Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens’ juries

The Canadian province of British columbia shows how citizens' juries can build political solutions from the bottom up, building support along the way.

By Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society 

A farmer, a school teacher, a politician just who would you trust to set the rules of politics?

That’s the question being posed this week with the launch of the In the Public Interest campaign. The call for a publicly funded ‘Citizens Jury’ to apply a “public interest first test” is a refreshing answer to the problem of entrenched elites and the failure of self-regulation. It’s a welcome reminder that we simply can’t leave banking to the bankers, journalism to the journalists or indeed politics to the politicians.

Citizens’ Juries have a lot going for them. And fresh from defeat in the Alternative Vote referendum it is worth reflecting on what role this kind of ‘deliberative democracy’ can play in shaping the next phase of political reform.

Pioneering work in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) shows what’s possible. Because in early 2004 that farmer, that school teacher, and even the captain of an icebreaker were among the citizens picked at random and entrusted to create a new voting system for their province.

The BC Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform saw 160 people selected on a semi-random basis; a man and a woman from every each of the province’s 79 ridings were drawn at random, along with two members representing the country’s First Nations. The only candidates excluded were those that had sought political office.

What followed was a crash test in politics, theory and practice, nearly 11 months of learning, hearings, and deliberation, which led them to recommend their own variant of the Single Transferable Vote. Their system – dubbed BC-STV – was put to the public vote the following year. 

In stark contrast to our own referendum 77 out of 79 of ridings voted ‘Yes’. But with a winner’s threshold set at 60% of the popular vote (they almost pipped 58%) the measure fell, and was unable to regain momentum in a follow-up referendum in 2009.

But what lessons can we learn from this failure? Well they got the format right. They set out a blueprint that reflected the diversity of opinion and backgrounds in a vast province, prefaced by public submissions and public meetings. And they offered a commitment to put these proposals to the public vote – so it was very clear from the get-go that this Assembly wouldn’t be just another talking shop.

BC proved that citizens were more than capable of mastering a complex brief, and making big constitutional decisions without a steer from their political leaders.  And they did it with a commitment reflected in just a single dropout and a near 100% attendance among remaining citizen jurors.

Fundamentally the process showed that people will identify problems – and posit solutions – in a completely different way to established elites.  The citizens in British Columbia established their own framework of values – informed by their needs as voters and citizens – for delivering both effective governance and effective representation. 

And that’s the nub of it. Deliberative democracy not only removes conflicts of interest, but it also builds solutions based on citizens’ genuine needs.  The assembly tasked the people who use the system to create a new and better system. It’s conventional market wisdom – give the intended users of a product a direct role in its development and you’ll probably end up with a better product.

Now the problem in the AV referendum was as much about the route to reform as it was the product we were selling or the way we tried to sell it. Just who had been involved in identifying the problem, let alone its proposed solution? Even stalwart supporters of AV (and I chaired the campaign) will acknowledge that the public weren’t the authors of the reform on the table.
When it comes to setting the rules for politicians – or indeed for the bankers and the media – the lesson is that everyone gains when decision making is dragged out of smoke filled rooms and into the cold light of day. Politicians should try and step back from setting the rules of their own game. It’s common sense, and explains why the BC experiment has been revisited worldwide. The Irish parliament – having singularly failed to tackle their own economic and financial crises – recommended in 2010 that fundamental reform of the political process should be depoliticised through a citizen’s assembly. The independent organisation ‘We the Citizens’ is now filling that gap, and is attempting to build a credible process for change. 

 Low levels of public awareness was a real issue in the AV referendum and the activists on the ground report the absence of a ‘readiness for reform’. We should be looking at how deliberative techniques like citizens’ juries can complement and strengthen our representative democracy.

 Because rebuilding trust in our institutions can’t be accomplished from the top down. It can and must involve the British public.

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