Since the Netherlands finished its citizens assembly last December, citizens assembly news continues to be driven by events in Ontario. Of the more than 300 published news stories mentioning citizens assemblies since late February, more than 90% have been about Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.
Perhaps the major news is that Ontario’s Assembly finished its deliberations and submitted its recommendations to the government without any major surprises. The entire process operated according to a carefully planned and strict schedule. Its recommendations, which evolved in bite sized chunks over the last nine months, developed in a similarly orderly and predictable way.
In chronological order, here are some highlights from Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.
On the question, “What is the best alternative system for Ontario: Mixed Member Proportional or Single Transferable Vote?” the members of the Assembly vote:
75 for Mixed Member Proportional
25 for Single Transferable Vote
1 spoiled ballot
(2 members absent)
On the question, “Should Ontario keep its current electoral system or adopt the Assembly’s Mixed Member Proportional system?” the members of the Assembly vote:
16 for current system
86 for Mixed Member Proportional
(1 member absent)
On the question, “Do you want to recommend the Assembly’s Mixed Member Proportional system to the people of Ontario?” the members of the Assembly vote:
(1 member absent)
By a margin of 55 to 28, Ontario’s legislature passes Bill 155 to set an October 10 referendum date.
The Assembly releases its report, One Ballot - Two Votes: A New Way to Vote in Ontario.
Dr. Jonathan Rose, the Assembly’s Academic Director, sent me the following update for the News Digest.
On May 15, over 60 of the 104 Ontario Citizens' Assembly members were present when their report was given to the Minister of Democratic Renewal. The hand off occurred at Hart House at the University of Toronto. After the Minister received the report, members of the Citizens' Assembly walked across the street to the legislative assembly where their hard work was acknowledged by all members during Question Period. To have one assembly finally meet the other was, I thought, a suitable ending to their process.
While the Assembly's work is done, the government has committed itself to a robust public education campaign for the referendum at the next provincial election on October 10, 2007. The final report marks the end of one phase of this remarkable experiment in citizen deliberation and the beginning of another equally important phase -- a public educational campaign leading up to a province wide referendum.
The twenty seven page final report is available (in French and English) on the Assembly's revamped website here:
You will also find a draft of the 280 page background report that documents the entire process called "Democracy at Work" under the Resources tab on the website.
The third volume, "Citizen Deliberative Decision-Making: Evaluation of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform" prepared by the Assembly's independent evaluator, the Institute on Governance, will also be on the website shortly.
Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform
Comments from Two Assembly Members
I asked Assembly members Anita Droog and Pat Miller what advice they’d have for policymakers in other jurisdications planning a citizens assembly, and they came back with the following comments:
[From Anita Droog] I have tried to think about what you asked re: what should be changed the only thing I can think of is give more time. Eight months to learn, consult & deliberate is a really short time. We did it though & I would not change a thing, that we did.
I really proud of our outcome of 94 to 8 to present our results to the government. This shows that we were not brainwashed in our studies. As a matter of fact I could not tell you how anyone of the secretariat feels about any electoral system let alone the decisson we made.
If any other country/community should decide to have a Citizens' Assembly I hope you find the same caliber of people as we did.
I don't know if this is what you are looking for but i hope it helps
Proud Assembly Member
[From Pat Miller] All the group sessions I attended were well-run, focused and very rarely off topic. The facilitators had the knowledge necessary to make sure we understood what the particular issues were all about. There was never any attempt to lead us to a particular conclusion.
What concerned me was that, in these sessions, over the course of 15 separate days of meetings, there were some of our Citizens Assembly members that I never shared a single session with.
I felt that the more people we met in close contact during the learning phase, the faster we were gelling as a team In my opinion if we’d been in the small groups with every member, before the break for the holidays, the dynamics that we reached toward the end of the deliberation phase, would have been arrived at sooner
Jim, I hope this is clear – it isn’t that I was disappointed with the group sessions (they were enormously important to us all). It is rather that it might help the other Citizens Assembly groups, as you suggested.in your E-Mail
It is noteworthy that Gordon Gibson, the architect of the British Columbia Citizens Assembly, echoes Ms. Droog’s observation in his Pepperdine University speech (see below) that Ontario may have cut the process short a bit in comparison to British Columbia and that this may not have been desirable. In the same speech, Gordon Gibson also observes that British Columbia rotated the membership of its small groups to encourage the type of intermixing Ms. Miller recommends. Ontario also did this to some extent. The most noteworthy exception was a relatively small group of about 10 with poor English skills who met as a separate group.
