Citizens assembly: Neither fair nor effective

Zool Suleman writes in the Vancouver Sun:

In her opinion article Creating a better community plan, Rachel Magnusson extols the virtues of a citizens assembly that is in the process of recruiting participation by residents of Vancouver’s East Vancouver neighbourhood known as Grandview-Woodland, anchored by Commercial Drive.

Authorized by Vancouver city council, this assembly is in response to a community urban plan process that raised howls of protest in 2013 when, after months of supposed listening, residents heard that multiple towers were to be raised in their neighbourhood, some as high as 32 stories.

With the citizens assembly, Vancouver city council is again embarked on a road heavy on process and light on listening. Magnusson and her fellow consultants, who are being paid $150,000 or more out of a total civic allotment of $275,000, are very enamoured by their credentials. Potent terms such as democracy, insight and community are rhetorically utilized to instil trust in the process. Trust is the main issue. Trust between the city’s planning department and the citizens of Grandview-Woodland is sorely lacking.

Our Community Our Plan, a citizens group based in the neighbourhood, has tried repeatedly to advise Magnusson, members of the planning department and city council of the pitfalls in this process, but to no avail, so in this space let us try again.

Assembly participation is limited to English speakers only. This is shocking given that GW is one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Vancouver where, according to Statistics Canada, thousands of households indicate Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Vietnamese and Tagalog as the languages spoken in their households. About 20,000 letters seeking participation from English speakers only, disenfranchises many.

It is not a virtue to extol. It is a fact to be ashamed of.

Citizens who are low-income/poor and those with jobs that do not permit taking the required 10 Saturdays off, need not apply. This limits the voices of students, new immigrants, seniors, the underemployed and many others.

The CA has established a process in which 48 voices will self-select their desire to participate. A computer program in Toronto, the home base of the consultants, and some helping expert hands will try to massage issues of representation and who is able to speak for thousands. Not very democratic, I would suggest.

OCOP has suggested all citizens of the neighbourhood be given a chance to participate. Participation instils belonging, ensures transparency and creates legitimacy in the answers which result. Selection and expert voices that shape the opinions of the 48 voices will breed further distrust.

The final report of the CA is not binding on council and its findings are subject to already broadly articulated planning principles. The same principles that have resulted in huge towers amassed at transportation nodes where developers trade density for civic amenities. It is a complex set of tradeoffs where livable neighbourhoods such as Grandview-Woodland are sold to the highest bidder. More light needs to be shone on these civic transactions, not less.

OCOP is built around five key principles: An open process; A process that accommodates diversity of languages and cultures; A process that is accessible to people of all economic classes and abilities; A process which is transparent and one which is accountable. The CA meets none of these criteria: open, diverse, accessible, transparent and accountable.

Plain talk for a plain process is what’s needed, not the verbal dance of veils the CA proposes.

Zool Suleman is an immigration lawyer and OCOP member. He has been a chair, co-chair and member of the City of Vancouver Mayor’s Working Group on Immigration

11 Responses

  1. The “dispute” about whether this assembly is “democratic seems to hinge on the fact that the pool from which the members were randomly drawn were people well-enough engaged to step forward and volunteer, rather than a true random sample. From the Assembly web site: “The 48 members of the Citizens’ Assembly were randomly selected from among over 500 local volunteers.”


  2. This story and many like it confirm my contention that we need to shift focus from the democratic emphasis on representation to a concentration on the problems of producing practical decisions that are as good as we are likely to be able to find.
    Sortition has a role from this point of view, not in producing egalitarian representation, but in excluding systemic bias.
    Good practical decisions cannot be produced by assemblies that are large enough to ensure that every segment of a population is adequately represented in the decision-making body. Only a body of about a dozen people can engage in the process of interchange of arguments and responses in which compromises between conflicting considerations and divergent interests can be hammered out.
    Most of this work can be done on line, in public, and open to comment by anybody who is interested in time to influence those who are trying to work out a solution. That is the big difference from the traditional pattern where only what was submitted prior to the decision process or put forward by members of the deciding body gets considered in the decision process.
    In this perspective the decision of the committee gets its authority not from its constitution but from the thoroughness of its attention to all the considerations that are relevant. If they want to get their work accepted, the committee will have to keep that in mind.
    Of course it will have to come up with a proposal that in any practical matter is going to be a gamble. Most people will have doubts of one sort or another about it. But from a practical point of view they should be prepared to accept it as a basis for collective action.


  3. John,

    Thanks for confirming that you have given up on the problem of representation, and that (from your perspective) sortition only has a prophylactic function. In her 2014 APSA presidential address, Jane Mansbridge argued that “legitimate coercion is the fundamental problem of governance. How can large, highly interdependent structures produce sufficient legitimate coercion to solve the collective action problem?” (p.9). If your committee is not representative of all those whose interests are affected by the resultant decision then why should its decision be viewed as legitimate by all those affected? Mansbridge argues that “people are more likely to obey a law they consider legitimate” (p.11) and, in addition to election, “legitimacy can be based on representation by lot” (p.11). But why should the decision outcome of 12 unrepresentative persons bargaining in camera be viewed as legitimate, irrespective of the epistemic merits of the decision? What’s the point of getting the right outcome if it results in coercion that is not perceived as legitimate by those being coerced? Why should we trust the 12 wise men to get it right?

