The Trouble with Citizens' Assemblies

My friend Peter MacLeod published this web-exclusive op-ed in today’s Globe and Mail where he complained about the critics’ harsh treatment of Citizens’ Assemblies. Peter (and I) may not like the language used by some of its critics but he still has to explain why citizens’ assemblies are an appropriate approach to decision making, something I’m not sure his op-ed accomplishes.

What is that famous Churchill quote? “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Let’s be clear, citizens’ assemblies, despite their non-binding nature, are a form of governance. Moreover, despite what their champions claim, they are not democratic. Randomly selecting citizens cannot ensure a province or country’s citizens’ diverse interests and concerns are effectively represented. We use democracy to make decisions because we believe it is the best process by which conflicting interests can be debated and citizens’ issues can be engaged. Is it perfect? Hardly. But citizens’ assemblies are less so.

To see their possible shortcomings one need only look at the BC citizens’ assembly. As Andrew Potter notes in This Magazine “The Assembly’s director of research (i.e. the fellow in charge of bringing in the experts) is Ken Carty, former chair of the UBC poli sci department. According to a colleague of mine who worked in the department under Carty, decisions at faculty meetings were always entertaining, because of the mechanism Carty used to take decisions. What mechanism was that? STV voting. Coincidence?” Moreover, a scan of Carty’s publications shows that his initial writing focused on politics in Ireland: the only other country in the world to use the system like BC STV. Does this mean Carty unduly influenced the assembly? I don’t know. But this, a problematic process, is exactly the type of issue an opposition party would bring to the publics’ attention in a public debate on a policy initiative – and yet where is the role of opposition in a citizens’ assembly?

If a community felt it couldn’t trust its politician on a given issue – such as electoral reform – why not call a commission? Although less sexy, Canada’s history is filled with notable and effective commissions that have laid the groundwork for some of the country’s most significant reforms and policy decisions. These include: public healthcare, bilingualism, and free trade. Because commissions bring together experts with diverse opinions and engage in public consultations they can accomplish many of the goals of citizen assemblies while simultaneously ensuring that numerous informed opinions are represented in the discussion. Can anyone name a process where we purposefully select non-experts to make a decision? When I get on a plane I don’t believe I will be best served if the pilot and crew are randomly selected from the passenger manifest! I’d definitely prefer an expert pilot and crew to manage the flight. The passengers may tell them where they’d like to go and offer some other suggestions, but I think we’d probably all feel safer knowing there was an expert behind the wheel. Moreover, as life and death flying a plane may be, I’m fairly certain decisions about our country are actually still more important.

My friends know I’m a fan of open-source public policy, mostly because I believe it will allow citizens, in a sophisticated and cumulative manner, to shape how our country should operate. However, there is nothing about open source public policy that is democratic – a constraint we must recognize and live by. The problem with citizen assemblies is its champions don’t believe they are bound by such constraints. A citizen assembly’s product is usually pre-sold as democratic and legitimate. Maybe one day the process will be refined in such a way that this will be true, but for now, such a description is misleading, and dangerously so, as it popularizes these assemblies’ recommendations on a false foundation.

[tags]Citizens’ Assemblies, electoral reform, Canadian politics, BC Citizens’ Assembly, Ken Carty[/tags]

12 thoughts on “The Trouble with Citizens' Assemblies

  1. Edinburgh

    You need a more authoritative source than the author of the linked article in “This Magazine”. That writer states said “the clearest historical experiment in STV is Weimar”. Complete and utter nonsense. Wiemar Germany used a closed-list version of party-list PR. The effects of that voting system are very different from the effects of STV-PR.It is extremely disappointing that someone who holds forth so boldly and attacks the decision of the citizens who studied the subject should be so ill-informed.

  2. Veronica

    Edinburgh, Andrew Potter’s authority isn’t in question – whether he publishes in This, Maclean’s, or anywhere else. He may be making his living as a public intellectual, but he’s paid his academic dues & his training is as a political philosopher. He usually writes on education, but in my estimation he’s proved his worth as a political commentator as well, though my knowledge of Weimar voting systems isn’t sufficient to judge his interpretation of the facts in this particular instance. And no, I’ve never met the guy.

    I’m more interested, Dave, in your claims about what’s democratic & what’s not. I definitely agree with your contention that “Randomly selecting citizens cannot ensure a province or country’s citizens’ diverse interests and concerns are effectively represented”, ditto that I tend to want professionals to think about this stuff so I don’t have to (this is what we pay them–and sometimes me, in a different context–for), but I’m not sure you do any better than Peter does at defining what would constitute a democratic process. I think you’re suggesting that a democratic process requires *elected* representatives–something I probably agree with too. But Peter has a point that other democracies have done it other ways, & there are a lot of proponents of participatory and deliberative democracy out there. You’ve both got good points, but I’m not sure either of you has the critique quite right yet.

