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March 6, 2007

deliberative democracy in California

I missed a big meeting last week at Pepperdine in California. (I couldn't afford the air fare.) The conference combined talk of electoral reform with discussions of public deliberation. Electoral reform was on the agenda because our legislative districts have been drawn to minimize competition and accountability. Public deliberation seems a powerful response; it can generate reform ideas that have legitimacy because representative citizens have chosen them (whereas all elected officials have some kind of stake in the status quo).

The Canadians have some useful experience in this area. The British Columbia Citizens Assembly proposed a redesign of that Province's electoral system. Gordon Gibson covered the Pepperdine conference from a Canadian perspective for the Globe & Mail:

One of the most surprising things is that randomly selected panels (drawn, say, from the voter's list) are actually far more representative than the so-called representatives we elect. If you look at the face of Canada, you do not find it reflected in the House of Commons. And, for some things, these random panels are far better than elected representatives or groups of experts. They are not partisan and they do not play games.

This is not to disrespect elected representatives, who will and should do the bulk of the work of governance. They are paid to be experts on our behalf. But citizen panels on policy issues can be highly imaginative. They have been used on environmental cases in Texas, on what to do with the Roma in Bulgaria, on reconstruction planning in New Orleans and on public works prioritization in China (really - and it worked). A gathering of 600 "ordinary citizens" is scheduled to appear in the European Parliament chamber in June to discuss the future of the union.

The big excitement, however, is likely to come down south, just because the United States is so big, so powerful and so governmentally messed up. The key will be to use citizen panels as we have done in B.C. and Ontario to get around the conflicts of politicians and reform the very machinery of democracy. For the good of the world, that most needs doing in the United States.

March 6, 2007 10:54 AM | category: deliberation | Comments


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