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The Edmonton Citizen Panel: An experiment in democracy

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  • The Edmonton Citizen Panel: An experiment in democracy

    Political life is all around us. From the playground to the factory floor, and from the hockey arena to the art gallery. We are all engaged in working out the question of, “who will make the decisions – big and small.” But the push and pull of political life arises from another question, perhaps the most difficult and durable question of all for communities and societies. It began with Aristotle’s Politics and has persisted for centuries. It’s the question of democracy, of “who will have a say.” The Edmonton Citizen Panel, which begins on February 21, 2009, will provide citizens with a stronger voice in municipal decision-making.

    Direct democracy – the rule by all, for all – began with the Greek city-states in about 500 B.C. For the ancient Greeks, it was called demokratia, meaning “power of the people.” By the time of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), hundreds of cities were governed by the principle of direct democracy. All free Greek men met from time to time in the agora, or civic space, to hear about issues of the day, express their views, and come to a consensus on important decisions. Aristotle described two other forms of governance by way of comparison. Oligarchies featured government by a small group of wealthy, educated citizens, while monarchies gave power to a single head of state. Societies over the millennia have run countless variations on these three forms of governance, but the sparks of conflict continue to fly most often from the flint of democracies.

    Interest in new methods of aspiring to the democratic ideal has increased in tandem with widening access to the Internet. Many feel that if we used the Internet to achieve a new visibility in and around government, we could conceivably allow almost everyone to participate in public decision-making. As the articulate and expressive Cambridge communications scholar John B. Thompson states, the new visibility can be bidirectional, that is, occurring in two directions. Thompson writes that, “since the advent of print, political rulers have found it impossible to control completely the new kind of visibility made possible by the media and to shape it entirely to their liking; now, with the rise of the Internet and other digital technologies, it is more difficult than ever.”

    The great promise of the Internet is that the opposing direction of the new visibility may also appear, with citizens speaking decisively to decision-makers and legislators. Using the text, images, and sounds of organized political events, some citizens could contribute to public policy directly. Others might use technology to observe, respond, and participate indirectly, or in relation only to those decisions in which they had a particular stake. Perhaps only a small number of people would choose to deliberate on ownership of information on the Internet – the feeling of many might be that the issue is not likely to affect them personally. But vast numbers could be part of a public deliberation on a government’s ability to eavesdrop on citizens, considering the question’s implications for everyone.

    British Columbians felt that electoral reform was too far-reaching in importance to leave in the hands of a few. In 2004, the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in that province began its work, eventually attracting worldwide attention for its innovative method of proposing electoral reform. One hundred and sixty participants were chosen randomly from the voters’ list, to ensure that no large group of citizens was left unrepresented. And Assembly members were assured from the start that their work would not be in vain. The provincial government committed to putting the Assembly’s recommendations on a plebiscite. The Assembly put forward a daring but well-considered proposal for a “single transferable vote” for elections, an innovation comparable to proportional representation. The proposal was narrowly defeated in 2005. A similar initiative followed in Ontario, with a plebiscite held in 2007, also defeated. The B.C. plebiscite will be held again before the end of this year, as required by law, after the public has had more time to digest it. Though not successful at the ballot box, the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly has been described by both activists and intellectuals as a milestone event in which the direct democratic practices of ancient Athens were joined artfully and effectively with modern methods of public policy-development.

    Following the model of the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly, the City of Edmonton has asked its citizens to discuss the largest of political challenges in any municipal government, which is how to spend the annual budget. The Citizen Panel will provide the first-person voices and narratives at key points in the program. The Edmonton Citizen Panel will be made up of 50 residents from all walks of life and representing the diversity of Edmonton’s population of about a million. Panelists will spend six of their Saturdays, from February until April this year, learning about everything from whether to renovate some or all of the 16 public library branches to the effectiveness of the City’s snow removal system. In Canada, no citizen group has ever been given such a broad mandate. The City of Edmonton’s entire $2 billion annual budget is within the Citizen Panel’s purview. The selection of panelists is by randomly generated invitation drawn from the voters’ list, and the link to public policy is clear. City Councilors voted 11 to 1 to consider seriously the Panel’s recommendations. The Edmonton Citizen Panel will showcase a vivid example of civic engagement – and a form of adult education for panelists and those who participate indirectly using technology – between a representative group of citizens and legislators in a public space and visible to all residents.

    -- Marco Adria, University of Alberta

    Related websites:
    Edmonton Citizen Panel:
    B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform:
    Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform:
    John B. Thompson and the new visibility:
    Public deliberation after 9/11:
    John Gastil and public deliberation: