Since December, the major citizens assembly news has come out of Ontario. From November 2006 to January 31 the Ontario Citizens Assembly conducted its consultation phase, the document submission part of which continued until February 28. The consultation phase involved reaching out to the public for feedback. This feedback effort consisted of face-to-face public hearings, face-to-face group outreach, formal document submissions, a students’ assembly, and classroom students’ assemblies.
The public hearings got the most publicity. These consisted of 41 public hearings scattered throughout the province. Attendance at the public hearings was partially driven by 122 ads in local newspapers taken out by the Citizens’ Assembly secretariat. A review of about half the public hearings indicates that public participation ranged from a low of 7 people (Dryden on November 27) to a high of 200 people (Toronto on January 17), with the median attendance under 50. In some cases the public in attendance were fairly homogeneous—e.g., a large group from an old age home.
The goal of the outreach program was to solicit feedback from important groups, such as the poor, that might not provide feedback via the public hearings. Group outreach included meetings with disability, business, union, government, and social groups. The disabilities group meeting included the Canadian Hearing Society, Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Canadian Paraplegic Association, and Helen Keller Center. The business group meeting included the Canadian Club and CD Howe Institute. The union group meeting included the Canadian Auto Workers, Ontario Federation of Labor, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Ontario Public Service Employees Union. The government meeting including the Ontario association of municipalities. The Social Planning Network of Ontario, an association of social groups including the homeless, government assistance programs, and immigrants, orchestrated five meetings scattered throughout the province. For reasons not clear to me, the business community’s interest in providing feedback to the Citizens Assembly appeared to be fairly weak.
Members of the Citizens Assembly also did their own informal outreach in the form of presentations to their local Lion’s Club, Kiwanis Club, Chamber of Commerce, and churches. No data were collected on this type of outreach.
Written comment submissions often overlapped with presentations at public hearings, so it is hard to separate the two. As of February 24, 2007, 986 comments were submitted, with additional comments being accepted until February 28. Of the comments submitted, 692 supported a change from the status quo and 78 supported the status quo. Some newspapers reported the total number of submitted comments at over 2,000 (the citizens assembly website lists the current document number at 2,074), but this didn’t factor in that the document numbering system began at 1,001, not 0. One curiosity is that, using the numbering system as the guide, 89 documents--close to 10% of the total submissions--appear to have been deleted or are otherwise missing.
More than 50% of the comments were 1 page or less; the longest, submitted by a German, was 142 pages. More than 50 organizations submitted comments. 79% of the comments were submitted by men; 21% by women. A total of more than 3,500 pages were submitted. A fair number of the comments were submitted by residents of British Columbia, which had its own Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform that convened during 2004.
The software architecture for reading the comments is quite primitive, essentially forcing users to download and read the documents one at a time. This difficulty contributed to my impression that most comments were not read by members of the citizens assembly. Indeed, even the small committee of members assigned to read the comments (I believe the committee size is three) didn’t have time to read all the comments before the beginning of the deliberations phase. The great majority of the comments were submitted during the last two weeks of the consultation phase, and the committee members were overwhelmed.
The Students’ Assembly on Electoral Reform paralleled the adult one and was designed to both educate the general public and provide useful feedback to the adult citizens assembly. Like the Ontario legislature and the adult citizens assembly, it was made up of 103 members. It met and deliberated for five days and released its final report to the adult citizens assembly on February 17, 2007. That report is a very classy document—parts of it brilliantly written—and I’d encourage anyone interested in the Students’ Assembly to read it.
The classroom students’ assemblies came on the heels of the Students’ Citizens Assembly and are expected to continue through the spring. Every interested teacher in the province was provided with materials to conduct a citizens assembly within their classrooms and submit the results to the Students’ Citizens Assembly. As of February 15, 2,372 student votes had been submitted to the Students’ Citizens Assembly website. This is a relatively small proportion (.4%) of the high school population within the province, but in absolute terms is probably larger than the number of adults who personally attended the public hearings. If classroom students’ assemblies continue through the spring as expected, the number of student votes could well end up exceeding 10,000.
Overall, the outreach was much more extensive than conducted in either British Columbia or the Netherlands. The single most creative element was the Students’ Citizens Assembly, which in my opinion was a stroke of genius.