  3. David Eaves Post author

    Edinburgh, thank you for the comment. You are correct to point at the Andrew’s “This” magazine piece assert the Weimar republic used STV. Is he right about this assertion? I don’t know. However, it does not matter. I quote Potter’s piece to point out that Dr. Carty may have shaped the outcome of the BC Citizens’ Assembly a fact unrelated to 1920 German voting systems. More importantly, Potter may also be wrong about Carty’s alleged preference for STV (although given what I know about Andrew this seems doubtful). But this too does not destroy the argument. The central point of the paragraph is to highlight the fact that there is no check (e.g. opposition) in citizens’ assemblies that ensure they aren’t unduly influenced.

    This problem is compounded by the fact that these projects and their recommendations are (falsely) pre-sold as ‘democratic.’ This makes those who oppose their recommendations (people who, I might add, did not get to participate in the process) appear as undemocratic. That feels like a dangerous way to start a referendum process.

    Hope to speak to your points soon Veronica!

  4. Edinburgh

    Contrary to Veronica’s assertion, Andrew Potter’s authority is very much in question, whatever his academic background and experience. For anyone to make such a significant “mistake” when the facts could be so easily checked on dozens of websites, undermines their authority.

    But of course, it wasn’t a mistake – it was a deliberate slur, made to have an easily predictable effect, in an attempt to discredit both the recommendation of the BC Citizens’ Assembly (the STV system of proportional representation) and the Citizens’ Assembly itself.

    But let’s leave Potter to one side – the rest of the two comments raise some very interesting and important points about how we should go about making informed decisions on contentious but highly technical topics, like voting systems or the adoption of GM technology or the latest advances in human reproductive technology.

    Here in the UK we have had experience of a wide range of approaches, but we have not, nationally, ever used a “citizens’ assembly”. Voting reform always used to be discussed by a Speaker’s Conference, in which elected MPs were the only participants. The process and the outcome were both unsatisfactory for the obvious reasons. Some topics are referred to Commissions of the “great and the good” who have specialist knowledge of the subject. Other Commissions of the “great and good” are chosen because they do not have relevant specialist knowledge but know how to sift evidence and reach conclusions. These can be very informative, but there is no democracy in such approaches.

    We have had “national debates” on some topics, like the growing of GM crops. These were open and anyone and everyone could contribute whatever they wanted. These tend to be dominated by campaigners for and against, and generate more heat than light. Is that a useful contribution to democratic decision-making?

    On some topics small Commissions of lay people have been set up with powers to call whomsoever they wanted as witnesses, as well as receiving evidence and views from anyone who wanted to write in or speak. They questioned those with specialist knowledge until the Commissioners were themselves satisfied that they, the Commissioners, really understood the technical issues and all the known implications. Such Commissions are likely to come to much better decisions that ‘national debates’. It’s not mass democracy, but is it a better way of making decisions ‘on behalf of’ mass democracy when most of us do not have time (and do not want) to become properly informed on all the aspects of the contentious and highly technical topic.

    We have recently seen the creation of a web-based system to petition the UK Prime Minister. The leading petition (against road pricing) now has 596,810 signatures. But the skimpy and false information on which it is based must surely call into question its contribution to serious decision-making in an advanced representative democracy.

    Citizens’ Assemblies seem to me to offer a practical compromise for tackling technical topics where a great deal of background work has to be done to understand the options and their implications. Provided anyone with any view can present their case to the Assembly (via a written on-line submission or by speaking) and provided the Assembly can call for any witness and any information it wants (not just the witnesses and information “recommended” by the Technical Director chosen or appointed to assist the Assembly), then I think the process is about as open as it can be.

    Yes, there may be a lack of a formal “opposition”, but those with views opposing whatever consensus appears to be developing within the Assembly can make their views known. In that regard, I was quite convinced that the BC Citizens’ Assembly was going to recommend voting reform but choose the MMP voting system and not STV-PR. Democratic decision-making in a representative democracy is indeed complex and depends, rightly, on more that just the volume of submissions or the volume of those shouting.

  5. Peter

    You and I, Dave, will doubtless pick this thread up over several pints in the weeks to come — but if anything I’m glad the op-ed at least smoked out your inner, smoldering technocrat on this issue.

    Truth be told, though the Carty example may be a favourite for critics, it’s not especially illuminating except as a lesson learned. Obviously, there’s a lot of careful thinking that still needs to be done to ensure that the secretariat running a citizens’ assembly is well beyond reproach, and utterly, impeccably, impartial.

    Of course, we have many precedents for this kind of professional complexion already, aspects of the judiciary and parliamentary officers quickly coming to mind and being only two of them.

    It’s striking that while you write at length about the Carty example, you say nothing about the lengths the Ontario Assembly went to to find an academic renowned for his teaching ability and grasp of Canadians politics. His published record on electoral systems, in contrast to Carty, quite deliberately stands at zero.

    Sounds to me like lesson learned.

