Gordon Gibson on the Citizens' Assembly

Deliberative Democracy and the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly

Remarks prepared by Gordon F. Gibson for a conference at Pepperdine University, February 23, 2007.

It is a pleasure to be with you. I want to thank David Davenport of the School of Public Policy and Common Sense California and especially the New America Foundation for making it possible for me to be here.

I congratulate you on holding this conference. It is clear that democratic institutions in most parts of the world stand in need of some new thinking and I believe you are on a good track.

It is also a necessary track. At least to an outsider, a main reason for the past enormous success of the United States has been your relative absence of government. But government is growing, and our old systems don’t seem to be keeping up with the more complex modern world. The challenge has become one of keeping government optimally sized and efficient on the one hand and under control on the other.

The “efficiency” side is the business of experts and managers, in the public service and so on.

The “under control” side is our business, that of the citizens. It is something we aren’t very good at. We aren’t well trained nor have we good tools. Moreover we are usually either too busy to care about it or too convinced that there is nothing we can do anyway. And there is a great deal of evidence to support this view, and arguments in favour of so-called “rational ignorance”.

Things are not that different in Canada, though our governments have always been proportionally larger than yours. Both of our democracies were defined in their essential characteristics a long time ago and haven’t changed much since, while the times have. The balancing and connecting system that constitutionalists devised long ago in both of our countries is the idea of “representative democracy”, wherein we choose representatives to act as a bridge between us and the experts and bureaucrats, and to be their overseer and controller.

It is worth saying that if representative democracy worked as well as it should, we wouldn’t be here today. Indeed, as I will be recommending, what we are talking about today can help to improve representative democracy.

The framers of your constitution were very concerned about this of course and tried to deal with it by checks and balances. The only element of direct democracy – i.e. a direct act of influence available to every citizen – they provided was that of regular elections. Since then reformers in this state and others have added additional tools such as the Recall and the Initiative. Also some states provide for the possibility of Constitutional Conventions, the members selected by a defined process and with a very broad mandate. I am not an expert on these tools in your country, but I think it is safe to say that they have not entirely resolved citizen concerns.

The problems of both representative democracy and the existing options of direct democracy are well known. The representation is imperfect, especially under existing electoral rules in both of our countries, and the representatives themselves may be captured by special interests (including their own), or be short term in outlook and less caring of the general good. But the alternative - the tools of direct democracy - are in their current nature blunt and almost dangerously powerful, leading to all kinds of unintended consequences. They tend to be used out of frustration and lack wide vision. Both kinds of democracy can be very generous with other people’s money.

The way I characterize what we are talking about today is adding new elements to both representative and direct democracy. These new elements differ in detail but all share one thing in common. They add to the mix a new set of representatives, different from those we elect. As things stand now, both streams of decision making are highly influenced – almost captured – by experts and special interests. The idea of deliberative democracy is essentially to import the public interest, as represented by random panels, as a muscular third force.

The traditional representatives we elect are chosen by majoritarian consensus, for an extended period, as professionals, with unlimited jurisdiction to act in our name.

The new kinds we are talking about are chosen at random, for a short period[i], as ordinary citizens for specified and limited purposes.

A former member of the B.C. Citizens Assembly wrote a book about his experience with this kind of representation which he called “Randomocracy”. The idea, shortly put, is to empanel a manageably sized group of ordinary citizens and use them as a proxy for the entire community,[ii] to consider questions, assemble information and draw conclusions. The concept is certainly statistically respectable if the group is large enough and its members act independently – a critical requirement. The design concepts we all are seeking address how to keep these panels small enough to be practical and still be representative.

I divide the new species into two classes, namely advisory and plenary. The advisory sort is the more common and the subject of most discussion today. This can range from free-standing deliberative polling, which yields far better insights into what citizens really feel, to improved consultation processes integrated with existing representative democracy. Much of the world expertise in this relatively new area is in this room.

My topic will be the plenary citizen assemblies, of which there is (so far as I know) but one example in the world in a completed state, namely the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. (The Province of Ontario has an almost exact copy underway right now.)