A summary of the adults’ Citizens’ Assembly consultation phase was presented to the Citizens’ Assembly members on February 17. I highly recommend looking at the hour long video of it. It also gives you a good sense of the high seriousness and professionalism of the enterprise. One of the things I focused on the most was the extraordinary concentration of the 103 audience members during the session. That told me pretty much all I needed to know: these folks are taking the process very seriously and want to do the best job they can.
I’m often pretty cynical of the typical citizen’s capacity for civic participation. Watching this video demonstrates that such cynicism should be context sensitive. In the right setting and with the right incentives, even citizens in the largest political districts (in this case, 12.5 million) will engage in civic participation with high seriousness.
The deliberative phase began on February 17, with important guidelines established at the first meeting. Dr. Jonathan Rose, the Citizens’ Assembly’s Academic Director, sent me this summary of the first weekend of the deliberations phase.
The first weekend of deliberation was very full. Over two days, we reviewed our consultation phase, heard from the Students' Assembly on Electoral Reform and the Chair introduced the concept and practice of deliberation. As well, members made two substantive decisions; first to determine their priority objectives and second to choose a system to work up on weekend two.
I described the priority objectives as making concrete the principles that they discussed in the learning phase. These would be their tool kit for a) determining what system to work up; b) determining how the components of that system fit together and c) comparing their preferred alternative system to the present system.
After a discussion in plenary as well as in smaller groups, the members decided on three priority objectives: "The number of seats a party wins should more closely reflect its vote share", "Each geographic area of the province should have at least one MPP" and "Voters should be able to indicate both their preferred party and candidate".
The first system members decided to work up to compare to the present system was MMP. Later this week, we will send them documents for them to think about the design decisions for MMP so that they will be ready on weekend two having already given thought about the complexity and number of issues.
In addition to designing MMP, next weekend the members will choose whether or not to design another system (for weekend 3) and if so which one. It's really quite impressive to watch how cohesive the members are and how motivated they remain for the task. The excitement and energy in the room is palpable and incredibly affirming about the capacity of citizens to engage in complex democratic issues.
I am told that the members’ only area of the citizens’ assembly is quite active. It’s possible that the online deliberations will end up becoming more important than the face-to-face deliberations restricted to the weekends. I hope that at some point in the future the record of the online deliberations will be made public.
Local press coverage of the Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform has continued at a steady clip. According to Barry Koen-Butt, communications director for the Citizens’ Assembly, coverage included: 1 national television program (CBC News World), 3 province-wide current affairs TV programs, 10 local TV stations, 20+ different radio stations, 50 different newspapers. This translated into 225 news reports during the consultation phase and 450 news reports since the Assembly began. In addition, the Citizens’ Assembly website has received 45,000 different visitors.
My own Nexis search found more than 100 articles from mid-December through mid-February. A large fraction of the stories are of the human interest and letter-to-the-editor variety. The local public hearings also got a handful of articles. Perhaps the biggest story was a February 22 front page article in the Toronto Star, the largest newspaper in the province. The Toronto Star has given the Citizens Assembly lots of coverage, but I don’t recall ever before so prominently.
A remarkable development is the extensive website and occasional on air coverage of the Citizens’ Assembly by TV Ontario (TVO), the local public TV station. All the sessions of the Citizens’ Assembly have been video recorded and made available online.
Jon Bricker, an LL.B. Candidate at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Canada, has written a paper raising an important issue that often doesn’t get adequate attention: what type of public education campaign should there be between the time a citizens assembly finishes its deliberations and the public votes on those recommendations in a referendum? This turns out to be quite a tricky public policy issue. I’m not sure that Jon has found a compelling answer. His contribution—after a fairly lengthy introductory section on the citizens assembly movement—is to highlight the question.
Key Websites on Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform
Elsewhere, murmurings about creating a citizens assembly appear to be strongest in the province of Alberta, Canada. Liberal Leader Kevin Taft has endorsed a Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform in his new book presenting his opposition party’s agenda. An Alberta-based think tank, the Pembina Institute, has also endorsed a “citizens assembly” to deal with certain difficult environmental issues.
The U.K. continues its yearlong string of high profile letters-to-the-editor and op-eds endorsing the citizens assembly concept. But so far there is no evidence of high powered politicians making this part of their agenda.