Deliberative democracy and mini-publics

Graham Smith

In the last three decades, we have witnessed increased experimentation with a family of democratic innovations that collectively have been termed ‘mini-publics’ (Goodin and Dryzek 2006): citizens’ juries, planning cells, consensus conferences, deliberative polls and most recently Citizens’ Assemblies. While there are some important differences, all models share significant design features: participants are selected using random sampling techniques; they are brought together for a period of between two to five days, except for Citizens’ Assemblies which last much longer; facilitators aim to ensure fairness of proceedings; evidence is provided by expert witnesses, who are then cross-examined by participants; citizens are given an opportunity to deliberate amongst themselves in plenary and/or small group sessions before coming to decisions. There is a shared assumption amongst proponents of mini-publics that ordinary citizens are both ‘willing and able to take important decisions in the public interest’ (Coote and Mattinson 1997: 4).

Initially developed in the US in the 1970s by Ned Crosby (Crosby and Nethercut 2005), citizens’ juries were widely popularized in the late 1990s, particularly amongst UK local government and health authorities (Coote and Lenaghan 1997; Smith and Wales 1999; Stewart et al. 1994). Citizens’ juries typically bring together between twelve and twenty-four citizens who are required to develop recommendations in response to a ‘charge’ (one or more questions) set by the sponsoring organization. The process is facilitated by an independent organization. An interesting modification to jury practice is the Citizens Council established by the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in 2003. The Council has a degree of permanence, meeting twice a year for a long weekend to deliberate and provide advice on ethical and moral questions related to resource use and allocation in a health priority setting (Davies et al. 2006).

Around the same time that Crosby was developing the citizens’ jury model, Peter Dienel was independently establishing the planning cell in Germany (Dienel and Renn 1995; Smith and Wales 1999; Hendriks 2005). Whilst often confused with citizens’ juries, planning cells have some significant differences in design (see also Geissel in this volume). First, although each planning cell typically includes twenty-five citizens, they are usually run concurrently or in series, thus involving larger numbers of citizens. To date, the largest planning cell project involved around 500 citizens from across Germany. Second, Dienel is less concerned about the independence of facilitators, placing more emphasis on their ability to provide technical advice. Given the number of cells involved in any one project, Dienel believes that any influence on the part of particular facilitators will be marginal. Third, the larger number of cells and participants means that facilitators are responsible for collating an overall report drawn from the results of individual cells. Finally, Dienel requires commissioning organizations (typically public authorities) to enter into a contractual agreement to take into account the recommendations of the planning cell in future decisions, explaining publicly how and why recommendations were or were not followed. This practice has been adopted by many organizers of citizens’ juries.

Consensus conferences have been run regularly since the 1980s by the Danish Board of Technology as a means of incorporating the perspectives of the lay public within the assessment of new scientific and technological developments that raise serious social and ethical concerns (Joss and Durant 1995; Joss 1998; Hendriks 2005). Consensus conferences differ from juries in two main respects. First, the organizers advertise for interested citizens from whom the panel is selected. Second, the participants attend two preparatory weekends where they are involved in the process of selecting the questions to be answered by the conference and relevant witnesses. As with juries, consensus conferences produce a report of their recommendations - in Denmark these are sent to members of parliament, scientists, interest groups and members of the public.

The deliberative poll is the creation of the well-known democratic theorist James Fishkin and the subject of a dedicated chapter elsewhere in this book (Fishkin and Luskin 2000; Fishkin and Farrar 2005; Fishkin 2009). Compared to the other mini-public designs, an individual deliberative poll can involve hundreds of citizens. Participants in deliberative polls hear evidence from witnesses who they are able to question in plenary sessions and have the opportunity to discuss issues and develop questions amongst themselves in facilitated small groups. The distinctive feature of deliberative polls is that citizens are not asked to craft collective recommendations, but instead to complete a questionnaire before and after the event - hence, organizers have a record of changes of opinion as citizens become more informed about the issues under consideration. For this reason, Fishkin perceives the design to be a development of the traditional polling method:

Ordinary polls model what the public is thinking, even though the public may not be thinking very much or paying much attention. A deliberative poll attempts to model what the public would think, had it a better opportunity to consider the question at issue.

(Fishkin 1997: 162)

Recently, Fishkin and his colleagues have begun to experiment with an online version of deliberative polling (Fishkin 2004; Iyengar et al. 2005; Luskin et al. 2006).1

In 2004, a step-change in the practice of mini-publics occurred when the government of British Columbia (with full support from the legislature) established the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly (BCCA) on Electoral Reform (Warren and Pearse 2008). In the wake of growing dissatisfaction with the democratic quality of recent election results, the BCCA was charged with reviewing the province’s simple plurality electoral system and, if necessary, recommending an alternative system. The Assembly comprised 160 citizens: a female and male from each electoral district, plus two citizens with Aboriginal backgrounds. The BCCA can be understood as a development of previous mini-public models on two fronts. First, it met regularly over a period of eleven months during which time citizens were engaged in learning and deliberating about electoral reform. Over a series of weekends for the first four months (January to April), members learnt about electoral systems. For the next two months, members were involved in fifty hearings across the province, taking evidence from fellow citizens and interest groups. The Assembly also took 1,603 written submissions. Finally, between September and November 2004, the 160 participants discussed and debated competing electoral systems, before coming to a decision. After eleven months of work, the Assembly recommended that the current electoral system should be replaced by a version of single transferable vote (STV). In December 2004, the Assembly published its final report, Making Every Vote Count, which explained its activities and recommendation (Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform 2004).2

A second aspect of the design of the BCCA that takes us beyond the practice of earlier mini-publics was the government’s commitment, made prior to the Assembly being established, to a binding province-wide referendum based on the Assembly’s recommendation. As the Chair of the Assembly dramatically argued: ‘Never before in modern history has a democratic government given to unelected, “ordinary” citizens the power to review an important public policy, and then seek from all citizens approval of any proposed changes to that policy’ (Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform 2004: xiii).3

The referendum took place in May 2005, with the following question on the ballot: ‘Should British Columbia change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens‘ Assembly on Electoral Reform? Yes/No.’ The government had placed two significant thresholds for the referendum to pass: at least sixty per cent of votes across the province needed to be in favour; and at least forty-eight (sixty per cent) of the seventy-nine electoral districts needed to vote in favour. The referendum passed the second threshold with seventy-seven districts in favour. However, the overall vote was 57.69 per cent, missing the first threshold by only 2.31 per cent. Given the close result, a second referendum was held in 2009. On this occasion the ballot was firmly defeated: the Yes vote was only 39 per cent of the popular vote with a majority in only eight electoral districts.4

Following in British Columbia’s footsteps, the government of Ontario established its own Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, which sat between September 2006 and April 2007. In its final report One Ballot, Two Votes, the Assembly recommends a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system (Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform 2007).5 Again, this recommendation was put to a binding referendum in October 2007 with sixty-three per cent of voters rejecting the proposition.6

The Dutch Burgerforum Kiesstelsel - the Electoral System Civic Forum - which sat between March and November 2006 might be seen as a third example of the Citizens’ Assembly model, although it differs in one important respect. While it was charged with reviewing and making recommendations on the electoral system of the Dutch Lower House, it was not linked to a referendum: it only had recommendatory force. The Civic Forum supported the continued use of proportional representation, but with a reform in the voting procedure (Electoral System Civic Forum 2006).

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