Citizen Assemblies: Overstating the wisdom of crowds

On numerous occasions over the past few months I’ve heard people refer to Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” when explaining why any group driven project is inherently good.

My favourite has been the explanation regarding how citizen’s assemblies – because they tend to be composed of 100 or more members – are inherently wise and therefor produce a good outcome. To begin with, I find it interesting that those who defend electoral reform rarely talk about the merits of the proposal and instead refer to the soundness of the decision making process used to reach them. Citizen assemblies, it must be said, are not some magical process that produce inherently good outcomes. Indeed, if those who invoke his book had actually read it, they’d realize the Surowiecki’s analysis not only fails to support their contention about the process, it may actually do the opposite.

Pause for a second, and think about the logic that says a solution is good simply because it was arrived at by a large group of people. It is actually quite frightening. Indeed, one of the first things Surowiecki points out is that not all crowds are wise. The statement hardly needs supporting, but Surowiecki nonetheless trots out numerous examples of unwise crowds – angry mobs, investors in a stock bubble, and the various branches of US intelligence services. It’s not simply the size of a crowd that makes it “wise” it is also the rules that guide its behaviour. To be specific Surowiecki cites four key elements (which I’ve cribbed from wikipedia):

Diversity of opinion: Crowds – even those whose members hold ill-informed or eccentric interpretation of the known facts – will be wiser then groups that possess identical data, similar perspectives, or interpret data in a similar fashion.

Independence: Crowd members opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.

Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.

Aggregation: A mechanism for turning private judgments into a collective decisions.

Violate one of these elements and your crowd risks becoming a mob. By my estimation, citizen assemblies run the risk of violating three.

First, the diversity of opinion is at risk. While citizen assemblies’ proponents would have you believe they are composed randomly, this is in fact, not the case. Firstly, there are a number of people who, for reasons of work or family, would not participate. But what really interests me is that people opposed to change (and possibly those who are simply indifferent) are less likely to participate. If you thought a proposition (such as electoral reform) was silly, would you spend a year debating it – or would you simply await your opportunity to vote against it at the end of the process? Participation in these assemblies is almost assuredly tilted toward those predisposed to favour change – e.g. the crowd is more likely to be homogeneous in its desire for change and its perception of the electoral system.

Second, citizen assemblies are less likely to be independent. If you enter into a process to change the voting system the pressure to support change, any change, must be intense. Imagine if you sat around for a year listening, debating and arguing, and came out of the process agreeing that the status quo was ultimately superior to any other option. What a frustrating outcome! Tax payers would question why the money was spent and your friends would ridicule you for “wasting your time.” Worst still, what if the assembly couldn’t agree? What would that say about its constituent members? The internally created pressure on assembly members to put forward something, anything(!) new, and to have a clear majority of assembly members support this proposal was likely intense. I’d wager that once momentum for one solution began to emerge, other members were willing to bandwagon along “for the sake of the process.” In short, assembly members allowed their opinions to be determined by the opinions of those around them. (except, of course for those who held out. The same people who – from first hand accounts – were invariable referred to as stick in the muds and ‘difficult’ people. “Think like the rest of us or we’ll socially ostracize you…” isn’t that a sign of a mob?)

Finally, citizen assemblies have poor mechanisms for aggregation. Although neither the BC nor the Ontario Citizen assemblies required it, both placed strong emphasis on reaching consensus – articulating it as an ideal. If there is one system of decision-making Surowiecki believes makes a crowd dumb, it is a consensus-based approach. In order to reach consensus crowd members sacrifice the previous three elements – diversity, independence and decentralization – in order to gravitate towards the group’s mean. In effect the group’s collective knowledge and diversity of analytical ability is lost. This is the antithesis of a wise crowd. It is a crowd that actually gets dumber with time because it has less data, less analysis and fewer perspectives with which to assess the problem. It isn’t that people agree – they simply censor themselves to prevent disagreement.

This isn’t to say the Citizen Assemblies came to a bad solution for electoral reform (although to confess, I think in both BC and Ontario they did) . Again, all I wish to convey is that the citizen assemblies are not some magical process that produce inherently good outcomes. These process are neither democratic, representative, nor inherently superior – so don’t let supporters of the ballot initiatives bully you with process arguments. Let’s assess these proposals based on their contents – and what they do to democracy in Canada (which, in Ontario’s case, strengthens the parties and the backroom boys).

