When Citizens Decide

The main story is that regular folks became extremely motivated, worked hard, and became proficient about the topic of the proceedings. Thus, citizens have the capacity to shed their apathy, overcome their ignorance, and reason conscientiously about an unfamiliar and complex political issue.
It is important, however, to mention some caveats about the quality of citizen decision-making. First, competence is not easily achieved. It took a lot to improve citizen engagement and decisions: it took a multi-million-dollar almost year-long deliberative project to get participants to that point.
Second, competence is not easily sustained. One of the three citizen assemblies unfolded in a particular manner. … when the stimulus and the cognitive activation disappear, competence also fades.
Third, competence is not universal. Some assembly members were less competent than others. Even an extensive deliberative process does not wash out the disadvantages associated with a lack of resources and political sophistication. The initially better informed citizens exhibited more structured reasoning and consistency than the less informed. When dealing with complexity, some people are less well equipped, and we cannot completely compensate for these inequalities.


On the one hand, during extraordinary circumstances, collectives of ordinary people are indeed capable of giving guidance on the design of part of the democratic house in which they live. They can develop a profound understanding of a complex topic, they can evaluate options based on relevant principles, they can come to a decision that reflects their specific priorities, and they can avoid falling prey to biases and pressures.
On the other hand, all the effects we observed occurred in a particular context where motivated citizens were promised a powerful political role and were supported by a resource-rich and balanced infrastructure that promoted proficiency and diligence. Moreover, the positive effects hardly spilled over to the public at large. When individuals who had not benefited from the unique environment of citizen assemblies turned their attention to the same issue, the usual limitations surfaced. Most crucially, many voters lacked the contextual background information that could allow them to recognize the option that conformed to their interests.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    When Citizens Decide: Lessons from Citizen Assemblies on Electoral Reform (Comparative Politics)

    by Patrick Fournier, Henk van der Kolk, R. Kenneth Carty, André Blais and Jonathan Rose

    Three unprecedented large-scale democratic experiments have recently taken place. Citizen assemblies on electoral reform were conducted in British Columbia, the Netherlands, and Ontario. Groups of randomly selected ordinary citizens were asked to independently design the next electoral system. In each case, the participants spent almost an entire year learning about electoral systems, consulting the public, deliberating, debating, and ultimately deciding what specific institution should be adopted.

    When Citizens Decide uses these unique cases to examine claims about citizens’ capacity for democratic deliberation and active engagement in policy-making. It offers empirical insight into numerous debates and provides answers to a series of key questions: 1) Are ordinary citizens able to decide about a complex issue? Are their decisions reasonable? 2) Who takes part in such proceedings? Are they dominated by people dissatisfied by the status quo? 3) Do some citizens play a more prominent role than others? Are decisions driven by the most vocal or most informed members? 4) Did the participants decide by themselves? Were they influenced by staff, political parties, interest groups, or the public hearings? 5) Does participation in a deliberative process foster citizenship? Did participants become more trusting, tolerant, open-minded, civic-minded, interested in politics, and active in politics? 6) How do the other political actors react? Can the electorate accept policy proposals made by a group of ordinary citizens?

    The analyses rely upon various types of evidence about both the inner workings of the assemblies and the reactions toward them outside: multi-wave panel surveys of assembly members, content analysis of newspaper coverage, and public opinion survey data. The lessons drawn from this research are relevant to those interested in political participation, public opinion, deliberation, public policy, and democracy.


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