    Mansbridge, J., What is Political Science For?, Perspectives on Politics, 12 (1), 2014


  4. John,

    PS, to put it more bluntly, you now appear to be answering the question raised by the title of your 1985 book, Is Democracy Possible? in the negative. Or, more accurately, while democracy may be possible, it is certainly inadvisable. Demarchy and democracy have nothing in common, as the prophylactic function of sortition would also apply to the selection process for a 12-man sub-committee of Plato’s guardians or a military junta. This is why I insist that the blind break of sortition and the invisible hand of hand of stochastion are distinct principles that merely employ a common mechanism. The possibility of democracy depends on a mixture of stochastion and election. Whether or not this would lead to wise government is an entirely separate matter, but I agree with Mansbridge that it would make a plausible candidate for perceived legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of citizens who would not participate directly in the deliberative exchange.


  5. Keith,
    I’m a fan of Mansbridge, who put me up in Chicago years ago. I don’t quite agree that the legitimacy of coercion is the basic problem in politics, but it is certainly a central one. In concrete practice what is decisive is the established convention about the legitimacy of coercion, its limits and rationale. In my present practical perspective I simply accept the existing democratic practice about that.
    The committees I am talking about have no power or legal status. My hope is simply that they will come to be recognised as making sound decisions and that enough voters will insist that the politicians take them as vox populi to establish a set of conventions that the politicians role as legislators and administrators is to give effect to the various policies the councils arrive at.
    You speak of a committee behind closed doors. You ignore the whole thrust of what I say , namely that the actual discussions in the committee must take place in public, on line and open to comment on what is going on by anybody who us interested.
    It is true that I regard the problems of representation as insoluble. I could argue that in detail, but my interest at this stage is in shifting the mephasis from that problematic to one of gettint as good decisions as we can hope to get in the circumstances.


  6. Terry,

    > the fact that the pool from which the members were randomly drawn were people well-enough engaged to step forward and volunteer

    I think there are multiple problems with the process. For example:

    1. Non-transparency,
    2. The process being managed by for-hire professionals,
    3. Barriers for non-English speakers,
    4. Requirement for uncompensated investment of time,
    5. The assembly having only an advisory role.

    In general, obtaining a democratic setup requires an ongoing self-correcting process. This appears to be essentially a for-show process, not a real attempt to achieve representation.


  7. John,

    >My hope is simply that [demarchic committees] will come to be recognised as making sound decisions and that enough voters will insist that the politicians take them as vox populi.

    But why is this likely? There are already a proliferation of think-tanks offering “sound” policy proposals, so why should the decision output of a self-selecting (and unrepresentative) demarchic committee be viewed any differently? Why should voters take any notice of them?


  8. Keith,
    Most think tanks are partisan, disguised lobbyists. Even those that aren’t aim to bring enlightenment to an ignorant public about what is best for them. People are understandably wary of them. They may influence politicians if their prescriptions are congenial, but they have no authority as citizen’s voices.In order to impose their conclusions on the politicians demarchic committees will first have to involve the public in their deliberation in the way I’ve suggested and convince at least swinging voters that their conclusions represent as good a summing up of public debate as they could hope to get.
    It may be that in many instances the se bodies will take a narrower or less penetrating view of a problem than an expert think tank, but in a society that demands that policy serve the people, not their would-be mentors, the people must set the policies. In an educated society they are going to pay a lot of heed to the possibilities of error. More fundamentally engaging with the process of policy formation is itself a very powerful education. One might expect the standard of public discussion to improve out of sight, focussed not on who rules but on finding the best solution to shared problems.
    Whether that can happen remains to be seen. It would require sponsors who are willing to put a lot of resources into promoting and providing professional help for them.
    So far we have had only episodic experiments. but enough experience to suggest that with adequate resources we could advance to more ambitious projects. I think there are wealthy people of the sort who now support the numerous think tanks who could be persuaded to support such efforts by financing independent foundations for the purpose.


  9. Thanks John, but I don’t understand the connection between the deliberations of 12 self-selecting persons and your requirement that “the people set the policies”. In an electoral system the people choose their representatives and in a stochastion-based system the people are represented descriptively, but I don’t understand why the conclusions of tiny self-selecting demarchic committees should be perceived as democratically legitimate — either by “the people” or the powers that be, however well-informed their deliberative conclusions.

    PS I’m currently reading an introduction to Habermasian deliberative democracy and was intrigued to see that the word “representation” does not appear in the index, so you’re not alone in believing that the “democratic emphasis on representation” is misguided. To my mind representation is rightly at the core of the political process in large polities, the problem being that the emphasis is one-sided (substantive as opposed to descriptive).


  10. Keith,
    I don’t understand your statement that John’s plan has “12 self-selecting persons” deliberating. I thought his key role for sortition was to assure that this small committee was selected by lot to avoid consistent bias (even if not large enough to be accurately representative).


  11. Terry,

    Selected by lot from a pool of volunteers, the role of sortition being impartiality rather than representativity. Whilst the voluntary principle (those with a direct interest in the issue under discussion) is clearly relevant (although many issues affect most people, and there is a compelling argument to privilege the impartial judgment of those without a direct interest), self-selection will inevitably mean a bias towards political activists, the better educated and those with an axe to grind. My interest in stochastion is to privilege the informed judgment of the silent majority, and that rules out self-selection.

    But what really puzzles me is why anyone would believe that such an arrangement would be perceived as a legitimate form of decision making (from either a democratic or technocratic perspective).


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