By a “plenary” assembly I mean a randomly constituted body fully empowered to reach specific recommendations that are guaranteed to be presented for citizen validation and passage into law following a referendum, with no governmental mediation or interference between the launch and the conclusion. This is a different animal from the other democratic tools we are discussing here, and the term I will use for the class is “Citizen Assemblies”.

Of course as noted above, several American states provide for lawmaking by referendum. The crucial addition in British Columbia was the mechanism for the formulation of the question. That mechanism did two things of very great importance.

1. It ensured a thoroughly considered and responsible question, framed only by ordinary citizens with no axes to grind; and

2. As a consequence it gave the ensuing question a huge boost in public respect.

The magic combination of ingredients here turned out to be a body that is constitutionally empowered, with a carefully defined and limited mandate and a randomly selected membership. I believe each of these ingredients to be essential.

Let me briefly describe what happened in B.C.

We are a prosperous province of about 4 million people. As a quite decentralized federation, our provinces tend to have more legislative power than your states and we use the Westminster system which blends the legislative and executive to make for very powerful government. For historic reasons beginning with the creation of a strong socialist movement during the Great Depression, B.C. has long had a political climate strongly polarized between the left and the right. The result has been strongly adversarial politics and policy lurch when governments change.

The underlying electorate is not polarized in this fashion at all, and has long deplored the political climate. The legislative polarization is driven in large part by our “first past the post” electoral system, a part of our Westminster heritage. And elected persons are invariably captured by the strong polarization. This makes our Legislature “unrepresentative” in a very important way, and was a reason why the idea of electing members to our Citizens’ Assembly was a non-starter.

Canada on the national scene went through a turbulent series of constitutional amendment attempts, culminating in the Quebec referendum in 1995 when that province decided, by a whisker, to remain in the federation. While the rest of the country was constitutionally exhausted, British Columbia had for some years had an activist group agitating for local constitutional reform generally and electoral reform in particular. This was given great impetus when in the 1996 provincial election the socialist party, the New Democrats, won a solid majority and therefore under our system 100% of the power . Nothing new about that - but they won with significantly fewer votes than the centre-right Liberals. Smaller parties were totally frozen out, as usual.

This no doubt had a strong impact on the Liberal Leader, Gordon Campbell, because at the party’s policy convention in 1999 he adopted one of the activist ideas, namely a Citizens’ Assembly, details then undefined, to review the electoral system, make recommendations and – crucially – to have the power to put those recommendations to a vote. Mr. Campbell won majority government control in 2001 and appointed me as a one-person commission to consult and design the Citizens’ Assembly. In December, 2002 I submitted my report, and in May 2003 the Legislature unanimously adopted the concept and most of the details. The Chair and staff were appointed beginning in June, the 160 person Assembly empanelled in the late Fall, sittings began in January, 2004 and the report was made on schedule in December, 2004.

To give the partial end to the story before returning to some crucial details, the assembly recommended a radically new electoral system (very similar to the Irish STV), which attracted almost 58% referendum support in a vote held at the same time as the May, 2005 general election, despite very minimal information dissemination or campaigning on either side. (The number of ballots cast on the referendum issue was almost identical to the number cast in the election.)

Virtually all observers attribute the high affirmative vote to a trust in the integrity of the Assembly process. The citizen understanding of the process was certainly more general than the understanding of electoral theory. People liked the idea that ordinary folk much like them had laboured for a year, objectively and in good faith, and arrived at conclusions. The public was disposed to accept those conclusions because of the trusted parentage. The government had set an arbitrary threshold of 60% for success, but 58% could not be ignored and a re-vote is scheduled for 2009, to be supplemented by further information.

The Assembly experience was considered an unqualified success, by its members, the public, the press and even by the political class, though many politicians (having been elected under the old process) disagreed with the specific electoral recommendation. It has been favourably viewed by most academics who have studied it, for example here in California by the New American Foundation and at Stanford, and in some depth at the Kennedy School of Government. In the balance of this talk I would like to lay out my views as to the factors contributing to that success, indicators as to where and where not the process should be used, and how the approach might be useful in the California concept. I should note here too that a great deal of technical information not included here was assembled by staff and is available on line at www.citizensassembly.bc.ca. The “Technical Report” includes operational details that were important to making the group dynamics work.