44 thoughts on “Citizen Assemblies: Overstating the wisdom of crowds

  1. Steve Withers

    Hi

    I’m not sure who you have been listening to, but electoral reformers most definitely are ALL about the merits of the recommended systems. If the Citizens Assemblies are referred to, it is in the context of establishing the source and context in which the proposed system was developed for people who do not know.

    If you are hostile to Citizens Assemblies it would be hard to sustain a position as an advocate of democracy. I say that because the CA idea is based on taking regular, everyday people and educating them on an issue they will make a recommendation on. Certainly, the quality of any decision, in ANY context is that the output is only as good as the input.

    If one takes the position that people lack the ability to do this consisently, then both elections themselves and the legislation resulting from votes by representative assemblies must both be inherently flawed, to use your logic. In the CA case, the people involved there would have, as a whole, been exposed to more information and in more depth than the average MP or MPP ever ses on a given piece of legislation they vote for in the Legislature.

    You argument would tend to support the view that only specialist elites are competent to reliably make “good” decisons. Of course, these elites can only be self-appointed as your logic precludes them being reliably elected by an informed pool of votes.

    You may well be right in a specific case, but to apply your argument generally, democracy can’t and won’t work.

    I don’t agree. The merits of the recommended proposals by both CAs in BC and in Ontario will improve the quality of outputs from legislatures for a variety of reasons we can discuss, on their merits, if you like. I’d love to. The merits are what THIS reformer is all about.

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  2. Steve Withers

    Hi I’m not sure who you have been listening to, but electoral reformers most definitely are ALL about the merits of the recommended systems. If the Citizens Assemblies are referred to, it is in the context of establishing the source and context in which the proposed system was developed for people who do not know. If you are hostile to Citizens Assemblies it would be hard to sustain a position as an advocate of democracy. I say that because the CA idea is based on taking regular, everyday people and educating them on an issue they will make a recommendation on. Certainly, the quality of any decision, in ANY context is that the output is only as good as the input. If one takes the position that people lack the ability to do this consisently, then both elections themselves and the legislation resulting from votes by representative assemblies must both be inherently flawed, to use your logic. In the CA case, the people involved there would have, as a whole, been exposed to more information and in more depth than the average MP or MPP ever ses on a given piece of legislation they vote for in the Legislature. You argument would tend to support the view that only specialist elites are competent to reliably make “good” decisons. Of course, these elites can only be self-appointed as your logic precludes them being reliably elected by an informed pool of votes. You may well be right in a specific case, but to apply your argument generally, democracy can’t and won’t work. I don’t agree. The merits of the recommended proposals by both CAs in BC and in Ontario will improve the quality of outputs from legislatures for a variety of reasons we can discuss, on their merits, if you like. I’d love to. The merits are what THIS reformer is all about.

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  3. Bill Longstaff

    It seems to me, David, you are thinking of citizen assemblies in the wrong context, i.e. in the context of crowds. But a citizen assembly is no more a mere crowd than a jury is, or a conference, or, for that matter, the House of Commons. These, like citizen assemblies, are formal groups acting in accordance with established procedures and principles. They are not mobs.

    Citizen assemblies can be the the purest and most effective form of democracy with a few simple rules.

    First, to ensure they accurately represent the people, participants must be randomly selected. This can be assured by combining scientific sampling with mandatory participation. When a citizen is selected for jury duty, he or she can only be excused for the most compelling reason. Assembly duty should be no less demanding.

    Second, participants must be thoroughly informed of the issue. They must receive an introductory information package, have the opportunity to hear various points of view, have ready access to information they require and, of very great importance, have lots of opportunity for face to face discussion. In short, they must deliberate.

    Your suggestion that assemblies are required to reach consensus, at least in the sense of unanimity, is new to me. Juries are, of course, (and seem to generally make good decisions), but majority rule is usually quite acceptable for assemblies.

    I find Surowiecki’s key element “Independence: Crowd members opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them” more than a little peculiar. How can anyone in any kind of society make a wise decision without taking into account the opinions of those around them?

    Properly managed, assemblies are more representative than legislatures or Cabinets, their participants are overall better informed, and they are less restricted by party loyalty.

    I would very much like to see them used extensively at every level of government. Think how interest in governance and democracy would soar if every citizen could expect to be called for assembly duty.

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  4. Charles Tsai

    I think it’s difficult to apply the pure “collective wisdom” model the way Surowiecki defines it. Not everything is a jellybean contest.

    But I don’t think Surowiecki would say you shouldn’t try to reach for “collective wisdom” if you can’t put in place all four elements.

