A federal election is called in Canada. You try to overcome your sense of jaded cynicism and pay at least some attention to what the candidates are saying. But your enthusiasm is sapped by nagging thoughts about the unfairness of our electoral system and the agonizing strategic voting it fosters, the inevitable reneging of election promises, the toothlessness of individual Members of Parliament (MPs) in the face of the absolute power wielded by the Prime Minister and his inner circle of advisors, the lack of substantive discussion on complex issues, and the limited scope of differences between the only two parties with a chance of forming government.
This is what passes for democracy in Canada. Why do we participate in such an obviously flawed process, election after election? Is it a quasi-religious rite, performed in benediction of our universally cherished belief in the essential goodness of the democratic ideal? Instead of the priest placing the host in our mouths, we place our token, consecrated by governmental officialdom, into the holy ballot box. Or maybe we just do it because we figure it’s better than nothing, and not likely to get better anytime soon. But what if we could make it better? What could that look like?
Deliberation in a liberal democracy
If the picture above is one of intense concentration of power, in which 100,000 citizens in a riding elect one MP to in turn be either a lackey to the Prime Minister or cast outside his government, then deliberative democracy turns that picture on its head. Deliberative democracy involves groups of regular citizens, usually chosen by random lottery, deliberating on specific issues in an atmosphere of open dialogue and listening to diverse perspectives, reaching conclusions either through consensus or majority vote, and then presenting their policy recommendations to government decision makers.
It may sound new, but its roots go back in some ways to the ancient Athenian demokratia, which survived in various forms from around 500 BCE until the Macedonians overthrew Athens about 160 years later. Athenian democracy consisted in part of a boule of 500 male citizens (only men could vote and take part in government) selected at random to preside over the day-to-day workings of the city state for a period of one year.
The ancient Greeks believed elections favoured the rich, as those with financial resources would use their power to essentially buy votes. They did hold elections for positions that required great expertise, such as generals or a handful of officials. But they favoured random assignment by lot as a way to distribute power as widely as possible amongst citizens. Every male citizen had an equal chance of serving in government, and most would at some point in their lives.
But how could regular people possibly run a state without any training? It’s a good question, and yet a vestige of this approach survives in our modern jury system, where jurors are randomly selected and invested with ultimate decision-making power over people’s lives. We strongly believe that being judged by our peers is the fairest path to justice. If we trust a random assembly of people in a court of law to make decisions on the most serious of criminal cases, why not in government?
To be sure, part of what allows us to trust jurors is that they have been exposed – sometimes for months on end – to the best arguments formulated by those quintessential experts: lawyers. And this is exactly how many deliberative democratic systems operate – a panel of regular citizens hear from various invited experts offering different perspectives, before deliberating together and reaching a decision. We have a basic trust that a group of regular folks, once informed on a subject, can collectively reach good decisions.
But are we right to trust in this process? In 2015, a group of researchers asked a crowd of nearly 10,000 people a series of simple factual questions, such as the height of the Eiffel Tower, and invited them to submit their responses individually (without checking their phones, obviously). They next assembled people into groups of five and got them to quickly deliberate and reach a consensus on the best answers to the same questions and submit that. The result? The groups of five gave much more accurate answers. So much more accurate, in fact, that the average of four randomly selected consensus answers outperformed the average of the entire crowd of thousands of individual answers. The researchers hypothesized that it’s not just deliberation that makes their answers more accurate, but deliberation at a scale small enough to be conducive to thoughtful human interaction.
The researchers then took the experiment to the next logical step, by asking participants to individually rate on a scale from 0 to 10 the rightness or wrongness of several thorny ethical questions. They then put them into groups of three and gave them two minutes to try to come to a consensus rating. More than one-third of the groups that began with highly polarized opinions were able to reach a consensus answer in the allotted time. When people sit down face to face in small groups, instead of fighting over social media, they are much more able to see the other’s point of view and find common ground.
Examples like this of deliberative, collaborative decision-making by groups of regular people stand in stark contrast to the idea of epistocracy, or the rule of experts. As knowledge gets more and more specialized and complex in our society, we tend to defer increasingly to the advice of experts. And while authorities usually know their fields well, often their specialization comes at the expense of seeing the big picture and being able to make the best decisions for everyone.
