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Hear! Hear! For Citizen Input

Sometimes politics gets in the way of democracy, according to the author of this paper. The author goes on to tell how “This week, CPRN released the results of a dialogue with a randomly selected group of 250 Ontario citizens on the province’s budget strategy for the next four years. Because it had been commissioned by the government, it was rejected as useless in the Ontario legislature.” The 2004 paper by Judith Maxwell of the Canadian Policy Research Networks further explains deliberative democracy and how it functions in other societies in contrast to Canadian usage.

Here is the full text of the article (or click here to see it at globeandmail.com):

Hear, hear for citizen input

If we want more engaged voters, let’s have less partisan scoffing at citizen-politician dialogues. They’re key to 21st-century democracy

by Judith Maxwell

Sometimes politics gets in the way of democracy.

This week, Canadian Policy Research Networks released the results of a dialogue with a randomly selected group of 250 Ontario citizens on the province’s budget strategy for the next four years. Because it had been commissioned by a government, it was rejected as useless by the opposition in the legislature.

This partisan style explains why so many Canadians – especially young people — are turning off politics. Non-voters say they don’t participate because politicians are irrelevant to the lives they live, and there is no opportunity to contribute to conversations on public policy.

Dialogue is an essential ingredient for representative government in 21st-century Canada. It is not direct democracy, where individuals cast their votes in referendums. It is about governments listening to a sustained conversation among citizens themselves on the issues that matter most to them as citizens. It is designed to build a constructive relationship between citizens and political leaders.

Denmark is currently the leader in deliberative democracy. Governments there use a variety of techniques but the process is built into the parliamentary system in ways that engage both politicians and the public service. The United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil and other countries have committed significant resources to these conversations with citizens.

Canada is becoming a much more polarized society across many divides — economic class, faith, age, and ideology as well as the long-standing fault lines of region and language. If we do not bridge those divides, then our democracy will continue to deteriorate.

A citizen dialogue requires a neutral space where people feel safe to speak out. It requires clear and objective background information, well-trained facilitators, a thoughtful process and an important policy question, one that matters to ordinary Canadians. Typically, it is a public policy issue that is at a major turning point, where a government faces decisions that may break with the past.

A representative group of citizens is recruited (we commission opinion-research firms to use their random-selection methodology). Other initiatives use other techniques. The Citizens Jury on Climate Change convened by the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy was composed of a diverse group of people who had received the Order of Canada. The B.C. Citizen Assembly members were chosen from electoral lists in each riding. However chosen, the group must reflect a diversity of gender, age, ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds.

A typical Canadian Policy Research Networks dialogue requires a full day with groups of 40 people, who read the background materials while they eat breakfast. Professional facilitators call the group together, inviting each participant to introduce their initial views on the issue. Then facilitators provide a thorough background briefing; when all the questions are answered, they explain the “rules of dialogue,” which call for collaboration, careful listening, mutual respect, discovering new possibilities, etc.

The next step is to outline the possible choices — usually four different ways to solve the problem, designed to cover the spectrum of possibilities. People rate each choice in a questionnaire, before they break up into four groups of 10 to talk the issue through in depth. The small groups are self-managed, so citizens control the discussion.

After they report back their conclusions and listen to the other three groups’ reports, they work with the facilitators to identify the common themes, deal with contradictions, make tradeoffs and clarify their advice to government.

To close the dialogue, they rate the four choices again, and this time, they also write in the conditions they would attach to this choice. And then, the microphone is passed around the room so that each person can make a final comment to the decision-makers.

This very dry description of the process doesn’t do justice to the intensity of the conversation, the struggle to make choices, or the passion with which participants make their final comments. In all the dialogues we’ve convened to date, citizens have been surprised and pleased by how much they learned. They’ve spoken with emotion about the energy and self-confidence they’ve felt as they worked together with complete strangers. Almost all are keen to do it again.

What are the outcomes?

Ordinary citizens do not become policy experts after nine hours of discussion. But they do make a unique contribution to policy — one that governments cannot derive from the experts and stakeholders whom they often consult.

First, citizens provide a framework of values and principles to guide decision-making. Second, they state the conditions under which they would approve a particular approach, which can help to shape a controversial policy decision. In a very real sense, they define the boundaries of possibilities — the political space in which governments can make decisions.

The Ontario citizens convinced each other, for example, that the government should be charging the full cost of services like water (and electricity) that consume natural resources. They know that conservation is essential. The only condition on this is that the new fee structure should be designed to protect vulnerable people. (In all our dialogues to date, we have discovered policy choices that are well ahead of what politicians consider possible.)

The final, and most precious outcome, is civic literacy. The citizens in the Ontario dialogue learned a lot about budget-making and about difficult processes. They began to understand how tough these big policy decisions are. They were astonished at how much common ground there is across our polarized society. For one day, they were part of democracy. They can do much more in future.

Judith Maxwell – Canadian Policy Research Networks, 2004

Judith Maxwell is president of Canadian Policy Research Networks, an independent national think tank. The report is available at www.cprn.org.

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