Factors contributing to success

1. Empowerment. An Assembly must have a guaranteed access to a popular vote to implement (or reject) its recommendations. This gives it the power of the Legislature in a carefully defined area, and this power brings respect from the public and other political actors. That means it must be a creature either of government or of the constitution, in order to wield quasi-lawmaking powers. That in turn means we either have to add to the constitution (which is difficult) or to convince politicians that these new tools hold out opportunity rather than danger for them.

2. Legitimacy. The Assembly must be seen as a valid proxy for “us”. Every citizen must see someone roughly like themselves in that place. The makeup of the Assembly must be a good mirror of the citizenry. We know that whatever the merits of elections, they do not achieve this end. However modified random selection allows this to be achieved with reasonably small numbers.

To achieve that, some stratification should be used. In British Columbia we stratified by geography (two persons per constituency), gender (one male and one female from each constituency) and age brackets (young, middle and old, averaged over the 160 member Assembly). I would note in passing that the requirement for gender equality was enormously popular both with the Assembly membership and with the public.

With one exception[iii], there was no further stratification – not for ethnicity, education, income, religion, etc. This is a reflection of a very strong Canadian belief that we are all equal in political terms, and that while it is legitimate to expect differing views on the basis of geography, gender and age, any other dimensions of variation presuppose differing approaches to citizenship and that is an idea not to be encouraged by official recognition.

This is clearly an idealistic approach. On the other hand, sufficient numbers virtually guarantee a representative mix along all of those other dimensions, and that was the result in our case, in our very multi-ethnic society. (English is a second language for almost half of Vancouver’s public school students.) The footnoted aboriginal exception was because of the very small population percentage involved.

There were however certain exclusions for practicality and independence. Only citizens on the voters list were eligible.[iv] In addition politicians were barred from participation, on grounds both of obvious conflict of interest and also to prevent claims of special expertise in what must be a strictly lay body.

Jim Fishkin (whose advice in the early stages of planning the Assembly I should acknowledge with thanks) noted that in one of his early panels on crime in Britain, a member turned out to be a car thief, and added a lot to the insights of his colleagues. It probably didn’t matter much, but such “experts” really should be advisors rather than panel members.

In operational terms, about 300 letters were sent out (on the relevant gender and age basis) in each of British Columbia’s 79 electoral districts, for a total about 24,000 randomly drawn invitations. About 10% of the recipients indicated sufficient interest to come to a meeting (districts were grouped for these meetings) to hear more. In cases where the response did not include sufficient numbers in a stratified class (among youth, for example) additional oversampling invitations were issued to approximate the stratification goals.

In the meetings the job was explained more or less as follows: important work for your community, working on a democratic question most of you know nothing about, with a bunch of other people you have never met, at a huge cost in time – namely, aside from a summer break, every second weekend (with breaks) for up to twenty weekends, including public hearings and the travel involved for those. The work will be interesting but hard, you will certainly become figures of note and media examination in your local communities and you may have to disagree with some new good friends. For this you will receive a modest honorarium of $150 per working day, plus ordinary expenses, personal care for elders and children, and computer support. In addition you will receive an in-depth education on electoral systems by local and world experts. Finally, you will have a chance to change the face of British Columbia politics.

Almost all who attended the meetings agreed to stay in for the draw. Then one male and one female name was drawn from an envelope and (with the addition of two status Indian members, see footnote) an Assembly of 160 persons was chosen. Many of the semi-finalists who did not make it were extremely disappointed. The level of interest was high.

Before leaving this section I should address a pertinent question of statistical rigour. It is obvious that there was a major element of “self-selection” in the final universe from which the Assembly was drawn. Around 90% of the offerees had declined the written invitation to participate. The reasons were no doubt various – too busy, don’t care, not up to this level of work, just another phoney government exercise, and so on. A large fraction of the original letters – we don’t know how many – were thrown out as junk mail, though every attempt was made to underline the official nature.

