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Was the Ontario Citizens' Assembly the Most Democratic Process in History?
Sep. 25, 2007 11:13 AM
Starting September 2006, 103 randomly selected Ontario citizens committed to 30-40 hours a month for 8 months to get educated, hear public consultation and deliberate on the topic of electoral reform to make a unified policy recommendation that will be voted on by a binding public referendum on October 10th 2007.

I am asking public engagement practitioners and academics internationally to support, modify or refute my claim:

The Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform was one of the most intelligent and legitimately democratic provincial/state level policy creation process in history.

I'm an independent Ontario based consultant who had nothing to do with the Assembly process. I make this claim to promote some comparison of current public participation processes and to help bring attention to this deliberative-democracy milestone; an achievement and example that has been practically invisible to the public. If this claim does hold true, I plan to follow up with a public statement and press release, including credit for all those who explicitly support this claim.

I appreciate your time and immediate consideration on this matter of monumental significance in our democratic history especially during these last days before the referendum. Please post your comments below or email jason AT

My argument in short...

Compared to traditional public consultations and civic debates, this process was more representative of the public in the demographics of the randomly selected participants, it was informed by but independent of advocacy organizations and political powers, and most importantly it was deliberative and empowered in nature allowing the participants to fully define their own final recommendation.
Other deliberative processes that use representative participants, such as Citizen Juries, Citizen Consensus Councils, Nation Issues Forums, Study Circles and Planning Cells usually have a maximum of 25 participants, which is less then a quarter of the Ontario Assembly's 103 citizens.

Even with hundreds of representative participants (such as AmericaSpeaks' 21st Century Town Meetings) these other process still don't compare in the depth of learning participants took-on in preparation for their deliberation: Ontario Assembly members attended six weekends of education programming and read hundreds of pages of materials to learn about the topic. Additionally there was an extensive public consultation process that informed participants on public opinion.

In terms of deliberation, most of these previously mentioned process complete their deliberation phase within one to four days. The Ontario Assembly deliberated for six weekends following an Assembly approved decision-making structure and using consensus driven equal opportunity group facilitation.

Finally, unlike other processes which result in a report that has no formal authority, the recommendation from the Ontario Assembly has the potential to become law via the October 10th binding referendum.

On an organization, community or municipal level there are definitely examples of more continuous, involved and empowered deliberative processes for policy creation, but I am not comparing the Ontario Citizens' Assembly to these smaller jurisdictions.

The 2004 British Columbia Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform was the model for the Ontario process. There is much room for debate over the differences between the process, such as BCs larger assembly of 159 members and more public consultation meetings, or Ontario's more empowered terms of reference and special outreach focus groups to under-represented citizens. For the context of my claim, I'll assume these two similar processes were equal in democratic value and should either share top prize or be mutually overshadowed by a superior process.

The 2006 Dutch Civic Forum on Electoral Systems followed a similar model to BC but with a much greater on-line focus, less days of education, less relative public consultation, less face-to-face assembly deliberation, and no formal authority on policy. This I rate the Dutch process as comparable to Ontario and BC but less then equal.

To better substantiate my claim I have written a summary of the Ontario process and a detailed evaluation using the criteria from Gene Rowe and Lynn J. Frewer's landmark paper "Public Participation Methods: A Framework for Evaluation".

Even with my summary and evaluation referenced above, I recognize that my argument is still very open to critique on its lack of academic rigour, yet I do feel that enough detail is presented for a useful comparison to other processes.

If you have further insight into examples of state/province level participatory governance, I would greatly appreciate to hear your comments that support, modify or refute my claim that the Ontario and BC assemblies were the best processes we have seen so far. I look forward to hearing from you.

Please post your comments using the post comment link at the top, or email jason AT


Comment by JFanselow on Oct. 10, 2007 1:58 PM
Jason, as promised, I have blogged about this at DemocracySpace:

I would love it if you'd come by and add a comment!
Comment by JFanselow on Oct. 3, 2007 1:26 PM
JD, I won't argue for or against whether the Ontario Citizens' Assembly was the MOST democratic process in history. (I'm just not into rankings nor superlatives ... as far as I am concerned, the more engagement of whatever size, the better.) But the project certainly does seem to merit wider publicity.

To that end, I will write about it (with a link to your blog and the project website) at next Wednesday when the voting is under way. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.