Deliberation in Action
The TransformTO Reference Panel on Climate Action featured 30 randomly selected Torontonians deliberating for two summer weekends in 2019 on the future path of climate policy in their city. They were brought up to speed on current climate initiatives by city staff and invited experts, and asked to deliberate on several new proposals, but could also bring their own ideas to the table. The whole exercise was facilitated by a professional firm with experience leading deliberative policy processes. In the panel’s final report, the chair wrote that, “Panel members consistently saw their occasionally significant disagreements as opportunities for learning, rather than debates to be won. They engaged each other with curiosity, creativity, and collegiality, all with an eye to collaborative problem-solving.” Doesn’t sound much like our current combative, hyper-partisan political system, does it?
While this reference panel was a one-off, the City of Toronto employs the same approach, but in an ongoing capacity, with its Planning Review Panel, which meets every two months for two years (when a new group of randomly selected residents take over) to deliberate over planning issues. Similarly, the province of Ontario’s Metrolinx agency uses its Regional Reference Panel to inform transportation decision-making across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.
Other examples in Canada include British Columbia’s 2004 Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, which involved randomly selected individuals from across BC first learning about electoral systems for 12 weeks, then holding 50 public consultations, deliberating between themselves for two months, holding several votes to decide on their recommendation, and finally having their recommendation go to a provincial referendum. Ontario went through a similar process in 2006/07. 
A OECD study last year found nearly 300 deliberative democracy projects have been carried out worldwide since the 1980’s, with momentum building since 2010. Canada has the third most of these projects (behind Germany and Australia), with 40 over this time period.
Inspired by Canada’s experience with citizen assemblies, Ireland turned to this model in 2016 for the extremely divisive abortion issue – which at that time was illegal, even in cases of rape. 100 randomly selected citizens met over five weekends, and heard from various experts from both sides of the debate. In the end, 64% of them voted in favour of legalizing unconditional abortion – a number that hewed close to the 66% of the Irish electorate who voted likewise in the subsequent referendum, in which voters were partly informed by the Citizen Assembly’s deliberation. Ireland has been initiating a new Citizen’s Assembly almost every year since.
But citizen assemblies and other forms of deliberative democracy are often temporary, single-issue focussed, have their agendas set by higher-ups, and lack any legislative teeth. And when they strive for permanency and more legitimacy, they can quickly collapse due to poor design or implementation, as Madrid’s innovative Observatory of the City did in 2015.
The tiny German-speaking region of Ostbelgiem (east Belgium) is seeking to address some of these limitations with a new permanent system they initiated in 2019. A randomly selected Citizen’s Council of 24 residents (they don’t have to be Belgian nationals) serves for 18 months, during which time they decide on the agendas for several temporary Citizens’ Panels. The Panels, consisting of 25-50 randomly selected residents meeting for three weekends over several months, then make their recommendations on their assigned topics to parliament, who is required to debate the topic at least twice. However, their decisions are still considered mere recommendations, and are not legally binding.
Ostbelgiem’s approach can serve as a scalable model for other jurisdictions to follow, and perhaps over time, as this approach gains legitimacy, decisions that were once seen by politicians as recommendations will increasingly turn into directives they feel compelled to follow, lest they suffer the voters’ wrath. Then citizens’ assemblies and other forms of deliberative democracy can take their place alongside parliaments, executives, and courts as legitimate houses of government – not replacing them, but complimenting them by bringing a broader representation of people to the table, and injecting a needed dose of collaborative problem solving into the combative world of politics.
With faith in democracy faltering around the world, deliberative committees of regular citizens could provide one way to bring people back into the democratic process, restoring faith in its functioning while also improving the quality of the decisions it makes. And that could go a long way towards breaking through the cynicism that so many feel when faced with yet another election.
 Athenian democracy is often called the world’s first democracy, which may be because it is the best documented in the written record, or it may just be because it’s part of the Western world. Yet other Greek city states instituted various democratic systems before Athens, and recent archeological evidence points to other complex civilizations in Mesoamerica or the Indus valley who may have developed more collectivist forms of government hundreds or even thousands of years before Athens (https://www.science.org/content/article/it-wasnt-just-greece-archaeologists-find-early-democratic-societies-americas).
 Athenian democracy leaves a lot to be desired for women, to say nothing of slaves. But before we look too far down our noses at them, remember that women only got the right to vote in Canada just over a century ago, that the House of Commons is still only about 30% female, and Canada has never had an woman party leader win an election and become prime minister.