So – did the self-selection bias the reflection of the probable views of the underlying citizenry? A priori, we think not, because there is no reason to suppose that the self-selected persons would have different views on the question at hand than any other citizens. The Assembly engaged social scientists to measure attitudes and characteristics of Assembly members compared to the general population and the conclusions thus far give comfort. It is almost certainly true that those who self-selected were more willing to engage in addressing a community problem, but on this topic that should not make a difference.[v]

3. Multi-partisan buy in. The consultation process in the Assembly design explicitly sought and received both advice and endorsation from all four (at that time) provincial political parties. As a practical matter, no party wished to be seen as denying the proposition that the electoral system really belongs to the people rather than the political class. The resultant unanimous support by the Legislature added to the legitimacy of the Assembly. It also had the consequence that the Assembly recommendations were treated with great respect by the parties, all of which took a strict “hand off” position on the referendum question – again, on the grounds that this exercise belonged to the people and was not theirs to interfere with.

4. Carefully defined and very limited mandate. This was extremely important – perhaps the most important single variable.

As a practical matter, a limited mandate made it much easier to secure empowerment from the Legislature. The tighter the limits on the mandate, the lower the potential threat that might be posed to elected officials by this new power centre. (For the same reason, proposals for permanent, multi-purpose Citizen Assemblies will be vigorously opposed by legislatures, and properly so, in my view. These are not suitable as alternate governments.)

In addition, this experiment being a “first”, we did not wish to overload it. For example, the government had also made promises with respect to revising our existing inadequate provision for Recall and Initiatives and asked my views on including those topics. They agreed not to burden the Assembly with this additional chore. The downside was that those areas remain unreformed to this day; the much more important upside was that the Assembly had a manageable task.

There was an even greater reason for restricting the mandate which will be obvious to those who have studied referendums. Faced with novelty or uncertainty or worry, the public, or at least the Canadian public, sees a good reason to vote “No” as a default position. Our major national attempt at constitutional reform in the past 100 years, the so-called Charlottetown Accord of 1992, went down to referendum defeat notwithstanding the strong endorsation of the entire Canadian establishment – all traditional political parties, business, unions, churches, cultural groups – because it was such a complex package that everyone could find a favourite thing to be against.[vi]

Accordingly for our Assembly we limited the mandate strictly to the system for translating votes into seats. We ruled out any recommendations on campaign finance (very complex), reserved seats (for women or aboriginals, say – very controversial) or expanding the size of the Legislature (which would have made certain types of reform easier, but poisoned the question as people are predisposed against more politicians). We ruled out recommendations on the Australian system of compulsory voting, or changes to our Westminster system of responsible government. All of these topics are worthy issues, but all are severable and were severed. Without that I doubt the Assembly would have been as successful as it was, and am certain that the referendum vote would not have been as positive.

One other aspect of the mandate is important. The Assembly should be restricted to bring in a single recommendation, not a set of options for voter review and assessment. Review and assessment is the job of the Assembly. That is why they are given so much time and information. The job of the public is then to say, “Yes” or “No” to a single, clearly defined option.

This of course is on the assumption that the designers of any given process really want reform. If what one really wants is to preserve the status quo while apparently going through a direct democratic process, the best course is to seek multiple options for a referendum. Then if they are voted upon simultaneously none will get a majority, and if they are voted on sequentially one set of reformers will successfully be pitted against another.

5. Staff, management and funding. There are four key positions in an Assembly. They are the Chair(s)[vii], Research/Education Director, Communications and Operations. We were fortunate to hit home runs in each category.

A reputation for objectivity and neutrality was needed for all of these jobs, and for the Chair in particular. That person had also to be the public face and voice of the Assembly, and excellent facilitator and at times a Father Confessor.

The Research Director had to be, and appear to be, sedulously neutral re outcomes. His job was to marshall and present all relevant information and answer questions posed by members. Our Director imported experts to describe some of the main electoral systems used around the world, and also established a panel of academic advisors to double check his own work. By the time of the public hearings, after six full weekends[viii] of study and discussion (including a tentative formulation of the values a reformed system should reflect) the Assembly members were sufficiently advanced to ask expert questions during the public hearing phase of the work.