    The question is… are we using a model that’s better than the one we had before?

    When you go about changing the electoral system, isn’t it better to involve citizens in a well-designed process (however imperfect) rather than rely on politicians or a small group of experts?

    As for aggregation, the BC assembly members took a vote rather than arrived at consensus. A good percentage did not favor the STV system but more than enough did… so they put it forward as their recommendation.

    I disagree that those who don’t want change would sit out. I find conservatives to be just as politically active (if not more so) than liberals. People will go out of their way to defend the status quo.

    :)

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  5. Bill Longstaff

    It seems to me, David, you are thinking of citizen assemblies in the wrong context, i.e. in the context of crowds. But a citizen assembly is no more a mere crowd than a jury is, or a conference, or, for that matter, the House of Commons. These, like citizen assemblies, are formal groups acting in accordance with established procedures and principles. They are not mobs.Citizen assemblies can be the the purest and most effective form of democracy with a few simple rules.First, to ensure they accurately represent the people, participants must be randomly selected. This can be assured by combining scientific sampling with mandatory participation. When a citizen is selected for jury duty, he or she can only be excused for the most compelling reason. Assembly duty should be no less demanding.Second, participants must be thoroughly informed of the issue. They must receive an introductory information package, have the opportunity to hear various points of view, have ready access to information they require and, of very great importance, have lots of opportunity for face to face discussion. In short, they must deliberate.Your suggestion that assemblies are required to reach consensus, at least in the sense of unanimity, is new to me. Juries are, of course, (and seem to generally make good decisions), but majority rule is usually quite acceptable for assemblies.I find Surowiecki’s key element “Independence: Crowd members opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them” more than a little peculiar. How can anyone in any kind of society make a wise decision without taking into account the opinions of those around them?Properly managed, assemblies are more representative than legislatures or Cabinets, their participants are overall better informed, and they are less restricted by party loyalty.I would very much like to see them used extensively at every level of government. Think how interest in governance and democracy would soar if every citizen could expect to be called for assembly duty.

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  6. Charles Tsai

    I think it’s difficult to apply the pure “collective wisdom” model the way Surowiecki defines it. Not everything is a jellybean contest.But I don’t think Surowiecki would say you shouldn’t try to reach for “collective wisdom” if you can’t put in place all four elements.The question is… are we using a model that’s better than the one we had before?When you go about changing the electoral system, isn’t it better to involve citizens in a well-designed process (however imperfect) rather than rely on politicians or a small group of experts?As for aggregation, the BC assembly members took a vote rather than arrived at consensus. A good percentage did not favor the STV system but more than enough did… so they put it forward as their recommendation.I disagree that those who don’t want change would sit out. I find conservatives to be just as politically active (if not more so) than liberals. People will go out of their way to defend the status quo.:)

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  7. David Eaves Post author

    Lots to respond to here. I want to thank all three of you for commenting. Pointing out the fallibility of citizen assemblies often provokes the consternation of fellow progressives. I think a number of good points are raised, but ultimately most miss the thrust of my argument.

    Steve Wither’s opening line “electoral reformers most definitely are ALL about the merits of the recommended systems” is literally taken from the playbook of CA defender. This defense rest on two linked arguments: a) CAs are democratic and if you oppose them you are against democracy and b) because CA’s are democratic their conclusions cannot be challenged. It is no surprise that he then accuses me of being against democracy. I’m not going to rehash these points but citizen assemblies are neither democratic nor are they representative. More importantly, Wither fails to address any of the specific arguments in the piece about why CA’s may not be wise crowds. Instead his illogically concludes that if I believe the CA’s unwise, then I must also believe the population as a whole is unwise. This is exactly the opposite of what I argue. The public as a whole is wise because it is diverse (unlike CA’s – see the piece) and its opinions are aggregated in a very different manner.

    Bill’s piece is much more reasoned. However, the Wisdom of Crowds definitely applies to CA’s, Surowiecki’s thesis deals with any group making a decision – the use of crowds in the title is for marketing. I agree that CA’s should be randomly selected (like juries). But as I discuss in my piece, they aren’t. (it is also worth noting that we rely on juries to do something fundamentally different than CA’s. CA’s must assess a situation and come up with an alternative system whereas juries merely have to assess a situation and provide a verdict).

