Canadian Political Scientist Delivers Public Lecture On Citizens’ Assemblies and Political Reform

Posted on: 26 October 2010

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution has just recommended that Ireland create a Citizens’ Assembly to consider electoral reform.  But what are Citizens’ Assemblies?  How do they work?  And can ordinary citizens really be expected to deal with the question of deciding what kind of electoral system a country needs?  At a recent public lecture organised by the Policy Institute at Trinity College, Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, Professor Ken Carty, delivered a lecture entitled An Innovative Exercise in Citizen Decision-Making.

Professor Ken Carty was the Director of Research for the world’s first Citizen Assembly on Electoral Reform held in British Columbia, and later consulted on others including one held in the Netherlands.  In this talk he addressed the questions about Citizens’ Assemblies and explored what previous experience teaches us.

Citizens’ Assemblies draw on the work and talent of a random group of citizens who commit to serious study of the problems before them.  They then ask hard questions about what underlying values need to be the basis for their decisions, and they then work to seek a broadly acceptable consensus.  To the surprise of the sceptics, ordinary citizens rise to the challenge. In each case the Assemblies have come to a successful conclusion and made major recommendations that have gone to either a public referendum (the Canadian cases) or directly to the government (Netherlands).

In his talk Professor Carty identified several of the key factors that account for citizens’ ability to make these kinds of deliberative assemblies work.  These included the method of their selection, the character of their mandate, and the importance of the issue they are charged with considering.

Carty also considered what happens when citizens rather than politicians are charged with sorting out big questions about how a society ought to organize its political affairs.  The Assembly experience reveals that citizens are ready and willing to take on the responsibility, are capable of mastering the briefs, prepared to operate in a consensual rather than adversarial fashion, and often see the problems (and so solutions) differently than do the politicians.

In British Columbia, ordinary citizens met and considered how best to organize their electoral process. They decided they wanted a system that combined the best of proportionality, voter choice and local representation so they recommended abolishing First Past the Post and replacing it with STV! 

The Policy Institute at TCD regularly delivers a range of public events, hosts visiting scholars and publishes a series of policy briefs or blue papers which provide short, rigorous, but accessible analyses of policy issues.  During 2010-2011 the Institute will host a programme of public conferences and seminars which highlight the contribution of philosophy and social science to current public issues, ranging from business ethics through city governance to university-region relationships.  More information on upcoming events can be found online.