Doing democracy differently

Very quietly and far from the headlines, Canada has become something of a global leader in democratic innovation and experimentation. Here’s a good news story for anyone exhausted at the prospect of our current 77-day federal election and anxious about the health of Canadian democracy. You might never know it watching the endless reels of political advertising, but very quietly and far from the headlines Canada has become something of a global leader in democratic innovation and experimentation.

Since the completion of two provincial Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform, in 2004 in B.C. and 2006 in Ontario, these jury-like processes — known alternatively as Reference Panels, Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens Commissions — have come to play an increasingly central if underappreciated role in developing and reviewing sensitive public policies.

Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary will each complete major citizen panels of their own this year. Canada’s first national Reference Panel took place in June, as 36 randomly selected citizens travelled to Ottawa to advise the Mental Health Commission of Canada on its forthcoming national action plan.

Bill 106, now before the Ontario legislature, will significantly change regulations governing condominiums in the province. It was largely shaped by a panel of Ontarians, working alongside a technical working group.

And sometime next year, 12 years since the first B.C. Assembly, the 500,000th Canadian will receive an envelope in the mail inviting him or her to volunteer, and the 1,000th panelist will be selected. This is a Canadian milestone without international precedent.

While at first glance these processes may look innovative and forward-thinking, citizen panels are in fact older than our electoral system and trace their history back to the first coroner’s juries. In the 11th century, coroner’s juries in England were an early and important check on regal power when assessing death duties. Today, coroner’s juries are a small but vital part of our legal system, as a non-adversarial, deliberative court process that connects experts with lay people.

Citizen panels have adapted many of the same principles used by these juries to examine a much wider range of policy issues. Typically 36 to 48 people are randomly selected to participate over a period of 4 to 8 days. A delegation of experts representing different points of view is invited to explain their perspectives. Then the panelists work to find common ground, before issuing their report and recommendations to Government.

So why has Canada proved to be a fertile political space for deliberation?

First, Canada has benefitted from having the right mix of institutional advocates and actors. A small constellation of municipalities, provincial health systems, universities and proponents have been steadily advancing the field.

Second, the work has largely been spared the attention of political parties, allowing the field to mature under the protection and support of a professional public service. This stands in contrast to other jurisdictions like Britain, where early involvement by parties quickly soured public interest by undermining the legitimacy and perceived impartiality of these processes.

Now several important conventions have taken root that broadly shape the culture of deliberative work in Canada.

Importantly, there is general agreement that deliberative processes are complementary to — but no replacement for — the work of public servants, stakeholders and decision-makers, to say nothing of voters. Too often proponents of deliberative processes have a tendency to make themselves out to be more legitimate than the public authorities they serve. This is both wrongheaded and counterproductive.

Deliberative processes have also helped to upend the pervasive myth of civic apathy. Panels, commissions and assemblies play a constructive role by consistently demonstrating a viable counter-narrative: that there is a deep reservoir of public interest and ability available to government that is waiting to be tapped.

Lastly, governments and practioners alike have been modest about their goals and careful to manage expectations. Though they are an important tool for bridging citizens and government, deliberative processes aren’t the answer to every democratic question. They require a clearly defined task, sufficient time to learn about an issue from different perspectives, access to impartial expertise, and an arm’s-length relationship to government to ensure their
independence and integrity.

Electoral democracy may be tiring — and this current election is surely tiresome — but deliberative democracy, its nimble, light-footed cousin, is thriving in Canada as a complementary mechanism for involving citizens in the everyday work of governing.

Peter MacLeod is principal of MASS LBP and co-chair of the Wagemark Foundation

Published in The Toronto Star, 16 August 2015

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