    As for Bill’s second point, Surowiecki would disagree if (as in the case of CA’s) participants all received their information and analysis from the same source. This actually makes the crowd dumber because it destroys its elements of independence and diversity. I shared your observation about Surowiecki’s notion of a crowds independence. I won’t do it justice here (I strongly recommend the book) but what is important is that a wise crowd shares information (this does help make it wiser), but if it shares too much the diversity of opinions, perspectives and data that help it effectively analyze a problem are lost. This risk is particularly high in smaller crowds (such as those composed of a few hundred people or less).

    Finally, Charles raises a great question: “Are we using a model that’s better than the one we had before?” I don’t know. But it also isn’t my point. Good processes can lead to bad decisions and bad processes can lead to good decisions. I’m simply tired of electoral reform advocates claiming that we should support electoral reform because of the process used to reach it.

    On the point of aggregation, BC’s CA members may have had a vote, but doesn’t it strike you as odd that the vote was 142 to 11 in favour (I’m guessing there were 7 abstentions)? There are few issues on which the population is ever 90% agreed upon – I doubt the structure of an electoral system is one of them. Indeed, one need only look at the second principal of the BC CA’s Policies and Procedures document to see consensus was placed at a premium: “The conduct of the Citizens’ Assembly meetings normally will be informal and, where feasible, most decisions will be reached by consensus.”

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  8. David Eaves

    Lots to respond to here. I want to thank all three of you for commenting. Pointing out the fallibility of citizen assemblies often provokes the consternation of fellow progressives. I think a number of good points are raised, but ultimately most miss the thrust of my argument.Steve Wither’s opening line “electoral reformers most definitely are ALL about the merits of the recommended systems” is literally taken from the playbook of CA defender. This defense rest on two linked arguments: a) CAs are democratic and if you oppose them you are against democracy and b) because CA’s are democratic their conclusions cannot be challenged. It is no surprise that he then accuses me of being against democracy. I’m not going to rehash these points but citizen assemblies are neither democratic nor are they representative. More importantly, Wither fails to address any of the specific arguments in the piece about why CA’s may not be wise crowds. Instead his illogically concludes that if I believe the CA’s unwise, then I must also believe the population as a whole is unwise. This is exactly the opposite of what I argue. The public as a whole is wise because it is diverse (unlike CA’s – see the piece) and its opinions are aggregated in a very different manner.Bill’s piece is much more reasoned. However, the Wisdom of Crowds definitely applies to CA’s, Surowiecki’s thesis deals with any group making a decision – the use of crowds in the title is for marketing. I agree that CA’s should be randomly selected (like juries). But as I discuss in my piece, they aren’t. (it is also worth noting that we rely on juries to do something fundamentally different than CA’s. CA’s must assess a situation and come up with an alternative system whereas juries merely have to assess a situation and provide a verdict).As for Bill’s second point, Surowiecki would disagree if (as in the case of CA’s) participants all received their information and analysis from the same source. This actually makes the crowd dumber because it destroys its elements of independence and diversity. I shared your observation about Surowiecki’s notion of a crowds independence. I won’t do it justice here (I strongly recommend the book) but what is important is that a wise crowd shares information (this does help make it wiser), but if it shares too much the diversity of opinions, perspectives and data that help it effectively analyze a problem are lost. This risk is particularly high in smaller crowds (such as those composed of a few hundred people or less).Finally, Charles raises a great question: “Are we using a model that’s better than the one we had before?” I don’t know. But it also isn’t my point. Good processes can lead to bad decisions and bad processes can lead to good decisions. I’m simply tired of electoral reform advocates claiming that we should support electoral reform because of the process used to reach it. On the point of aggregation, BC’s CA members may have had a vote, but doesn’t it strike you as odd that the vote was 142 to 11 in favour (I’m guessing there were 7 abstentions)? There are few issues on which the population is ever 90% agreed upon – I doubt the structure of an electoral system is one of them. Indeed, one need only look at the second principal of the BC CA’s Policies and Procedures document to see consensus was placed at a premium: “The conduct of the Citizens’ Assembly meetings normally will be informal and, where feasible, most decisions will be reached by consensus.”

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  9. David Eaves Post author

    Charles – the fact that there is a 35 point gap between what the public voted for and what the assembly suggested reveals that it is not representative.

    And before we say “that’s because the public didn’t know what they were voting for (and we’d be right since exit polls revealed that only 30% of people who voted yes knew what what they were voting for) we’d be suggesting that, when educated on this issue STV would poll at 90%, every time. I somehow doubt that.