While all of this was going on, a number of crucial operating protocols were established. Rules of interpersonal respect and conduct were agreed. The rule that “nothing is decided until everything is decided” left members free to change their minds throughout the exercise – as indeed, they did.

Transparency was critical to legitimacy. All educational sessions were open and videoed for the public and posted on the CA site (where they remain today) and all public hearings were open and posted.

The only business of the Assembly conducted in private was the “breakout groups” following educational presentations. These breakout groups were supplied with facilitators and reported back to the plenaries. But in the privacy of the groups themselves, shy members felt freer to talk (some spoke only in breakouts) and all felt more able to explore “offbeat ideas”.

One of our concerns had to do with the possible development of factions, polarizing around one electoral approach or another, or around powerful persons. That is exactly the reason we excluded politicians who could have represented themselves as experts, “I’ve been there and know how it works”, etc.

Another attempt to restrain factionalism was seen in the practice of constantly rotating the membership of the breakout groups, and when subcommittees went on the road here of there for public hearings, trying to include representative people from other parts of the province.

As to the process itself, I think the general model we adopted is a good one. It consisted of three phases: learning, public consultation, and deliberation, each of roughly the same length. At the end of the “learning” phase the assembly was ready to articulate in general the “values” they wanted a new electoral system to meet. By the end of the “public hearing” phase they had a pretty good idea of the main contenders as models for a reformed system. And by the end of the deliberation phase they had achieved a massive consensus.

6. Funding. Adequate funding is essential. Our exercise cost over $6 million for the Assembly itself, which was adequate, and another $500,000 for public information which was totally inadequate.

7. Time and phasing.

Our Assembly had for consideration a very important but relatively straightforward question. Even for that, it took three months for the education phase, two for the public hearings and three for the deliberation and report writing phase. In addition periods of reflection were provided – one month prior to the hearings (for the education to “sink in”) and two months over the summer, prior to the deliberations, for reflection, restudying material, discussing with friends and associates and very extensive internal discussion on the members-only intranet that had been established. Staff were responding to questions and ideas throughout these times.

I feel very strongly that for plenary exercises of the Citizen Assembly type, this kind of time has to be afforded. I know that the current Chair of the Ontario process keenly feels the lack of the two month summer reflection period the B.C. Assembly was given.

Could this time line be compressed? No doubt it could, but there would be costs. For example, the B.C practice of gathering our Assembly only every second weekend made participation possible to a considerable fraction of the population that would otherwise have had to decline the invitation.

Equally important was the fact that apparently “free” time afforded members the opportunity to reflect, and to examine unfolding political news in Canada and elsewhere from the vantage point of their newfound knowledge and interest. Anyone who has thought about a political problem for a long period of time knows how valuable this constant testing of ideas against real world developments can be.

In our British Columbia case, it became apparent very quickly that the Assembly was going to be looking for something better than our existing electoral system. However the actual favoured recommendation changed markedly over the Spring and Summer, from an early attraction to Mixed Member Proportional (rather like New Zealand or Germany) to the eventual STV, which is a rarer and more sophisticated electoral system. It was important not to interrupt the maturation process, and it takes time.

Also important was the fact that while majority decisions may come relatively quickly, strong consensus is much more powerful – and that, too, takes time.

While the Assembly rules provided for decision making on the basis of simple majorities if required, we did much better than that. At the end of the deliberation phase the process was first to agree on the best alternative to the existing electoral system (to give the existing system the deference and respect of inclusion in the final run off). The choice at that point was between MMP and STV, and STV was preferred, not by just a bit, but by four to one.

In the final runoff vote, STV was preferred to the existing “First Past the Post” system by 146 votes to 7. This overwhelming consensus did much to strengthen the recommendation in the public mind.

8. Public information campaign. The main mistake we made in British Columbia was in not providing money and machinery to inform the public of what had been done, what was being recommended, and why. The very high supportive vote was really more a tribute to respect for the Assembly process itself as distinct from the specific recommendation. More elaboration on the actual subject matter of the vote would have been helpful and would have also (in my opinion) led to an easy topping of the 60% threshold.

