The political arena is becoming increasingly complex and political decisions increasingly difficult to make. For this reason, many politicians would like to hear public opinion, allowing themselves to become inspired by their ideas. The citizens’ summit is a method to assess public opinion about political priorities and possible courses of action.One of the strengths of the citizens’ summit is its ability to bring together many citizens in a single one-day session, thus increasing representationalism. The citizens’ summit puts the focus firmly on the citizens themselves, granting them the opportunity of giving their input to politicians and of hearing their detailed response to the questions in the course of the meeting. Via debate and voting, citizens express their attitudes towards the summit issue and these attitudes are continually presented on a giant screen.
The method is inspired from The America Speks organization in the USA where it is known as a “Citizen Summit”. The Danish Board of Technology has imported part of this method to Denmark and has chosen to call it 'borgertopmøde' - or citizen summit.
The citizens’ summit is different from more traditional citizens' meetings in that it focuses on the participating citizens – not on a speaker. Instead of one-way communication between experts and citizens, it is the citizens who discuss information prepared by experts and who give the summit an expedient and detailed feedback.
The purpose of the method
The purpose of the summit is to gain a clear picture of citizens’ attitudes towards specific political priorities and possible courses of action. Citizens are asked to consider specific choices, but at the same time there is room for debate and the formulation of ideas, and politicians can thus gain invaluable advice and become inspired by citizens’ ideas and proposed solutions. The purpose of a citizens’ summit is to provide advice and inspiration for the political decision-making process. Politicians receive informed feedback that is rooted in information about and discussion of the topic. Even though the politicians are not bound by the voting results, the summit provides a clear indication, which involves a commitment.
Who participates in the various roles
The Danish Board of Technology project management team consists of a project manager and a project assistant who is responsible for planning and the practical implementation of the summit. In addition, a secretary is assigned to the project. As a citizens’ summit often involves a good deal of press coverage, the Danish Board of Technology also assumes responsibility for press management and contact. The project management team also instructs the numerous table chairmen prior to the summit meeting.
At the citizens’ summit, the Danish Board of Technology works closely with a background group to address all tasks relating to technical content. Among other things, these tasks comprise the formulation of questions to be voted on by citizens as well as the preparation of written material for the summit meeting. The background group consists of experts, interested parties and other players with a relation to the summit topic.
The actual participants are made up of citizens who are affected by problems relating to the summit issue and the political decisions and priorities that are to be debated (e.g. citizens in a municipality). Participants are selected by sending out invitations to addresses which are drawn from the central person registry (randomly selected and depending on the number of required participants). Those citizens who respond to the invitation participate at the citizens’ summit. If there are more replies than available seats, participants are selected with a view to achieving the best representative spread of age, gender and employment. Alternatively, participants can be selected according to more specific issue criteria to identify a particular target group’s attitudes.
A number of speakers or “witnesses” also participate at the citizens’ summit. Their task is to present summit topics and courses of action, which are to be voted on. Witnesses may be politicians, interested parties or experts, and presentations either take the form of opposing views or one speaker expressing several points of view.
A number of table chairmen participate at the citizens’ summit. Their task is to moderate discussion and control voting at each of the tables and report on discussions and ideas from the tables.
A Danish Board of Technology citizens’ summit lasts one day and involves between 200 and 800 citizens, with 7-8 participants seated at each table. On each table are a corresponding number of wireless ballot boxes. One or more centrally placed giant screens allow participants to follow the proceedings. Depending on the busyness of the programme schedule, participants may be allowed to sit at the same table throughout the day without formal breaks. Similarly, depending on the number of participants, people can either leave the table for buffet refreshment, eat at the table or be served at the table while the summit takes place. Prior to the summit, a summit newsletter is sent out to participants outlining the topics for discussion.
The topics under consideration are discussed and voted on one at a time. First, summoned “witnesses” give a 10-minute presentation of the first topic of the day along with perhaps 5 pre-determined courses of action and their possible consequences. Following this, a 30-minute debate of the first topic begins at the tables. The debate is moderated by the table chairmen, who are responsible for ensuring that everyone is given the chance to make their views known. After the debate, the 5 courses of action are voted on. All participants cast an electronic ballot, thus selecting their top priority. All participants can vote and the result immediately appears on the giant screen. Each topic is allocated a total of 45 minutes. After this, the summit deals with the next topic.
The citizens’ summit can also include the gathering of participants’ ideas. A reporter sits at each table and notes down important comments and ideas from the table on a computer. The last 5 minutes of discussion time from each topic can thus be used to collect table ideas. Ideas and comments are sent to a central computer, where a commentator can follow proceedings. In connection with voting, the commentator can simultaneously comment on the result as well as the ideas and comments that have been sent from the various tables.
These ideas can also be gathered together and used in the concluding stage and/or collated in a catalogue of ideas that can inspire politicians in their daily work.
Votes are organised in such a way that the result is expressed partly as a prioritising of the various topics in relation to one another and partly as a prioritising of the solutions for each topic. From the outset it must be clear to one and all that citizens’ decisions are not binding for politicians. There are many aspects to consider. For example, the fulfilment of the citizens’ top priority may render impossible the fulfilment of another top priority decision.
In closing, a summary of the days’ work and chief conclusions are presented. The summary can either be presented by the summit chairman, the commentator or a relevant politician who has monitored the process.
The result of the citizens’ summit is a prioritised list of visions and possible courses of action within the given area. At the end of the summit, politicians have a clear sense of citizens’ priorities and are thus armed with a set of guidelines on which to act. In this way, political decisions can be based on citizens’ wishes and achieve greater anchorage, acceptance and permanence.
As the citizens’ summit is an event that receives a great deal of media attention, much focus is given to the issue in question. This can help to kick-start an official debate on the subject. As mentioned above, the summit can also help legitimise political decision-making as citizens have actually been asked about their priorities.
Presentation of results
The citizens’ summit is a method that works well internally in relation to participants and externally in relation to the media. Given that a summit is a major event, it often attracts a good deal of attention in the form of media coverage and public interest. The method itself is also an open transparent process which delivers immediate onsite results that are visible for all to see on the giant screen. In this way, the citizens’ summit almost markets itself.
The Danish Board of Technology publishes a citizens’ summit report which is sent to participants, decision-makers, interested parties and relevant journalists. Among other things, the report contains the voting result from the summit meeting.
Citizens’ summits are well suited to political decisions that affect a great many people – whether they are at local or national level. The citizens’ summit distinguishes itself by involving a large number of people who normally show a high degree of involvement in the summit process.
DKK 200,000-400,000 depending on the number of participants
The price is excl. the cost of the Danish Board of Technology’s secretariat work.
Examples of the method within the framework of the Danish Board of Technology
The Danish Board of Technology has implemented a major citizens’ summit:
The Pilot Phase of National Parks in Denmark - Kongernes Nordsjælland (2005)
In addition, the Board has held a number of smaller citizens’ summits for the Danish Ministry of Health and the Danish Ministry for the Interior: citizens’ summits on workplace smoking policy (2005)
Last update: 07-06-2006