The Citizens’ Assembly model: mixing mini-public and direct democracy

By mixing different participatory and deliberative designs, the Citizens’ Assembly model arguably offers the most ambitious form taken by co-governance innovations in recent years. In submitting the results of a mini-public deliberation to a referendum process, it connects deliberative quality with binding public decisions for the first time (Lang 2007; Warren and Pearse 2008). The most prominent experience took place in the Canadian state of British Columbia (it has since then been replicated in Ontario and The Netherlands). From January to November 2004, 160 randomly selected Canadian citizens - one man and one woman from the 79 provincial electoral districts plus two Aboriginal members - met regularly to recommend an electoral reform. Its inception resulted from a shared appraisal among the political elites that the Single Member Plurality system had led at best to ‘awkward’ or at worst, to ‘unfair’ results, the translation of votes into seats being largely disproportionate.4 The political class being divided about the best alternative electoral system - and appearing as both judge and jury in such a decision - it therefore decided to organize a Citizens’ Assembly, whose recommendations would go to a referendum.

The Citizens’ Assembly was organized in three phases, spread out over a year: a learning phase, a public hearing phase and a deliberation phase. Citizens first of all learned about the variety of voting procedures around the world, with their respective advantages and drawbacks, receiving formal lectures by political scientists every other weekend over three months. Then, the public hearing phase allowed the Citizens’ Assembly participants to listen and consult supporters and opponents of the different electoral systems all over the province, any citizen or organization being able to make a presentation in one of the fifty local meetings that were organized. Finally, the citizens met again to deliberate collectively about which electoral system was the best. They opted for a Single Transferable Voting (STV) system.5 Their agreed position was then proposed by a referendum to all the citizens of the State, but did not pass, since it failed to reach the quorum of 60 per cent of the electorate.

Despite this final failure, this participatory experience appears extremely appealing, as it combines random selection, information and deliberation phases, and was granted a high degree of autonomy and hence empowerment. Interestingly, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly (BCCA) was a top-down experience - created by political leaders - to tackle an issue on which politicians where both biased and incapable of reaching a compromise. From this perspective, citizens’ assemblies could be organized on other contentious issues, like campaign financing, constitutional reforms (Fung 2007; Lang 2007), or subjects dangerous for political leaders (abortion, death penalty, pension system) who do not want to take sides (or decisions) on issues when their electorate is divided (Ferejohn 2008). Whilst its creation stemmed from a strong political will of enlightened political elites, it must be stressed that some of the limits - in both practice and theory - of the Citizens’ Assembly model came from the lack of civil society and bottom-up mobilization. The failure of the British Columbia referendum can be attributed to insufficient debates in the public sphere. With greater media coverage and civil society mobilization, the referendum could have passed (see for more details Smith in this volume). From a theoretical perspective, deliberation in the public sphere appears also crucial for the Citizens’ Assembly model. While the randomly selected participants had the chance to get information and deliberate intensively on the virtues and limits of each electoral system, the greater public did not have such an opportunity. Referendums have the same limits as aggregative democracy: those who decide - the people - have little knowledge about the issues at stake. Hence the importance of organizing a dense deliberation phase between the Citizens’ Assembly and the referendum - or even to set up a deliberation day (Ackerman and Fishkin 2004) in the state - where both the media and civil society discuss the proposals of the Citizens’ Assembly and where the general public can be informed. This is crucial to link democratic deliberation in a mini-public to deliberative democracy in the public sphere (Chambers 2009; Geissel in this volume).

While the Citizens’ Assembly embodies a unique model, another hybrid cogovernance experiment can be evoked, namely Berlin citizens’ juries, which only existed from 2001 to 2003. Based on random selection of lay citizens, like any citizens’ jury (see Smith’s chapter in this volume), but also composed (at 49 per cent) of local association representatives, they were annually granted 500,000 euros to finance local development projects. They therefore appeared as a mix between mini-publics and participatory budgeting at the local level (Rocke and Sintomer

2005). Taking place in seventeen of Berlin’s most deprived neighbourhoods, these citizens’ juries allowed any resident or local association to present a project, which was then discussed among the jurors to decide whether or not to finance the project according to its ‘usefulness’ and general quality (the final decision usually taken through a secret vote). On average, the juries met about fifteen times throughout the year to evaluate about seventy-two projects, half of them in the end being financed (see Koehl and Sintomer 2002; Sintomer 2007). Created by the Berlin senate, coordinated and facilitated by public functionaries, this cogovernance innovation disappeared with the change of the municipal majority, which again indicates the importance of political support for such innovations.

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