What is this site for?

The aim of this website is to promote the introduction of representative deliberative processes into the wider democratic activities of Aotearoa New Zealand. Through the use of open software there is a way to gather ideas as to how this aim can be pursued.

What are representative deliberative processes?

A recent OECD research report,  drawing on data collected from 289 case studies (none alas from Aotearoa New Zealand) identified twelve distinct models of deliberative processes, based on how they were actually designed rather than what name was applied. Three key criteria for inclusion in the OECD database were applied. They had to include (to quote from the Reader’s Guide to the report):

Deliberation, which involves: weighing carefully different options, requiring accurate and relevant information and a diversity of perspectives; a shared evaluative framework for reaching decisions, and a requirement for participants to apply these shared criteria to weigh trade-offs and to find common ground to reach a group decision.

Representativeness, achieved through random sampling from which a representative selection is made to ensure the group broadly matches the demographic profile of the community against census or other similar data, and the selections checked to make sure no important segment of the community has been missed.

Impact, meaning decision makers agree to respond to and act on recommendations.

Amongst the models identified by the OECD are Citizens’ Assemblies, and in Aotearoa New Zealand both XR and ACE are calling for a Citizens’ Assembly on our climate and ecological crisis.

Why a Citizens’ Assembly?

The Democracy R&D network lists ten reasons for making use of Citizens’ Assemblies, in that they are:

Fair: Randomly selecting participants gives every person an equal chance of being selected, regardless of age, gender, location or any other characteristic.

Deliberative: Assembly members work together to identify the pros, cons and trade-offs of policy options, giving you high-quality public judgements backed by considered, easily understood reasons.
Inclusive: They increase the diversity of voices in the decision-making process, allowing very different people to find common ground by focusing on wider community needs. They assure inclusiveness of voice during the assembly through professional facilitation. Powerful: They open up the space for change when tackling ‘wicked problems’ where interest or community groups are blocking progress. They give decision-makers increased confidence that they have broad public support for a proposal, which can gain an immeasurable boost if a Citizens’ Assembly gives it near unanimous support.
Transparent: Using stratified random selection and a clear, open process reduces the influence of vested interests – you will not be engaging with the ‘usual suspects’. Innovative: You will be at the forefront of democratic innovation and citizen empowerment and engagement.
Effective: Hundreds of examples from around the world have shown that citizens’ assemblies work. Research shows that diverse groups of people are better decision-makers than homogeneous groups. Legitimate: They increase the legitimacy of public policy-making by enabling a representative cross-section of people to inform the decision.
Informed: People develop an informed, critical understanding of complex policy decisions, hearing from and questioning a variety of experts and stakeholders. Trusted: People like the outcomes as decisions are made by ‘people like me’.

What is sortition and why is it used?

Sortition simply means selection by lot. We are all familiar with it as the basis of how juries are selected. The reason for using sortition is to obtain a bunch of people who are representative of the makeup of the population as a whole. Thus, if the sortition is correctly conducted, the collection of participants will, so far as possible, represent the gender, ethnicity, financial status, housing status, education level and so on which is found in the community at large. What is specifically excluded from consideration, even if it were knowable, is what political party, if any, the participant supports. An assembly of participants selected by sortition is free to deliberate on the issue which has been presented to them in the interest of the community at large. They have no future election hanging over them.

This is a very brief description, and the process of applying sortition effectively in any particular context or country has to be worked out. People have to get used to it, and then it will seem normal. The Canadian organisation MASS LBP has produced a detailed manual on running such a process, full of ideas which can be adapted to local circumstances. 

Won’t it be difficult for people to take part?

To a degree, yes. Commonly an assembly will meet over a number of weekends spread over some weeks or months. To try to minimise disincentives to taking part, it is usual to pay participants a daily sum for attending, to reimburse travel, and sometimes other, costs associated with taking part, and to feed and where necessary accommodate them during days when the assembly is in session.

A  feature of citizens’ assemblies and other representative deliberative processes is that, from the point of view of individual participants, they are usually one-off. Anyone willing to take part has an equal chance of being invited to participate, and once they have taken part and contributed to the report and recommendations (or demands?) on the topics to hand, they are off the list for the next assembly. Thus the time commitment for individuals is defined at the outset, and is limited. Also, in this way, over time, if this kind of assembly becomes a regular feature, a larger and larger body of citizens will have taken part and found out how empowering the experience is. Although this site has been called “our voice”, actually the listening respectfully to others, whether or not we initially agree with them, is in many ways the  key to a citizens’ assembly. The assemblies do not speak for political party, for particular interest groups, or for any individual, they speak for the country as a whole.

What examples are there?

There are descriptions of citizens’ assemblies and similar processes that have been tried, generally not in Aotearoa New Zealand, in the “examples” section of the menu above.  The “examples” page will be added to as time goes on. Many of the examples are very inspiring, and there are a number of short videos describing the process, some also with comments from participants. Take a look. Many of the assemblies have been sponsored and organised by government, whether local, state or national, but not all of them meet the OECD criteria for inclusion in their study. This may be that they have not been commissioned by decision makers but by academia, or by citizens themselves. Whilst assemblies themselves seem generally to work well internally, the response of the sponsoring authorities, politicians local or central, has sometimes been wanting. They have lacked real impact, which must have been very frustrating for their participants. 

Join the discussion

This is still a personal effort, and I would love to hear from anyone interested in the topic, especially anyone who knows how to get the attention of those in power.  You can contact me on johnstatinspiredotnetdotnz, or use the response form below.

Many thanks.