collect topic proposals or to rank a list of suggested topics. Given the inherent diversity within a transnational citizens’ assembly, the most feasible option would probably include decision-makers proposing a short list of relevant topics as the first step. The second step would necessarily involve stakeholders (civil society, and interest groups) whose role could be to add descriptions and context to each of the topics. This would also give them an opportunity to commit to working on the implementation of resulting recommendations. A third step would need to involve citizens and they would be given the final choice. This can be a survey (not online), a deliberative poll with randomly selected citizens (possibly online), an in-person pre-assembly as part of an iterative process, or a combination of the three. The main guiding principle behind the topic selection procedures should be to increase the legitimacy of the process and the topic for deliberation.

Last update: 30 May 2024

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