Appropriate uses of Citizen Assemblies

Citizen Assemblies are big deals. They are the heavy artillery of deliberative democracy. They are expensive and time consuming. They can be very powerful and respected, but those characteristics will be attenuated if plenary Assemblies are used very often or for small questions.

That comment does not apply to advisory deliberative democratic mechanisms in general. These should be continually developed and frequently used in conjunction with representative democracy to (in effect) give voice to another sort of “pressure group”, i.e. the public view of the world.

Certainly Canada is going in that direction. I am aware of at least three deliberative democracy exercises going on in my country at the moment. The first is a federal government project of 1-1/2 day deliberative hearings in each province on the remarkably broad agenda of reform of the House of Commons, the Senate, the electoral system and political parties. Obviously this cannot be more than a pilot project. Little real reflection can be done in such a short period of time on such deep subjects, but at least we should get a current values baseline. It is an important recognition by Ottawa of the new technique.

The British Columbia government has underway a very extensive series called “Conversations on Health Care”, using a mix of expert and random panels (convened separately) to tackle this issue which vexes us all.

A private organization, the Calgary based Citizens’ Centre for Freedom and Democracy has joined up with the Angus Reid organization, Canada’s leading online market research group, to see if a private version of an Assembly, (which they are calling a “People’s Parliament”) facilitated by net technology, can tackle issues of federalism.

I am personally involved in examples one and three, but mention them only briefly in this paper as they do not meet my definition of “plenary”.

Certainly representative democracy is and should remain the usual way of doing the public business. That is not to say that representative democracy is working well – far from it, in many cases. However it can work better if assisted by the kind of advisory work which is the centre of this conference. And where the institutions of representative democracy resist advisory reform from inside, the plenary status of Citizens’ Assemblies – if invoked one way or another - can be tools powerful enough to force improvement from the outside.

So that leads to a question: “When is the “heavy artillery” properly deployed? Here are some of the conditions I believe may indicate the use of a full blown Citizens’ Assembly:

* The question must be very important. (Constitutional amendments certainly qualify.)

* The question must be intractable, and be proven incapable of resolution by ordinary means.

* The issue should be ripe for determination. This is very important. When there is a general consensus that something has to be done then a window for a new approach may open.

* When elected representatives are fatally conflicted (as with, say, electoral reform) a Citizens’ Assembly may be the way to go.[ix]

* The issue should be within the capacity of non-expert, “ordinary” citizens.

For example, I would not fly in an aircraft designed by an Assembly, nor do I think such a body could (within any reasonable time frame) adopt a federal Budget. On the other hand, I think constitutional questions, being matters of overarching values, touching matters owned by the citizenry, are suitable.

The detailed rules of a reformed health care system are certainly best left to experts, but there is no reason why an Assembly could not set out the values that system should embody (e.g. universal coverage, or not, co-payments, or not, etc.). But this example draws attention to a requirement for Assembly recommendations: If they are to be effective, they must be self-enforcing.

Thus an Assembly recommendation, validated by a referendum, saying that the health care system should embody this value or that might need to specify “default” operating principles should elected representatives not be able or inclined to fill in the blanks. It is not simple.

* As a specific category, reform of representative institutions is an obvious one. Changing the rules for redistricting, campaign finance and certain legislative procedures could be candidates.

While I know that national referendums are not in your tradition, there is no reason why an attempt to reform federal institutions should be excluded, though certainly this will only be possible after state experimentation has validated the idea.

* Should Citizen Assemblies be considered for highly emotional questions, such as abortion or capital punishment? Previously I would have been very sceptical of such an idea. But after watching the B.C. Assembly at work it does not bother me at all. People are remarkably wise, tolerant and accommodating if they are given responsibility and lots of time to sort things out. And of course you always have your Constitution and courts as a backstop, though arguably the reason that abortion remains controversial in the United States and not so in the rest of the western world is exactly because your political process failed to grapple with it and left the matter to the courts. Segregation historically was a similar case of an extraordinary failure of representative democratic institutions, again leaving the long delayed resolution to the courts.

