The major citizens assembly news continues to come out of the Netherlands and Ontario. The Netherlands Citizens Assembly only has one more meeting left on its agenda and will issue a report to the minister of government reform in early December. As the Netherlands Citizens Assembly has approached its last lap, Dutch language press coverage of its activities appears to have increased.
The Ontario Citizens Assembly continues to roar ahead, with lots of local press coverage and some important milestones being reached. On October 25, 2006, legislation was introduced to allow for a referendum question on next year’s ballot. The referendum will be held on October 4, 2007. The most controversial feature of this legislation is that it requires a 60% majority for the legislation to pass. Many people argued for a 50% threshold.
The Ontario Citizens Assembly has announced that it will hold 37 “public consultations” around Ontario during its next phase. To facilitate public participation, it has set up an excellent website. An especially impressive overview document on this website is “Citizens Talking to Citizens.” George Thomson, Chair of the Ontario Citizens Assembly, described his public engagement philosophy in a late September op-ed that ran in multiple local newspapers: “Assembly members know that the process will only be truly successful if their fellow citizens are learning with them and if the assembly learns from them. It isn’t enough to wait for the assembly’s report before focusing on an issue that takes some time to learn and understand.”
One striking innovation in Ontario is the introduction of a high school students citizens assembly to run parallel to the official, adult citizens assembly. The high school student citizens assembly is being run out of the same office as the adult citizens assembly and has been allocated a budget of $200,000. The student citizens assembly has two components. First, instructional materials so individual high school classes can run their own assemblies. Second, a province wide assembly constituted of 103 students—the same size as the adult citizens assembly. Unlike the adult citizens assembly, students must submit their names to be part of the citizens assembly lottery pool. The recommendations of the student citizens assembly will be formally submitted to the adult citizens assembly.
In my judgment, the student citizens assembly idea is a brilliant marketing and civic participation strategy. It brings the public into the debate in a very meaningful way while creating many additional opportunities for press coverage of the adult citizens assembly.
On September 25, 2006, the Center for Ethics at the University of Toronto put on a distinguished public issues forum titled Democratic Legitimacy in Crisis: Are Citizens’ Assemblies the Answer?
Other provinces in Canada, notably Alberta and Prince Edward Island, continue to evince interest in having their own citizens assembly modeled after British Columbia’s and Ontario’s.
A major worry of mine is the proliferating use of the “citizens assembly” term in contexts in which it wasn’t originally used and in which I don’t think it's appropriate. I would like to see the term reserved for situations when a randomly selected body of citizens has government standing to propose legislation on an issue where elected officials have a direct conflict of interest. However, this may be a quixotic hope.
In general, there seems to be a trend toward convergence between “citizens assembly” and “deliberative opinion poll” terminology. The deliberative opinion poll concept, like the citizens assembly, is based on a randomly selected group of citizens coming together to deliberate on an issue. But whereas a deliberative opinion poll could deliberate on any issue and without government standing, a citizens assembly had a narrowly tailored jurisdiction and was a complement to existing formal government institutions.
Typical of the new citizens assembly usage, the prime minister of British Columbia has proposed a “citizens assembly” to discuss health care policy. A mayoral candidate in the town of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario wants to convene a citizens assembly to deal with government waste. Others want to create a citizens assembly with completely overlapping jurisdiction to an elected legislature.