    Of course there are others improvements to be made, and others still to come out of this process, as I wrote in the Globe piece.

    That said, here’s betting that the work of Ontario’s first Citizens’ Assembly is a shining beacon of probity and due process compared to the machinations of Ontario’s first legislature in 1792.

    Maybe even compared to the legislature today!

    But the bottom line is that citizens’ assemblies, like commissions, are complementary institutions. They are not replacements for parliaments or parliamentary democracy and again, like commissions, they are not suited to every issue.

    But they are democratic in the sense that their purpose is to solicit advice from a wide audience; by their composition, they can legitimately claim a measure of effective representation; they exist to raise public awareness and make ultimately make a recommendation, which the parliament as the *sovereign* democratic institution, controlled by the government, can either choose to accept, ignore or refer to referendum.

    Just because I might support the use of citizens’ assembly doesn’t mean that I don’t also support the ability of the government of the day to say Nice work, but no thanks — which incidentally is what happens to the bulk of the recommendations made by commissions, royal or otherwise.

    Your airline example — vintage eaves, but of course we don’t even trust pilots to fly passenger jets. we trust computers. not exactly a stunning vision for the future of public policy or democracy– leaves me, erm, unconvinced.

    After all, it ignores the other example I offered in the op-ed. Jurors — who are selected precisely because they are not experts in criminal psychology, forensics, justice or otherwise, but remain clearly bounded by the legal code, much as the citizens assembly is bounded by its own terms and references that surely will grow more sophisticated with time — do a rather efficient job of that whole complex law and order thing.

    And of course, when they don’t — there’s a higher court. Checks and balances all the way up, all the way through.

    But, come on Dave, surely you can imagine a more active and intelligent role for citizens then the quadrennial vote?

    Citizens’ Assemblies are no panacea, but as part of the future of responsible government, Rep. Dem. 2.0, I say, way cool

  6. David Eaves Post author


    More on this later (hopefully over a beer) but I want to focus on the three most problematic parts of your response:

    1. You counter to my Carty problem misses the point. My point isn’t that secretariat management is a danger per say, it is that citizen assemblies do not have any checks and balances. There is no institutionalized ‘monitoring’ or ‘policing;’ function.

    2. Worse still, this problem is amplified by your point on plebiscites. You are right that only parliament can pass laws and that plebiscites are technically non-binding, but in reality it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a government to ignore such a plebiscite. However, because citizen assemblies are positioned as democratic – an expression of the public’s ‘true will’ – by implication anyone (or party) who operates in opposition is anti-citizen or anti-democratic. Thus we have a process where:
    a) no political party can easily oppose the outcome
    b) there is no internal opposition to monitor it the process or propose alternatives
    c) there is intense pressure to come up with a recommendation (no Citizen Assemblies is ever going to recommend the status quo – especially when a plebiscite is resting on its shoulders
    There are no checks and balances in this system. Those that look like a check (e.g. a plebiscite) hardly serve the function.

    3. The part of your argument that most concerns me is the “lessons learned” piece. This is a rather relaxed (even cavalier) approach to a process that is trying to fundamentally alter how my province is governed. If we were devising the strategy for some NGO or company that, if it went belly up, wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, I’d agree with you. However, this is the governance of my province, my home, that we are talking about. The ‘lessons learned’ you shrug off have materially affected a process that could have a real, significant and permanent impact. Such a risk, while plausible acceptable for some decisions, feels distinctly unacceptable in this case. If we are going to change the governance structure of my province I want to use a robust process – preferably one with real checks and balances.

  7. andrew potter

    “Edinburgh” wrote:

    “But of course, it wasn’t a mistake – it was a deliberate slur, made to have an easily predictable effect, in an attempt to discredit both the recommendation of the BC Citizens’ Assembly (the STV system of proportional representation) and the Citizens’ Assembly itself.”

    Ahh, the web. A place where people write under pseudonyms while disparaging the credibility of those who at least put their names to their words.

    Anyway, just a couple of things. First, if I’m wrong about the Weimar/STV issue, I freely stand corrected and apologise. But contrary to what your anonymous scotsperson thinks, it was not a “deliberate slur.” That is, I didn’t make it up. I read it in J.A. Corry’s book Democratic Government and Politics, where he states that Hitler came to power under an STV system, and he ends by writing something like “despite this system — or some say because of it — came Hitler.”

    Again, if this is false, I stand corrected. But it was not a deliberate falsification; if I’m guilty of anything it is of assuming that Corry’s book was more authoritative than the internet.

    Second, the thing I wrote about Ken Carty and STV was not meant as a slur — I was simply relating an anecdote. If it too is false, then I’m guilty of relating the anecdote without checking. The only excuse I offer is that I was merely trying to raise some issues for discussion — I am not as careful with blog entries as I am with other forms of writing.

    At any rate, setting aside both of these issues, I still think Citizens Assemblies are a bad idea, as are most of Peter’s ideas about representative government.

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