Looking To The Future
Going forward, the next major expected event is the referendum on October 10 to support or oppose the Assembly’s recommendations. To win, the referendum will need 60% of the votes in 60% of Ontario’s legislative districts. (If the referendum passes, the new electoral system would not come into effect until 2012.)
Meanwhile, there are expected to be major privately funded yes and no campaigns to educate the public about the recommendations of the Assembly. If there is one major difference between the British Columbia and Ontario citizens assemblies, this is it. In British Columbia, there was a deathly silence after its Assembly finished its deliberations. When the referendum took place in May 2005, the level of ignorance within the general population remained high.
That’s not going to happen in Ontario, partly because the level of publicity during the Assembly’s deliberations was much greater. This is reflected not only in the number of media impressions but in the level of open partisan disagreement about the Assembly’s recommendations (open partisan disagreement is good for publicity). Most important, going forward, the Province’s leadership appears to be committed to educating the public about the Assembly’s process and recommendations. The government has introduced legislation that, if passed, would require Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer to undertake a comprehensive non-partisan public education campaign leading up to the referendum. The campaign would raise awareness of the referendum and educate the public about the alternatives under consideration. The general mindset is reflected in the Assembly’s May 15 report, which observes: “A comprehensive, well-funded public education program, beginning in May and continuing through to the referendum is vital.” Insiders expect the campaign’s budget will be $4.5 million to $6 million—almost as much as creating the Citizens’ Assembly itself.
A lot of folks are also acutely aware that this is the first referendum for the Province of Ontario since 1921 (the last one was on prohibiting alcohol consumption). This is not California or even British Columbia where citizens are used to seeing multiple or even onerously numerous referendums on the ballot. Just the fact that there is a referendum on the ballot is a newsworthy event.
All was not peaches and cream for Ontario’s citizens assembly. Going in to its April 15 vote, there was plenty of criticism in the mainstream press of its expected recommendations. However, since that vote, the press has been almost uniformly positive toward the Assembly’s work.
An unexpected criticism of the Assembly’s recommendation is that it leaves a lot of details, such as how the party lists will be chosen, to be worked out by the government that takes office after October 10. The fear is that the details are important and that this thus creates an opportunity for abuse. I think this is a fair concern, but I also think that the scope for abuse is relatively small and not significantly different from what already exists.
As October 10 gets close, a major poll funded by the national Conservative government is expected to release results debunking a regional poll conducted in March that was generally favorable to the citizens assembly. All that I definitively know right now is that the Conservative government has hired pollster Conrad Winn to conduct the poll. The Conservative government has also hired a think tank, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, to convene focus groups across the country to address a variety of democratic reform proposals, including electoral reform.
Nevertheless, my sense right now is that the yes campaign will be a lot louder than the no campaign, so the referendum’s success or defeat will largely hinge on whether the public understands and trusts the citizens assembly process and respects the judgment of the most visible spokespeople for the yes campaign.
I have little idea how the battle over the referendum will play out, which should make the next four months interesting. I expect to provide at least one update between now and the October 10th referendum.
Ontario Becomes The Citizens Assembly Gold Standard
Overall, I would say that Ontario now replaces British Columbia as the gold standard for a well conducted citizens assembly. Ontario closely observed British Columbia’s procedures and improved upon them, with the possible two caveats noted above. Most important, Ontario proved that the success of British Columbia was not an aberration. Citizens asked to participate in a citizens assembly will take the process very seriously and collectively perform as well if not better than our so-called professional legislators.
One of the most important findings from the experience of both British Columbia and Ontario is what an extraordinarily complicated and costly undertaking a well executed citizens assembly can be. The amount of effort and the diversity of skills necessary to pull off a successful citizens assembly are immense. This is well documented in the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly’s 280 page report, and I’d encourage you to read it.
