Ontario test-drives new brand of democracy

Citizens who are dissatisfied with Ontario’s electoral system will have their say this fall. Inspired by British Columbia’s experiment in 2004, Ontario followed suit in 2006 by convening a Citizens’ Assembly for the first time in its history. Randomly selected, 103 citizens were canvassed to study the intricacies of electoral systems and make recommendations for reform.

After months of deliberation, the Assembly recently announced its decision to recommend a new mixed-member proportional system for Ontario. “This will be put to voters in a referendum on October 10 at the same time as the next provincial election,” says George Thomson, chair of the Citizens’ Assembly.

The bar is set high for change, but the voters’ decision will be binding. “If 60 per cent of voters approve, the government is legally bound to introduce a law to implement the new system.”

The issue could have been settled by experts or politicians, but there were two main reasons the government decided to opt for a representative group of citizens, says Thomson. “The government wanted to test a model of citizen engagement very different from anything tried before by giving them the time and support to really learn about the issue.”

Electoral reform was seen as a good place to start as it goes to the heart of democracy, he says.

“What do the votes of voters really mean?” he asks, pointing out citizens are the final arbiters of that question. “This is the right kind of question to ask citizens because their most fundamental right is the right to vote.”

A decision made by politicians would be questioned, as it’s hard to separate what it achieves for them politically from what’s best for the people of Ontario, he explains.

An extensive evaluation will be completed once the Assembly’s work is done, to determine if this model can be replicated in other complex and contentious areas of government, adds Thomson.

“This might work for areas like health care or environmental topics where issues are too complex to just quickly ask people what they think, in a poll. It needs to be the kind of issue where investing in citizens might be really important, so they learn about it and are able to be informed in expressing their views.”

Many policy and process considerations had to be settled at the outset in setting up the Assembly. “We spent a few months to work through what the process might look like,” says Thomson. “We felt it was really important to invest in a substantial learning plan.”

To ensure balance and neutrality in the presentation of information, leaders were evaluated to ensure they had no association with a particular electoral outcome. “I was selected in part because I don’t know anything about electoral reform.”

Much thought also went into how to educate citizens to make meaningful decisions without being overwhelmed by the huge body of information. “It was decided to make it a principles-driven exercise and not give them a lot of knowledge about electoral systems before they’d thought through what’s important about them.”

Experts involved in electoral reform in other countries such as Ireland and New Zealand were brought in to talk about the factors in their political culture that led them to the electoral systems they chose, says Thomson. “They were brought in so the Assembly could see how principles led to the result. It’s a question of values: there are pros and cons in each electoral system. We got them to think about not just what they do in other jurisdictions, but why.”

Electoral simulations were also set up to give the Assembly hands-on experience in seeing the outcomes of each system and deciding if they were fair. “We had them vote on snacks by forming veggie and fruit parties and seeing how this would work in each system.”

Technology was used throughout to support collaboration, he says. “They have a confidential online forum where they can meet between face-to-face meetings to bandy ideas and exchange information.” All learning materials were available online, and a Web site was set up to inform the general public.

Thomson points out the cost of this venture was $6 million, so a Citizens’ Assembly model for public engagement would be appropriate only for critical issues. But he believes scaled-down versions might work in many areas. In the future, technology can definitely help make this approach cheaper and easier to do on a wider range of issues, he says.

The government is concerned with building citizen confidence in our demo

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