The San Francisco Chronicle: Fishkin promoting a citizens advisory council

Lois Kazakoff, Chronicle Columnist, writes:

Concerned by California’s faltering government, a coalition of eight nonprofit good government groups conducted an experiment in June. They invited 435 Californians of every stripe from every corner of the state, from every political persuasion to spend three days in a Torrance hotel deliberating 30 proposals for government reform. The coalition raised $1 million to cover their travel costs.

Kazakoff is referring to the What’s Next California deliberative poll:

The original 30 proposals covered a gamut of concerns: term limits, reforming the initiative process and tax reform, among others. Participants were polled on their views before deliberating in small groups, and at the end, sometimes revealing a wide swing in their views. The resulting ballot initiative would require:

  • Clear goals for government programs and regular updates on progress.
  • Two-year budgets and three-year to five-year budget projections.
  • The Legislature to show how new programs would be paid for.
  • Transfer of control and financing to local government for certain programs.

The origin of the those ideas and the process by which the original proposals were turned into the “resulting ballot” is not specified. The fiscal focus here seems suspiciously aligned with standard establishment complaints.

Jim Fishkin, a Stanford University communications professor and democracy expert, patterned the event on the Athenian Council of 500. In ancient Greece, 500 citizens were chosen by lot to vet proposals before the electorate voted on them to ensure the people’s business got before the people.

That’s what needs to happen in California: The people’s business needs to get on the ballot. Fishkin is promoting the idea of regularly convening a citizens advisory council, whose proposals would automatically or easily go on the state ballot. It typically costs $3 million to qualify a measure, an almost insurmountable barrier except to special interests who would benefit from the measure at the people’s expense.

This is what surprised the conveners:

  • Despite the Legislature’s 14 percent approval rating, the majority polled wanted to extend legislative terms, because legislators would then have more time to do the people’s business.
  • Most tax proposals went down to defeat – but not all.
  • Proposals to allow the Legislature to reform the initiative process were uniformly rejected.
  • Participants remained firm in their conviction that a good portion of government spending is wasted.

The third bullet in the surprises list is rather surprising itself. Why would the citizens, who distrust the legislature, allow it to reform the initiative mechanism – a mechanism that was deliberately introduced in order to reduce the power of the legislature?

8 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    I really appreciate how you find all these great news items for our forum.


  2. I’m not at all surprised by the focus on fiscal responsibility as most citizens are mindful of the need to balance their own household expenditure and naturally extrapolate that into a conservative fiscal perspective. I agree with Yoram that this coincides with standard establishment complaints — it’s interesting that three European countries are now introducing statutes requiring that budgets should be balanced. If sortive legislatures were ever introduced on an ad-hoc basis this would be a necessary requirement.


  3. David,

    The credit for finding the items is actually due to Google Alerts ( You can set up automated searches that email you whenever they find something new. (I cannot even take credit for the idea of using Google Alerts – that was Peter Stone’s idea). Anyway, I’m glad you find this useful.


  4. Armchair psychologizing notwithstanding, in reality the public’s economic agenda is, unsurprisingly, focused on jobs, not on budget balancing:

    [M]ost recent polls show far more public concern over unemployment than deficit spending or the federal debt. As FAIR noted (FAIR Blog, 5/19/10), recent surveys from CBS/New York Times and NBC/Wall Street Journal asked voters to rank problems facing the country. Unemployment was more important by a spread of 49 percent to 5 percent in the CBS/NYT poll, 35 percent to 20 percent in the NBC/WSJ survey, and 47 percent to 15 percent from a recent Fox poll. Blogger Ben Somberg raised similar questions (6/19/10) in response to the Post story.


  5. That certainly indicates the disjunction between snap opinion polls (which also indicate that everyone has already been converted to sortition as the best way to organise political affairs) and deliberative judgment. One of the problems of both elective and direct democracy is that everyone wants to increase spending but nobody wants to pay for it; not so when citizens engage in serious deliberation, hence the focus on fiscal responsibility in the citizens advisory council.


  6. Yoram,

    Your wrote, “The credit for finding the items is actually due to Google Alerts . . . (I cannot even take credit for the idea of using Google Alerts – that was Peter Stone’s idea).”

    Well, you took the action, and we’re all benefiting, so I thank you nevertheless.


  7. Here’s a link to Fishkin’s latest explanation of what he’s doing with Next California –


  8. […] “The Stanford team” refers, of course, to the activities of James Fishkin that have been discussed here before (for example, here). […]


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