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  10. Michael Bednarski

    Both the BC and Ontario Citizens’ Assemblies received submissions from the public that largely supported MMP. BC chose STV while Ontario’s assembly chose MMP. I did hear comments from members of both assemblies that their decisions were not based on popularity contests. Both weighed the pros and cons of different voting systems in relation to their provinces.

    Do citizens’ assemblies always make the best decisions? I will agree that they don’t always, but they they do at other times. That is why BC had a referendum–to let the voters decide. Fifty-eight percent of the voters supported the BC-CA’s recommendation. It was technically defeated because it did not achieve the government’s artificial threshold of 60%. Ontario will be having a referendum to let the voters decide if its citizens’ assembly made a good decision.

    Consensus is not conforming to the lowest common denomimator. Consenus is accepting that we are all in the same boat; we need to paddle in the same direction if we want to get anywhere.

    David, if you do not accept the decisions of the BC and Ontario CAs, what kind of decision would you accept? Even if you don’t like the concept of citizens’ assemblies. Which voting system would be the best for each province? Would you be willing to consider any alternative voting system? There are many kinds with different features: MMP, STV, SNTV, open and closed lists, province-wide and regional representation, parallel, alternative vote, and voting at large for two or more candidates. Some of these are very proportional in terms of party representation; some are less proportional.

    If you don’t like citizens’ assemblies, why do we have juries in court cases? Why not just let a panel of judges decide on a case? Why do we bother to vote? Let’s just have Canada’s “nobility” vote? We can just let the Upper Canada College alumni select Canada’s parliament. Why bother having a parliament when just a king will do? I could fully accept this idea–so long as the king is I.

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  11. David Eaves

    Charles – the fact that there is a 35 point gap between what the public voted for and what the assembly suggested reveals that it is not representative.And before we say “that’s because the public didn’t know what they were voting for (and we’d be right since exit polls revealed that only 30% of people who voted yes knew what what they were voting for) we’d be suggesting that, when educated on this issue STV would poll at 90%, every time. I somehow doubt that.

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  12. Michael Bednarski

    Both the BC and Ontario Citizens’ Assemblies received submissions from the public that largely supported MMP. BC chose STV while Ontario’s assembly chose MMP. I did hear comments from members of both assemblies that their decisions were not based on popularity contests. Both weighed the pros and cons of different voting systems in relation to their provinces.Do citizens’ assemblies always make the best decisions? I will agree that they don’t always, but they they do at other times. That is why BC had a referendum–to let the voters decide. Fifty-eight percent of the voters supported the BC-CA’s recommendation. It was technically defeated because it did not achieve the government’s artificial threshold of 60%. Ontario will be having a referendum to let the voters decide if its citizens’ assembly made a good decision.Consensus is not conforming to the lowest common denomimator. Consenus is accepting that we are all in the same boat; we need to paddle in the same direction if we want to get anywhere.David, if you do not accept the decisions of the BC and Ontario CAs, what kind of decision would you accept? Even if you don’t like the concept of citizens’ assemblies. Which voting system would be the best for each province? Would you be willing to consider any alternative voting system? There are many kinds with different features: MMP, STV, SNTV, open and closed lists, province-wide and regional representation, parallel, alternative vote, and voting at large for two or more candidates. Some of these are very proportional in terms of party representation; some are less proportional.If you don’t like citizens’ assemblies, why do we have juries in court cases? Why not just let a panel of judges decide on a case? Why do we bother to vote? Let’s just have Canada’s “nobility” vote? We can just let the Upper Canada College alumni select Canada’s parliament. Why bother having a parliament when just a king will do? I could fully accept this idea–so long as the king is I.

    Reply
  13. David Eaves Post author

    Michael,

    I think CA’s are interesting. I just don’t think they themselves are democratic (which is fine!). And yet over and over again, supporters claim that those who dislike the CA’s output are somehow “anti-democratic” and using hyperbole of “why vote,” “elitists,” “upper canada college” etc…

    My point is that doing a CA doesn’t give you a blank check to change the system. Again (sigh), the point of this post wasn’t about the merits of the specific BC and ON suggestions. It was about how CA’s processes (like any process) are flawed, their outputs can be fallible and they don’t automatically deserve our support.

    On a separate note. There is nothing “artificial” about a 60% threshold. Many votes about changing process and institutions have a 60% or higher(!) threshold. I suppose you are also against the Clarity Act and it’s “artificial” requirement of a “clear majority” (generally seen as as 63% I believe)

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  14. Charles Tsai

    David,

    I don’t think we disagree. The CA’s recommendation was non-binding and they put it to voters to decide… and that’s the right thing to do.

