Citizens’ Assemblies: Wise Democracy from the Minipublic

(Originally published on September 6th 2008)

Politicians should take note; there is a new answer to some of the
toughest questions of our times. When presented with an issue with no
obvious popular and sensible solution, or a situation where a
legislature is unable to make progress on an important topic, 100
random citizens can be called on to solve the political puzzle, as they
did in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario (my home province).

Following the 2001 election, the newly elected premier of BC
followed through on a promise to create a citizens’ assembly to
consider changes to the provincial electoral system. In 2006 the
Ontario government followed suit as part of their democratic renewal
efforts. Both citizens’ assembly projects followed an innovative model
designed by former BC politician, Gordon Gibson, and were given a clear
and independent mandate by an all party committee.

Each assembly process began with tens of thousands of written
invitations sent out to random citizens all across the province.
Through several stages of positive responses and further lottery
selection, the members of the assembly were narrowed down to 158 in BC
and 103 in Ontario. Members came from every electoral riding. Their
ranks included equal numbers of women and men, and spanned the
demographic spectrum in rough similarity with census data. While not
absolutely perfect, this was a more representative sample of folks than
I have ever seen at any town meeting or campaign rally.

Central to the citizens’ assembly model is the learning phase. In
Ontario and BC, members spent six weekends learning about the topic
from panels of experts, custom educational materials, and a staff of
adult educators selected and trained to present a range of perspectives
in a way that avoids biasing the process. By the end of this learning
phase these assorted bus drivers, home makers, blue-collar managers and
school teachers were able to debate election reform at a Masters level.

Following this learning phase, the assembly members took part in a
series of public meetings and opportunities for comment from the
public, giving members a greater understanding of the varied views and
opinions within the population.

Finally each assembly went through an exhaustive six weeks of
facilitated consensus driven deliberations and structured
decision-making. Members talked in small groups and large groups,
debated, researched, weighed options, heard concerns and voted
step-by-step through each of the key decisions required to find a
common answer. In the end both BC and Ontario citizen assemblies ended
with over 90% of their members voting in favour of a common final
recommendation. As the third party evaluations
and academic reviews have come to prove, these staggering majorities
were not the result of charismatic manipulation, authoritative
coercion, or exhausted frustration. These results represent over 100
random people approaching full agreement on an open ended question—on
an issue as complex as election reform. This was achieved by a thorough
understanding of the options and respectful discussion with the stated
goal of seeking the best solution that would be in accord with the
commonly recognized values of the people. This was an example of the
wise and practical democracy most of us assume is impossible. As Gordon
Gibson expressed it “For someone with a faith in democracy, this was
like seeing God.”

To put this demonstrated model of the citizens’ assembly into
context let’s quickly look at some more traditional methods of hearing
the ‘voice of the people’ on public policy:


  • Elections: Candidates often win less then
    50% of the votes cast, (but still more than their multiple
    competitors). Voters are generally poorly informed by combative media
    campaigns and are unable to recall much detail about the policy
    positions of their favourite candidates. Once elected, politicians are
    driven by short term public perceptions and party rivalry in order to
    secure a re-election.

  • Expert Panels: In formal committees,
    politicians and government bureaucrats are informed by select experts.
    The members of these committees are often well informed about their
    subject matter, but without any necessary grasp of public values. The
    selection of experts may bias the advice.

  • Opinion Polls: These telephone surveys
    are a result of top of mind reactions to yesterdayís sound bites and
    newspaper headlines. They superficially reflect public values, but
    without the educated, deliberated, and reasoned conclusions one would
    want to steer a society by.

  • Focus Groups: Focus groups typically have
    a small number of people at the table who are usually not informed
    about the issue at hand. Depending on the facilitation, focus groups
    may yield results that are uninformative, and not highly representative
    of the values of the population as a whole.