The California context

I expect that Ned Crosby’s remarks will deal much more extensively on the potential interaction between random panels and your state Initiative process, but the marriage certainly seems a natural one.

Dealing strictly with my own topic of Citizens’ Assemblies, your Initiative process could be the method of triggering one of these in the event that the Legislative and Executive branches were reluctant. But hopefully some leading politician(s) in this state might come to believe, as Mr. Campbell believed in my province, that the process might be tried, now to break some form of gridlock – maybe redistricting.

If the process proved as valuable as I think it would, support might grow for providing for the Assembly process generally as a new element in your constitution.

More broadly and less adventurously, it seems very likely that random panel scrutiny and approval, amendment or disapproval of proposed Initiative questions could act as a powerful force for coherence, legitimacy and order in this otherwise disorderly process. Defining which way to go and figuring out how to get there will be one of the most exciting challenges in democratic reform on the horizon anywhere, because of the size and importance of your state and the existing direct democracy tools you have to work with in California.

I wish you well in that experience, and to the extent the Citizen Assemblies may place a part, bring you my assurance that our model worked superbly well. To describe how well, let me close almost on a mystical note. All of us take some things in life as matters of faith, because there are some things that we cannot know. For example a Christian cannot get on the internet and find an address for God, nor can logicians prove God’s existence. It must be taken on faith.

I am a believer in democracy. I have faith, in other words, that ordinary people have the capacity to govern themselves. But I have never seen a proof of this, because all of our governmental institutions are run, not by ordinary people, but by extraordinary people selected through electoral or other selection processes which do not serve up “ordinary people” into positions of real power. So I have had to take democracy on faith – up until now.

That has all changed for me. Watching the B.C. Assembly in action – watching ordinary people demonstrating their ability to govern themselves on a significant constitutional question – this was for me an affirmation of faith in democracy of the sort that would come to a Christian privileged to directly gaze upon the face of God.

There is more ability to create and contribute in most human beings than they are normally ever given the chance to display. To a person, every member of the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly says that experience changed their lives, by having a chance to contribute. Harnessing that truth, that potential, is an even larger subject, but Citizens Assemblies certainly offer one method.

Thank you.



Though, curiously and importantly, their time horizons will almost always be longer than elected representatives, many of whom have difficulty focussing on times past the next election.

For those as yet unfamiliar with the idea of using randomly selected persons to represent a community rather than persons specifically elected for the task, the critical difference is that elected persons are, by definition, not “ordinary people”, and in addition even as a group they rarely represent the full diversity of a community. Further, their incentives are immediately changed upon taking office. At best they represent a majoritarian cohort, easily influenced by special interests, though some electoral systems can improve on this. But if what one wants is a genuine proxy, random selection is the only way to get it. Elected persons are more suitable for other representational tasks, but not for this one.

In British Columbia currently there is a major open question as to the special rights of so-called “status Indians”, as a modern treaty making process is underway. Status Indians form a very small part of the population – about 2% - and without special provision an Assembly might be formed with no Indian membership. The government initially rejected this additional factor, but then adopted it when the initial random draw failed to yield the desired results. A list of all persons who had accepted the randomly offered the chance to serve contained a number of eligible aboriginal names and two representatives were drawn from that list.

This may be a problem if the voters list is not comprehensive, in which case a more complete universe may be defined with non-citizens excluded as a second stage.

However one can conceive of other questions – “What should be the optimal size of government?” say – where interest in community engagement could be an indicator of bias.

This is a systemic problem in achieving constitutional amendment. Often such changes cannot be agreed except as packages of tradeoffs.

Multiple Chairs need not be excluded, though we used only one.

Members were recruited on the basis of weekend work only, to maximize the pool of employed persons who could participate.

But that will not always be the case. Gerrymandering is an issue in parts of your country and elected representatives are clearly conflicted in redistricting exercises. But it is probably the case that something much simpler than an Assembly can routinely deal with that sort of problem. In Canada we routinely redraw districts after each Census by way of three-person independent panels chaired by a judge, with an academic and a non-partisan layman.

That said, only something with the power of a Citizens’ Assembly might blast through the entrenched political opposition to establish the new process.