    The ENTIRE debate leading up to BC’s vote on this topic was about the merit of the STV system… whether it will produce a govt that’s more representative, efficient, etc.

    I don’t recall much being said about how we should support it because the CA recommended it.

    I don’t understand why you don’t find CA’s to be of much value. I think we should have MORE of them – to counterbalance the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups.

    How would YOU have gone about improving our electoral system? (Btw, the BC CA didn’t have to propose any changes if they didn’t want to.)

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  15. David Eaves

    Michael,I think CA’s are interesting. I just don’t think they themselves are democratic (which is fine!). And yet over and over again, supporters claim that those who dislike the CA’s output are somehow “anti-democratic” and using hyperbole of “why vote,” “elitists,” “upper canada college” etc…My point is that doing a CA doesn’t give you a blank check to change the system. Again (sigh), the point of this post wasn’t about the merits of the specific BC and ON suggestions. It was about how CA’s processes (like any process) are flawed, their outputs can be fallible and they don’t automatically deserve our support. On a separate note. There is nothing “artificial” about a 60% threshold. Many votes about changing process and institutions have a 60% or higher(!) threshold. I suppose you are also against the Clarity Act and it’s “artificial” requirement of a “clear majority” (generally seen as as 63% I believe)

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  16. Charles Tsai

    David,I don’t think we disagree. The CA’s recommendation was non-binding and they put it to voters to decide… and that’s the right thing to do.The ENTIRE debate leading up to BC’s vote on this topic was about the merit of the STV system… whether it will produce a govt that’s more representative, efficient, etc.I don’t recall much being said about how we should support it because the CA recommended it.I don’t understand why you don’t find CA’s to be of much value. I think we should have MORE of them – to counterbalance the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups.How would YOU have gone about improving our electoral system? (Btw, the BC CA didn’t have to propose any changes if they didn’t want to.)

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  17. Peter MacLeod

    Hi Dave,

    I’m wondering if you could clarify two points for me.

    To my mind, both ‘representation’ and ‘democracy’ are historically dependent terms that have evolved quite dramatically over the sweep of human history. We rightfully think of ancient Athens as a democracy. So too modern Ontario — but of course, the practice of democracy in each looks very different. Same goes in present day for Ontario and say, Switzerland.

    Still you claim — emphatically and categorically — that Citizens’ Assemblies are neither ‘representative’ nor ‘democratic’. Why? I think it’s important to spell this out.

    Secondly, do you think elected representation is the only legitimate democratic practice available a society?

    On reading the above, Pitkin’s “The Concept of Representation”, Barber’s “The Death of Communal Liberty” and Hirst’s “Associative Democracy” each come racing to mind. I’d recommend them to anyone participating in this debate.

    Thanks and best, P.

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  18. Peter MacLeod

    Hi Dave,I’m wondering if you could clarify two points for me. To my mind, both ‘representation’ and ‘democracy’ are historically dependent terms that have evolved quite dramatically over the sweep of human history. We rightfully think of ancient Athens as a democracy. So too modern Ontario — but of course, the practice of democracy in each looks very different. Same goes in present day for Ontario and say, Switzerland.Still you claim — emphatically and categorically — that Citizens’ Assemblies are neither ‘representative’ nor ‘democratic’. Why? I think it’s important to spell this out.Secondly, do you think elected representation is the only legitimate democratic practice available a society?On reading the above, Pitkin’s “The Concept of Representation”, Barber’s “The Death of Communal Liberty” and Hirst’s “Associative Democracy” each come racing to mind. I’d recommend them to anyone participating in this debate.Thanks and best, P.

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  19. David Eaves Post author

    So by representative, I mean by both senses of the world. Citizen Assemblies aren’t “representative” (in the “sample” sense of the word) of the population because the initial selection process isn’t random and, more importantly, has significant self-selection problems.

    This means they also aren’t representative in the the democratic sense either. Modern day democracy is about bringing together the differing (complementary and competing) interests of a community and letting them get hashed out in the hopes of creating an optimal outcome. We could do this by bringing everybody in society together, or by electing officials to represent our interests. Randomly selecting people doesn’t ensure those various interests are reflected (see above), nor are they necessarily driven to represent those interests since they are not accountable.

    The members are “checked” because their is a plebiscite on their idea, but that doesn’t make it democratic… If the government appointed a Royal Commission and then promised the population could vote on their conclusion, no one would claim it was “democratic”.