  • Town Halls & Hearings: Comments from
    the floor in a public hall have always been abused by the loudest and
    most charismatic speakers who are first to speak their complaints and
    accusations to the room. While iconic of our early democracy, the
    self-selected public speakers who tend to participate are often driven
    by personal or interest group agendas and are quickly situated in
    Us-VS-Them debates. These are not well informed, representative, or
    consensus-driven events.

comparison, the citizen’s assembly model is what deliberative democracy
theorist Archon Fung calls a “minipublic,” that is “…an educative
forum that aims to create nearly ideal conditions for citizens to form,
articulate, and refine opinions about particular public issues through
conversations with one another.” It is one of few processes where the
shared values of the public are directly applied to policy
recommendations, rather than guessed or assumed by privileged
individuals—sometimes with their own agenda. That said, the citizens’
assembly model it is not a perfect system. It is susceptible to
manipulation or corruption by incompetent staff, or can be directed by
a biased chair, possibly appointed for political reasons. According to
the third party evaluations, this was not the case in Ontario or BC.

Both the BC and Ontario Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform
ended with referendums (similar to U.S. ballot initiatives) that were
carried out as an addendum to the provincial elections. That is, the
thoroughly debated, close-to-consensus recommendation of over 100
random citizens (who had been highly educated on the topic at hand),
was subject to 60% approval by a general public that was overwhelmingly
uninterested and uninformed about the subject matter. In BC the
proposal won 57.7% of the votes, but did not pass the 60% threshold
required. In Ontario the proposal only received 37% support. One theory
for the difference between the two is the much higher level of media
coverage of the citizens’ assembly process that occurred in BC, i.e.
the more people learn about the citizens’ assembly process, the more
likely they are to support its recommendation. In any case, referendums
are dependent on expensive media campaigns and commercial news coverage
with often trivial, controversy seeking, and superficial rhetoric.
Without a complete overhaul of the media system, like public opinion
polls, referendums are not appropriate mechanisms for wise policy
decisions. In short, the citizens’ assembly model works to produce
useful recommendations to government and like any legislative
commission or committee, should not be required to pass a referendum.

Beyond these two Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform, Canadians
have and continue to use similar random selection, educated and
deliberative citizen panels to inform various government decisions,
such as the newly starting Ontario Public Drug Programs Citizens’ Council, the ongoing independent Canada’s World project, or some of the many citizen dialogues conducted by the Canadian Policy Research Networks. Based in Toronto, a young firm called Mass LBP is aiming to make a business out of citizens’-assembly-inspired public consultation.

Internationally, many governments and non-government organizations
have conducted similar processes under many different names: Consensus
Conferences, Study Circles, Planning Cells, National Issues Forums,
21st Century Town Halls, Citizen Juries, and Citizen Panels (among
others). Each model varies in the number of members, the amount of time
given to education and deliberation, and the facilitation process, but
as Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium suggested at the BC When Citizens Decide conference,
“We should avoid ‘modelitis’ that focuses on the difference between
models rather than the similarities. The larger context is more
important then the specifics of the model.” That larger context most
importantly includes the political will of the government to listen to
recommendations from its citizens.

Looking to 2009, we will see elections in Canada, the Unites States of America, Germany, Mexico, India, Japan and over 50 other counties.
These politicians will all be facing such challenging issues as climate
change, public education reform, strains on health care, improving
child care, supporting minority rights, addressing aboriginal land
claims, fresh water protection, demographic shifts, sustainability and
development. When looking for direction on such complex issues, there
will be many that seek advice from business leaders and experts, some
that carry out traditional consultations with the usual suspects, but
only a courageous few that will take the political risk to champion
citizens’ assembly like process that will have actual influence based
on the deliberation of informed random citizens. These few pioneers
will be the examples for future democratic leaders and we should give
them our support.

You can learn more about deliberative democracy processes at the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation’s Learning Exchange.

Jason Diceman is a stakeholder engagement consultant with LURA Consulting and author of the popular Dotmocracy Handbook for large group decision-making.