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.

37 Responses to “Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens’ juries”

  1. Stew Wilson

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time f: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF : writes @electoralreform society's @katieghose

  2. Ceehaitch

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time f: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF : writes @electoralreform society's @katieghose

  3. Chris Terry

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time f: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF : writes @electoralreform society's @katieghose

  4. Marilyn Freeman

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time f: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF : writes @electoralreform society's @katieghose

  5. Electoral Reform Soc

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time f: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF : writes @electoralreform society's @katieghose

  6. Electoral Reform Soc

    @Adam_Grant_Bell Sorry, BC= British Columbia http://bit.ly/qVLvRF

  7. Knut Cayce

    RT @leftfootfwd: Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens's juries http://t.co/drleOHI

  8. Double.Karma

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens' juries: http://t.co/cUL3UVV : writes ERS's @katieghose

  9. fauxpaschick

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens' juries: http://t.co/cUL3UVV : writes ERS's @katieghose

  10. Andy Williamson

    RT @leftfootfwd: Politics too important to be left to politicians: time for citizens' juries: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF writes ERS's @katieghose

  11. Robin Clarke

    RT @leftfootfwd: Politics too important to be left to politicians: time for citizens' juries: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF writes ERS's @katieghose

  12. Knut Cayce

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens' juries: http://t.co/cUL3UVV : writes ERS's @katieghose

  13. Selohesra

    Its a dangerous step to have real democracy – politicians for all their ills shy away from some populist measures. With an army of Sun readers backing a return for capital punnishment I for one will settle for a bit less input from the citizens and even a bit less democracy.

  14. Mark Ferguson

    People behind the #yes2AV campaign have another proposal. So far it's largely the same faces… http://j.mp/qxAKkK

  15. pat elsmie

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens' juries: http://t.co/cUL3UVV : writes ERS's @katieghose

  16. goLookGoRead

    People behind the #yes2AV campaign have another proposal. So far it's largely the same faces… http://j.mp/qxAKkK

  17. Dylan Sharpe

    Katie Ghose of the ERS & Yes2AV is back in the business of telling the public what's in their interest http://j.mp/qxAKkK (via @leftfootfwd)

  18. Ed's Talking Balls

    ‘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’’

    The real problem was that people were only too aware of AV’s considerable shortcomings and this probably explains the absence of a ‘readiness for reform’. Those pesky voters, eh, always getting in the way of “progressive” ideals.

    As for these Citizens’ Juries, am I right in thinking that the following issues are going to be discussed?

    • Media ownership and the public interest

    • The role of the financial sector in the crash

    • MP selections and accountability

    • Policing and public interest

    • How to apply a ‘public interest first’ test more generally to British political and corporate life

    If so, can anyone honestly say that these are the five topics of the tip of the man on the street’s tongue?

  19. Gloria

    RT @leftfootfwd: Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens' juries http://t.co/UQhDzT0 So true let's do it!

  20. Ed's Talking Balls

    *on the tip

  21. Philip Cowley

    Katie Ghose of the ERS & Yes2AV is back in the business of telling the public what's in their interest http://j.mp/qxAKkK (via @leftfootfwd)

  22. Edward Staite

    RT @dylsharpe Katie Ghose of ERS/Yes2AV back in business telling public what to do http://j.mp/qxAKkK >Jesus, give up

  23. Dr. Ben Wright

    The Electoral Reform Society considers problems associated with the Alternative Vote and the need for citizens' juries: http://t.co/lLbGhIg

  24. Damian Hinds

    First things first, (and this seems to be a point that gets lost on people who are in favour of electoral reform) the erosion of trust in our political institutions had very little to do with the shortcomings of FPTP. Citizen’s juries and the like are not what will restore trust because they don’t address the root cause of the apathy that people feel.
    Secondly, it is easy to deride the general public for not being active enough in politics. But I really don’t think this should be of too much concern. The reality is that when people care about something they make a stand. This happens only intermittently, but collective public outrage is something that is used to great effect – The news international scandal being a prime example.
    You talk of how citizen’s juries work because they are solutions that cater to the genuine needs of those involved. What “genuine needs” are these exactly?
    Yes, the mobilisation of political energy and its success or failure depends on its relation to people’s personal interests. But the truth is that electoral reform is not classed as a genuine need for many people. It may be disappointing for progressives but there is always a tendency for the public to stick to what they already know when it comes to reform.
    You’re right – Politics is too important to be left to politicians. The problem is that the politics you’re talking about is not the type that people want to deliberate about.

  25. Laughing Gravy

    We have a representative democracy that regulates the other institutions of society by legislation or by supporting self-regulation. I strongly support that system of democracy, even though I acknowledge that it has failed badly in recent years. But we need to fix our political system and the rest will follow. And there have been suggestions (recalls, primaries etc ) to ensure that the system is improved. I do not care for the idea of peoples juries to determine the public interest – it smacks of populism. I look at the list of topics that the proposers of this idea put forward and wonder what the peoples juries might say if they were asked instead to pronounce on the public interest on say: the death penalty, climate change legislation, GM crops, the independence of England, leaving the EU, reducing the aid budget to zero, the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools, abolishing the Human Rights Act, the reintroduction of penal servitude or hard labour into our prisons, the reintroduction of compulsory national service. I could go on, but you get the idea. I am comforted by the knowledge that because this proposal requires public money it has not the slightest chance of being adopted.