What does this difficulty and expense mean? Citizens assemblies cannot be casually entered into. Reformers in Canada, California, and elsewhere now want to create “citizens assemblies” to deal with a host of different issues. Can society afford dozens of different citizens assemblies on a host of different issues? I doubt it very much. The quality will deteriorate and we will begin to see failures. Thank god that British Columbia and Ontario proved that the concept can be a success so when others implement it and fail, the blame will be placed on the implementation and not the concept.
The Citizens Assembly Concept
Ideally, I’d like to keep a clear distinction between “citizens assemblies” and “deliberative opinion polls.” As the phrase “citizens assembly” now has such cachet, that distinction appears more and more difficult to keep. For an example of the muddling of the two concepts, see recommendation #5 of the January 15, 2007 report of the Liberal Renewal Commission Task Force on Civic Engagement. The Liberal Renewal Commission was created by the Liberal Party of Canada and endorsed citizens assemblies on a range of issues from homelessness to global warming.
I think a minimum definition of a citizens assembly should require that a citizens assembly 1) be created by government, and 2) have formal government powers (it is not just an advisory committee). I’d also make a sharp distinction between citizens assemblies formed to deal with an issue where elected officials have a clear conflict of interest and citizens assemblies on all other issues. The former I consider “primary” (and highly limited in potential scope) and the latter “secondary” (and virtually limitless in potential scope). I believe the focus right now should be on creating primary citizens assemblies.
Outside of Ontario, the citizens assembly news is slight. There are lots of incidental mentions of citizens assemblies in English speaking countries but that’s quite different from a powerful political leader endorsing the concept or getting enough signatures to put a citrizens assembly proposal on the ballot as an initiative.
One curiosity is that the decision of Ontario’s citizens assembly to hold a referendum was reported in papers in provinces throughout Canada—albeit in the back pages—but there wasn’t a single mention of the decision in the U.S. press.
Alberta, tucked between Ontario and British Columbia, seems to have incorporated the concept of a citizens assembly in its discourse almost to the extent that British Columbia and Ontario have. It even has a local policy institute devoted largely to pursuing the concept. My guess is that if there is another citizens assembly in Canada, that’s where it will take place. But I defer to those who have a better knowledge of Canadian politics than my readings of the local press.
In British Columbia, the NDP’s party leader has proposed holding a citizens assembly to determine the appropriate pay of legislators.
California continues to be on hold. Perhaps the most noteworthy news was a February 23-24, 2007 conference on deliberative democracy, including the citizens assembly concept, co-hosted by Common Sense California, Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, and the New America Foundtion. The featured speaker on citizens assemblies was Gordon Gibson, the architect of the British Columbia citizens assembly. Gibson is a wise man, and though I don’t agree with everything he said, I’d encourage serious students of the citizens assembly process to read his comments.
In the State of Pennsylvania, a democratic reform group, Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, testified on March 26 before the Senate’s Government Committee on the benefits of using a citizens assembly for a constitutional convention. The type of citizens assembly proposed is perhaps closest to the citizens assembly legislation Assemblymen Canciamilla and Richman introduced in California in January 2006.
In British Columbia, a story in the April 11 edition of the Sudbary Star reports that a Bruce Krayenoff is filing papers to form a “Citizens’ Assembly Party” for the Province of British Columbia. This Party would take groups of 20 average citizens to make the major decisions for the Party. Needless to say, I’m not enamored of attaching the term “Citizens Assembly” to such an endeavor.
In New Zealand, the national Green Party has called on the government to create a citizens assembly, starting in 2009, to address campaign finance reform.
In Wales, a region within the United Kingom, the Plaid Party has called on the regional government to create a citizens assembly to bring issues before the legislature and cabinet. To my knowledge, this is the first time a fairly high level political authority has endorsed the idea of creating a standing citizens assembly as opposed to an ad hoc one to deal with a particular issue and then disband.
In Bulgaria, a deliberative opinion poll on how to improve the lives of the impoverished Roma (popularly known as gypsies) was conducted under the auspices of Stanford University Professor Jim Fishkin.
In the Netherlands, the news is slim. Professor Henk van der Kolk from the University of Twente, who as a first hand observer has submitted numerous posts to the Citizens Assembly News Digest, reports that there is expected to be a parliamentary meeting on citizens assemblies in September or October. Meanwhile, the minority party that sponsored the advisory only citizens assembly has had difficult getting its recommendations noticed in parliament.