 Although the lottery also ensured that the panel was broadly representative of Torontonians, both demographically and attitudinally.
 93% of the Citizen Assembly’s 160 members voted in favour of ditching the province’s plurality voting system, ultimately recommending moving to a Single Transferable Vote, which 57.7% of BC citizens voted in favour of in the referendum. However, the government, who clearly did not really want to change the voting system that got them elected, had set the threshold for success at 60%, so the proposal did not pass. It is a great irony that a process that took democratic expression to new heights ultimately ended up failing to reform an undemocratic voting system. In Ontario, only 36.8% of votes were cast in favour of replacing the current voting system with a Mixed Member Proportional one. However, it should be pointed out that, thanks to the plurality voting system these Citizen Assemblies were trying to abolish, this is nearly as much support as a typical Canadian majority government enjoys, which often wins 100% of the power with only 38% or 39% of the popular vote.
 Other issues looked at have been: what to do about Ireland’s aging population, climate change, how referendums are held, fixed-term parliaments, and gender equity.
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You’ve got some very good ideas, Sean, and you’ve expressed them very well!
Well-researched and thoughtful piece, Sean. I doubt deliberative democracy will ever supplant our current system – the political class would never willingly cede so much power – but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be an improvement.
The political class never willingly cedes power, but that doesn’t mean we can’t force them to! Thanks for reading!
Sean, This is another most excellent piece from your capable pen. Well written and thought-provoking. Thank you. I’d love to have the opportunity to discuss this further. The trouble with modern focus groups or juries is that everyone is caught up in the zeitgeist, and today’s recommendations may look pathetic in a few years’ time. Remember the Oxford Union voting against the motion to fight for king and country. We might all be speaking German now! (oh! Zeitgeist! -We are!)
Remember too, that it was the forty-year delay in making the decision to send out the navy against the Spartans, caused by constant open-ended discussion in Athens, that allowed the very surprised Spartans to invade and conquer.
Maybe we could establish some sort of ‘conversation group’ or forum in the Wakefield area, where we would have the opportunity to tease out some of these great issues. You are excellent at setting the scene for thoughtful perusal.
I do believe you should submit your writing to UNHEARD, the great new online media outlet in the UK with contributors and readers on both sides of the Atlantic.
I’d never claim that democracy is the best governance for a nation at war; good decision-making takes time, but in urgent situations a strong leader comes in handy. It has taken the relative peace of modern times (still not peaceful, but more so than compared to earlier eras) for democracy to gain a foothold in the world. And democracy may be the best hope for continuing on a path towards a more peaceful world; the instances of democracies going to war against each other are rare.
As long as humans are fallible, no system of decision-making will be infallible. But I do think that small groups of diverse non-experts carefully studying a subject and deliberating together has a better chance of reaching good decisions than hierarchical stuctures.
Wholeheartedly agree with your vision here, Sean. I love how you point out that electoral support in the high 30s% is deemed inadequate for change which would bring about more representative government yet sufficient in our feeble democracy to give a majority mandate within it amounting to a blank slate they can fills as they wish for 4 years.
I have worked with deliberative assemblies and saw how effective they are to building solutions which are more readily adopted by a greater proportion of the population. To be able to move beyond a fine set of recommendations the political process needs to be clear from the outset, so that the government either backs the work from the start or precautions are built in to ensure these are publicized so political heat can insist upon it.
Thanks for writing this pièce and sparking this discussion.
Great piece Sean!
I was so bitter and disappointed when Trudeau killed electoral reform and reneged on his promise to never have another first-past-the-post election. I had spoken to the electoral reform committee on the Hill in favour of proportional representation like many others.
I am a just a very little optimistic that something good will come out of the passed motion below.
“On June 22, 2021, three parties (Liberals, NDP and Bloc) voted for NDP Democratic Reform Critic Daniel Blaikie’s motion at the Procedures and House Affairs (PROC) committee to study a National Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The Green Party also supports this, but did not have a seat on this committee.
The vote passed 7- 4, with only the Conservatives voting against it.”
Fair Vote Canada
It completely soured me on Trudeau, too. Even a Conservative, Michelle Rempel Garner, recently wrote an op-ed in which she advocated for proportional representation, so maybe there’s hope.