The recent referendum on electoral reform in Ontario Canada has raised a number of questions about how to link small scale deliberative participation with large scale change. Despite the enthusiasm for reform shown by a group of random citizens who spent eight months deliberating on the issues the general public voted against change. There are important lessons here for Gordon Brown’s ‘New Politics’.
In March 2006 the Government of the Province of Ontario, Canada, established a Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform which reviewed the electoral system to see if it needed to be changed.
The Citizens’ Assembly was made up of 103 citizens, selected at random, one per existing provincial electoral district. This group was composed of 52 women and 51 men. The independent body met twice a month from September 2006 to April 2007 to examine the current electoral system and deliberate on alternatives. The Assembly also held public meetings across the province.
In short it was an interesting and ambitious process of civic deliberation based on the idea that average citizens can come together to make good policy decisions. On paper public deliberation would seem to be especially good when it comes to electoral reform because politicians have a vested interest when it comes to the system through which they are elected.
In May 2007, the Assembly recommended, by a decision of 94-8 that Ontario should adopt a form of mixed member proportional representation instead of the existing ‘first past the post’ system (similar to what we have in UK national elections).
The Assembly's recommendation was put to the Ontario voters in a referendum on October 10, 2007. The proposal was rejected by 63% of voters. This stands in marked contrast to the 84% of the Citizens' Assembly members who supported the proposal. The ruling party has ruled out further attempts to engage the public around the electoral system for now. "We've had that debate; I have an abiding confidence in the collective wisdom of the people of Ontario."
The result raises interesting points. Advocates of deliberation argue that the randomly selected citizens represent society at large. How can we then explain this discrepancy?
For some the problem is that while the assembly members had access to accurate information the general public were not provided with good information through the media and thus weren’t able to make an informed decision.
Others believe that it was the Assembly members who were manipulated by the process and that the public saw through what was an essentially flawed proposal.
Data from the University of British Columbia and the University of Montreal seems to indicate that the more people knew about the Citizens' Assembly and the proposal, the more likely they were to vote in favour of it. This means that the first suggestion is more likely to be true.
There’s an interesting comparison to be made with Gordon Brown's ‘New Politics’, which relies heavily on Citizens' juries and citizens' summits made up of random citizens brought together to recommend policy decisions. What good are they if they make good decisions but the general public rejects them? Even the most wide ranging deliberative process to date has only engaged a few thousand people over a relatively short time.
Canadian blogger Jim Snider suggest that we cannot rely on the government, interest groups and political parties to host the vital debates for deliberation to link up with wider societal decision making and referendums. Instead charitable foundations should fund these public conversations.
A few weekends ago I attended an event organised by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on participation. A number of trusts recently funded the UK segment of the European Citizens Consultation so it would seem that some UK trust are moving in this direction.
The inevitable conclusion seems to be that the role of the media is key. Involve's upcoming work on tele-democracy and our forthcoming pamphlet ‘Participation Nation’ will explore these issues in depth.
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.