  26. Earth Intel Network

    @GovTogether ("citizens’ juries ") http://ow.ly/1vmLQe #opengov

  27. Martell Thornton

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for …: The only candidates excluded were those that… http://bit.ly/os8zkg

  28. Andrew D Burns

    RT @leftfootfwd: Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens' juries http://t.co/bVR4euK

  29. DavidG

    The article suggests that the public “will identify problems – and posit solutions – in a completely different way to established elites”, but the public can themselves be an established elite, particularly when addressing the concerns of a minority.

    As an example (because that’s the minority I belong to), look at attitudes towards disability in the general public. Even before the tabloid campaign that has now reduced us all to ‘faking scroungers’, the overwhelming public attitude towards disabled people could be summed up in two phrases: ‘Does he take sugar?’ with its implicit demeaning of the intellectual capacity of all disabled people, and ‘I’d rather be dead than in a wheelchair’, which not only continues the demeaning, but suggests that our very lives may not be worth living. Even the assumption that a wheelchair is a negative reveals the degree of disconnect between public and minority, because as anyone with a mobility impairment will tell you, wheelchairs are actually incredibly liberating and empowering. People might claim that these are cliches, that attitudes aren’t that bad, but I’ve faced them on the street, they’re worse. Even the members of the public who think they have a positive view of disability are usually locked into the Personal Tragedy model of disability, which is simply ‘Does he take sugar’ dressed up in a posh frock.

    And that’s my minority, no doubt members of other minorities will be able to quote similar examples of the disconnect between the established elite, sorry, the general public, and their own concerns and needs. There may be a role for ‘Citizen’s Juries’ in some cases, but we need to be desperately careful with this because sometimes that jury of your peers turns out not to contain any of your peers at all.

  30. Cycling Edinburgh

    RT @leftfootfwd: Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time for citizens' juries http://t.co/bVR4euK

  31. Ferret Dave

    Politics is too important to be left to politicians – time f: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF : writes @electoralreform society's @katieghose

  32. Antony Hodgson

    As a British Columbian (and currently president of Fair Voting BC – a provincial democratic reform society), I appreciate both this article and the discussion. From my perspective, the BC Citizens’ Assembly got it nearly all right. If I were to identify a failing in the process, I would say that there was no opportunity for the assembly to test the public’s reception of their proposal and refine it further. Assembly members invested a huge amount of effort in understanding the issues, and in my view achieved a much more nuanced perspective than the average member of the public. Many of the concerns raised during the campaign had been fairly thoroughly considered by the assembly members, but raising such concerns (eg, by the opposition) takes far less time than assuaging them. I would have liked to have seen the assembly members spending some time trying to explain their choice to the public, hearing what aspects resonated and which caused concern, and modifying their proposal to address the most significant ones. For example, the whole role of quotas and fractional transfers under STV is actually a very minor issue – one would get essentially the same effect by simply dropping the last place candidate, transferring those ballots to the next listed choice, and repeating until the number of candidates matched the number of seats available. This simple change would have eliminated a great deal of public confusion about what was being proposed.

  33. Mr. Sensible

    That’s an interesting way of looking at it, Selohesra.

    In my view, we are a representative democracy, and I don’t think we want a situation of ‘mob rule.’

  34. Antony Hodgson

    Just to respond briefly to Selohesra’s and Mr. Sensible’s comments – the experiences of those who have worked with citizens’ juries or assemblies has been that such groups are far more thoughtful than ‘the mob’, precisely because they take time to study, think through and deliberate about the issues. I have never heard of a case where such a body has recommended an extreme or simplistic view; rather, they typically produce recommendations that acknowledge the broadest possible range of considerations and interests.

  35. Carolyn Deuchar

    RT @leftfootfwd: Politics too important to be left to politicians: time for citizens' juries: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF writes ERS's @katieghose

  36. Mary Wellington

    RT @leftfootfwd: Politics too important to be left to politicians: time for citizens' juries: http://bit.ly/qVLvRF writes ERS's @katieghose

  37. Dave Citizen

    I like the idea of undermining the democracy distorting effects of powerful vested interests. However, before getting properly started I think a couple of prerequisites need to be addressed so we can have confidence that such panels will not merely serve vested interests by proxy.

    There’s the agenda setting practices of powerful media owners for a start. And what about all that comercialisation – billions spent on marketing happy meals + diet pills + teeny padded bras + image anxiety must be doing something (or is the private sector wasteful after all?).

    I suggest they also be asked whether fast tracking a rich elite through private schools and the top universities into the most influential jobs is a good thing any more – if we really are going for democracy then we’re going to need to spread the education and influence a bit more widely!!

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