    But CA’s are somehow exempt. As Jack Blaney notes in this interview where he notes “The idea of a citizens’ assembly—its unique
    authority and its importance as a democratic process…”

    Again, I think CA’s are interesting things. At best they are some new form of citizen engagement, at worst they are an elaborate focus group, but they aren’t democratic, nor representative, and they aren’t necessarily structured to yield good outcomes.

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  20. David Eaves

    So by representative, I mean by both senses of the world. Citizen Assemblies aren’t “representative” (in the “sample” sense of the word) of the population because the initial selection process isn’t random and, more importantly, has significant self-selection problems. This means they also aren’t representative in the the democratic sense either. Modern day democracy is about bringing together the differing (complementary and competing) interests of a community and letting them get hashed out in the hopes of creating an optimal outcome. We could do this by bringing everybody in society together, or by electing officials to represent our interests. Randomly selecting people doesn’t ensure those various interests are reflected (see above), nor are they necessarily driven to represent those interests since they are not accountable.The members are “checked” because their is a plebiscite on their idea, but that doesn’t make it democratic… If the government appointed a Royal Commission and then promised the population could vote on their conclusion, no one would claim it was “democratic”. But CA’s are somehow exempt. As Jack Blaney notes in this interview where he notes “The idea of a citizens’ assembly—its uniqueauthority and its importance as a democratic process…” Again, I think CA’s are interesting things. At best they are some new form of citizen engagement, at worst they are an elaborate focus group, but they aren’t democratic, nor representative, and they aren’t necessarily structured to yield good outcomes.

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  21. Peter MacLeod

    Thanks Dave — I don’t want to get overly semantic about this, but I know you also love language and will agree with me that these distinctions are important.

    You see, to me it just makes more sense to talk about ‘representativeness’ as a spectrum or a set of qualities, not something binary that’s either on or off.

    Otherwise, I think you’ve got a hard case insisting that representative government should have the penultimate claim to democratic legitimacy. (Given that historically it has, in practice, done such an efficient job of excluding significant numbers of its potential electorate — and continues to in myriad ways today.)

    Whether its through universal suffrage or the creation of new complementary mechanisms like Citizens’ Assemblies, the trajectory of democratic progress has been a process of enhancing the ‘representativeness’ of our political institutions.

    And that’s something we all want.

    In this way I would agree with you in not supporting the recommendation of a Citizens’ Assembly exclusively on the grounds that it was representative and like you I would always insist that its recommendations be submitted to ratification by an elected legislature or public referendum.

    No contest. No controversy.

    The CAs representativeness is only useful in so far as it allows the CA to converse with a wide cross section of the public, develop a sound proposal and expect that its recommendation will receive the courtesy of a fair and substantial hearing by politicians and the public alike.

    So maybe that settles the representation issue. If so, then we should talk about what constitutes democratic legitimacy.

    I’m worried when you state “We could do this by bringing everybody in society together, or by electing officials to represent our interests.”

    Does this mean that there exist only two options for obtaining even a modicum of democratic legitimacy?

    Or instead, that the ultimate authorization of public action should rest in either the legislature or with a referendum?

    Either way I think we might be confusing democratic practice with democratic sovereignty. It makes perfect sense for CAs to be democratic in spirit and design and still not have a realistic claim to the exercise of sovereign power.

    So, bottom line: Nobody should be using the CA’s democratic spirit or representative nature as the exclusive rationale for supporting the recommendation. They may however argue that the outcome of such a thorough and inclusive process deserves careful attention and debate.

    Equally, when words like democracy and representation are so heavily loaded, it’s probably unfair and strictly inaccurate to say that CAs are in no way democratic or representative.

    All best, P.

