Tag Archives: citizen assemblies

When a Citizen Dialogue is really just a Mob

Two years ago I wrote this piece outlining how Citizen Assemblies violate the conditions Surowiecki outline as necessary to create a wise crowd. My point was to show how there is a fine line between when a dialogue becomes a group monologue, or worse, just a mob. Those who engage in policy discussions need to be aware of where this line lies lest they accidentally confuse consensus and agreement with silent coercion.

I experienced this problem a few months ago while attending an Imagine BC Leaders’ Summit, A Dialogue on Habitat, Health and Livelihoods :10 Big Ideas to Shape a Resilient Future. The day long event included 180+ leaders and interested parties from different sectors and was supposed to cap off discussions that had been going on about the future of British Columbia. But rather than be an open dialogue, the discussion was intensely closed and, to be frank, bordered on fascist.

Things started off innocently enough. The conversation opened up with a number of participants strongly advocating that British Columbia, and the world, needed a zero growth economy. The term was never explained or explored, but it was made clear that continued economic growth was impossible and threatened the plant. I felt concerned that a group of people who could afford to take an entire workday off to talk about the future would suggest that a zero growth economy was necessary (as quickly as possible) especially in a world where over a billion people live under $1 a day. I suspect that the underlying interest in zero-growth had to do with environmental sustainability but nobody used an alternative term such as a sustainable economy, ecologically sensitive economy or carbon neutral economy. No, it had to be zero-growth. Such an outcome is great if you’ve already got wealth, but it necessarily marginalizes those that don’t. The topic however, was less important than the process. A few people (including me) voiced our concern over the zero growth term in a smaller breakout session but never in the plenary discussion. I asked some of the other concerned voices why they didn’t speak up: most had concluded within the first 30 minutes of the day that speaking out on environmental issue simply wasn’t safe. I had to agree – I wasn’t speaking up either.

Of course, once a group appears to have consensus – because alternative perspectives have censored themselves – it doesn’t take long for the conversation to move into some disturbing places. Back in the plenary discussion the group had concluded that imminent environmental catastrophe was the pressing issue of our time and all other issues were subordinate or secondary. The conversation then quickly shifted to assessing why people outside the room (the general public that is) didn’t feel the same sense of urgency. In a conversation that would have made the authors of The Death of Environmentalism shudder with familiarity, at no point was there any introspection about how the people in the room had failed t engage others effectively. Instead, exogenous factors were immediately cited. Specifically, two emerged as key problems. First, the educational system wasn’t advocating “the groups” point of view sufficiently and second, the political structures discriminated against their issue specifically. The conclusion, the school system needed to be taken over so as to appropriately educate people and the electoral system needed to be reformed so as to produce outcomes the group favoured.

If that doesn’t sound like a scary or fascist conversation, imagine the same conversation structure, but with this subject.

In a dialogue setting a group of evangelical Christians determine that most pressing issue is the fast approach day of rapture and, due to lack of awareness and concern, many souls would not be saved. They conclude that the reason people don’t care about the rapture isn’t because evangelicals haven’t been effective at reaching out and engaging people but because a) they don’t control the educational system, and b) the political system is structured to not favour their issue. They conclude that must take over the schools and so kids can be taught Christian values and that the electoral system needs rejigging to produce outcomes that favours “Christian” issues.

Same conclusions, different subject matter.

This is why dialogues have to so carefully facilitated. It isn’t hard for them to become a mob and for the discussion to get angry and totalitarian.

Oh, and a final note. During the afternoon, in a moment you couldn’t have scripted, the fascist subtext of the conversation became explicit. During the Q&A after Thomas Homer-Dixon’s presentation, one participant asked “Your data on ecological collapse is terrifying. But enough isn’t being done. Do we have to take a page out of history and get the jackboots and the brownshirts out and just mobilize aggressively?” (I really almost lost it when this question was asked). Homer-Dixon, to his credit, was clearly taken aback and ran the other direction outlining that such an approach was not an appropriate solution. Jackboots? Brownshirts? We weren’t a dialogue anymore, we were a mob. At least now it was explicit.