    Reply
  22. Peter MacLeod

    Thanks Dave — I don’t want to get overly semantic about this, but I know you also love language and will agree with me that these distinctions are important. You see, to me it just makes more sense to talk about ‘representativeness’ as a spectrum or a set of qualities, not something binary that’s either on or off. Otherwise, I think you’ve got a hard case insisting that representative government should have the penultimate claim to democratic legitimacy. (Given that historically it has, in practice, done such an efficient job of excluding significant numbers of its potential electorate — and continues to in myriad ways today.)Whether its through universal suffrage or the creation of new complementary mechanisms like Citizens’ Assemblies, the trajectory of democratic progress has been a process of enhancing the ‘representativeness’ of our political institutions. And that’s something we all want.In this way I would agree with you in not supporting the recommendation of a Citizens’ Assembly exclusively on the grounds that it was representative and like you I would always insist that its recommendations be submitted to ratification by an elected legislature or public referendum. No contest. No controversy.The CAs representativeness is only useful in so far as it allows the CA to converse with a wide cross section of the public, develop a sound proposal and expect that its recommendation will receive the courtesy of a fair and substantial hearing by politicians and the public alike.So maybe that settles the representation issue. If so, then we should talk about what constitutes democratic legitimacy. I’m worried when you state “We could do this by bringing everybody in society together, or by electing officials to represent our interests.” Does this mean that there exist only two options for obtaining even a modicum of democratic legitimacy? Or instead, that the ultimate authorization of public action should rest in either the legislature or with a referendum?Either way I think we might be confusing democratic practice with democratic sovereignty. It makes perfect sense for CAs to be democratic in spirit and design and still not have a realistic claim to the exercise of sovereign power. So, bottom line: Nobody should be using the CA’s democratic spirit or representative nature as the exclusive rationale for supporting the recommendation. They may however argue that the outcome of such a thorough and inclusive process deserves careful attention and debate.Equally, when words like democracy and representation are so heavily loaded, it’s probably unfair and strictly inaccurate to say that CAs are in no way democratic or representative.All best, P.

    Reply
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  39. Pingback: The murky future of BC-STV | eaves.ca

  40. JD

    David,Let's apply Surowiecki’s four criteria to qualify “crowd wisdom” (Diversity of opinion, Independence, Decentralization and Aggregation) to our current system of governance. Basically elected members are tied to a small number of political platforms that the population is forced to choose amongst, and the winning party's leader imposes his/her views on the members of his/her party through the “party line”, effectively blocking the member of parliament from voting according to his own views, or that of his/her constituents. They are a rowdy, combative bunch which acts according to their reward system: make the other guy look bad and try to present oneself as cool/good/generous/intelligent and hopefully win the next election.If you are as critical of the qualities the present governance model as you are of the Citizen's Assembly, you must come out very hard against the current system. There is nothing in the current system that forces responsible, sustainable decisions and governance. CA's have their problems in this department, it is true. It is not because one packs 100 people into a room that anything good will necessarily come out of it.So, if we focus on the task of good, sustainable situation appraisal and decision making – what would that process look like? I submit that the process would have to enable a maximum number of viewpoints to emerge, and would enable an integrated, multifaceted distillation of these viewpoints where these various viewpoints have passed the test of individual and collective reflection, and individuals free to think their own thoughts. Decisions would have to be justified based on the values of the constituents. There is such a system, designed for large group visioning and decision making. Invented by Stafford Beer, the organizational cyberneticist, the method is called Team Syntegrity. The take home message: electing people because they look good, speak well, or wear red or blue colours has nothing to do with good governance. Good governance is a thinking process that needs to be structured so that it is self-supporting, extremely good at weighing information, and capable of practicing democracy within the constraints of the human mind, and not easily subverted by hidden or overarching agendas. Let me push the envelope just a bit more: our structure of representative government was invented in Westminster 300 years ago. Back then, nobles formed the lords of government, and their objective was to wrestle power away from the king, mostly for their own benefit. The subjects/”citizens” were the serfs, peasants, 97% of them unable to read or write, no education besides a very tough life, basically living as indebtured slaves to a social structure where they had no power.What happened over the last 300 years? In terms of government structure and process, not much. However, if we peek outside, we find that 97% of the population is indeed capable of writing, and most are schooled and capable of independent thought. We now have communication technologies that allow conversations instantly across the nation, via voice, email, texting, video conference and even face to face! We send our kids to college, live to the noble age of 80+, and have a lot of experience to talk to.So – what’s wrong with this picture? Why do we need representatives anymore? WShy do we need other people to tell us what to think, and how to solve our problems as a nation? Democracy is governance according to the will of the people. There is no need, today, for representatives. If we were to invent the form of government we need today, given the tools and constraints of present day, I guarantee you that it bear no resemblance with the farce we have today, which we know of as elected representatives. I think perhaps that this is where we should start.

    Reply
  41. david_a_eaves

    JD – thank you for the comment. I'm not sure we are in disagreement. Your preference seems to be for direct democracy without representatives. This is an interesting debate but it takes us far away from this piece's critic of the citizen assembly process, so I'm not sure where to go with it.

    Reply

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