The death of MMP

Anyone who’s followed this blog semi-regularly knows I’m not a fan of MMP so it’s no surprise that I’m pleased to see MMP was soundly thumped in the referendum today. What is remarkable is how soundly the resolution was defeated (63% to 37% at last count).

As a result, the best thing about this outcome is its decisiveness. Unlike BC, Ontario won’t be burdened with another referendum on the issue (as unfortunantely BC will likely be).

Even Gordon Gibson doesn't like MMP

Gordon Gibson, a supporter of Citizen assemblies and a big supporter of BC-STV (the electoral system proposed by the BC Citizen’s assembly) explains why he believes Mixed Member Proportionate (MMP) – the electoral system proposed by the Ontario Citizen’s assembly – is actually worse then the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system.

In a Globe and Mail op-ed, Gibson explain:

As to differences in political culture, it may be that B.C. is more independent-minded and that political parties are more trusted in Ontario. That would be consistent with the results – STV boosts the backbencher, voter choice and the election of some actual independents. MMP gives even more power to parties and party discipline than our present system.

Why would Gibson assert that MMP gives more power to parties and party discipline? Simple.

Members that represent ridings derive their power from their constituency. If a proposed bill threatens the interest of their constituents they go and lobby the party leader. Their leverage in this conversation is the fact that, if the bill is sufficiently important to their constituents, it is actually in their interests to vote against it (and thus preserve their electoral chances).

In an MMP system, the proportionally elected members are divorced from the electorate. They don’t represent anyone per se, and so don’t have a constituency. Thus they cannot vote against the party leader. What is their leverage? If they do vote against the party, one can bet the party leader will use their significant power to remove that member from the “party list” during the next election. Dislodging a member from his/her constituency is possible, but it is messy and difficult. Dislodging a proportional member from a party list however, would be relatively simple. This is why MMP further concentrates power in the hands of party leaders.

What makes MMP even more disconcerting is the knock on effect these weak proportionally elected members would have on traditional members. With a certain number of votes safely in their back pocket, party leaders would be even more secure in bullying their member into towing the line.

MMP supporters will counter by pointing to the lack of free votes as an indication of a lack of democracy. But as the above analysis should indicate, a lack of free votes is not the problem. There are few free votes because members exert influence over party leaders to have them modify or abandon proposed legislation before voting becomes necessary. Again, this is only possible because they possess the leverage created by having a constituency.

Either way, it is interesting when a significant reformer and FPTP opponent – like Gordon Gibson – feels it neccessary to write an op-ed about how MMP is worse the FPTP. That should give anyone pause.

As an aside: Gibson starts off his op-ed by explaining that the Ontario citizen assembly was fundamentally flawed. Citizen’s Assembly (CA) advocates must be seething as they like to argue that although new and imperfect, each CA builds on the lessons and strengths of the previous one.

the trouble with citizen assemblies (part 3)

So those who of us who aren’t fans of citizen assemblies as a decision making process aren’t found too often in the press, but we are out there. Andrew Potter’s recent blog post may hopefully be thing beginning of a better debate about the merits and pitfalls of this process.

I haven’t seen much press assessing the citizen assembly process. If anyone’s seen any articles about the process (not the outcome) please send them along.

[tags]Citizen Assemblies, democratic renewal[/tags]

The Trouble with Citizens' Assemblies (part II)

For those interested in (or, in my case, concerned with) so-called direct democracy initiatives this article, from the Guardian, on Tony Blair’s e-petitions may be of interest. It outlines a number of the concerns that were raised on the debate around citizens’ assemblies that occurred on this site.

Also, I’m currently about a quarter of the way through the thoroughly enjoyable book “The Wisdom of Crowds” and it is raising further issues regarding why citizens’ assemblies may not make sense. Hope to share more once I’ve finished the book.

Thank you Peter M. for sending me the Guardian link… particularly gracious given your advocacy for citizen assemblies.
[tags]citizens’ assemblies, e-petitions, public policy[/tags]

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]