In the first blog about the BCCA, I described how the assembly worked, and how some of its features might – might – have influenced its recommendation. In this blog I talk about its legitimacy.
I’ll start by repeating an introductory paragraph from that first blog. The BCCA was set up by the government of British Columbia in Canada to review the electoral system, after two perverse election results with a large mismatch between votes and seats. 160 citizens met regularly throughout most of 2004 learning about and discussing electoral reform. In December 2004, their report, Making Every Vote Count, recommended that British Columbia move from First Past the Post (FPTP) to Single Transferable Vote (STV). The government of British Columbia had promised a referendum on the recommendation. But they also set a hurdle. The change would only happen if 60% of voters were in favour. Only 57.7% were, so no change was made.
OK, back to legitimacy. What is it? Put simply, it means that people accept the recommendation of an assembly as valid.
This in turn has various components. One is familiarity. When in 2006 an MP called David Chaytor, a Labour backbencher, proposed a citizens assembly for Britain, similar to the BCCA, it was dismissed by another MP, Andrew Turner, as ‘an adventure playground for political anoraks’. I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond that sort of reaction.
Second, do the participants look like us – are they a true cross-section of the population at large? This can be true in broad terms, but I don’t think assembly members can or should be a precise cross-section. For example, the participants in the BCCA tended to be ‘joiners’ such as soccer coaches or members of Parent-Teacher Associations.
There is by the way a relative aspect to these criteria? How well does an assembly do compared to the alternative, which is usually the legislature. In British Columbia, despite the joiners, the assembly was still much more diverse than the state legislature in terms of age, income, gender and other demographic characteristics.
It’s also expensive to have an assembly large enough to be representative. A citizens jury is like a citizens assembly, but with fewer people. Such a jury in Swansea in 1999 engaged 16 young people, fifteen or sixteen years old, on what they wanted their neighbourhoods to look like. One juror was strongly of the view that they were not a fair cross-section of the young people in the area, partly because of the absence of people from minority ethnic groups and partly because the number of jurors limited the range of views that were represented.
Of all the points I have made in this blog and the previous one, this is the one I most urge people designing a citizens assembly on climate change for Extinction Rebellion to think about. I believe that assembly members have a vital role after the assembly, and that this needs to be formalised.
I’ll illustrate this formalising using Wisdom Councils, an alternative to assemblies, which have been built into the system of government in Vorarlberg, the westernmost state of Austria. Publicity is part of the process. In 2015 for example, a Council was held on how to handle the influx of refugees. The participants in the council were involved in presenting its results to a wider group of citizens, stakeholders and people from government at two Civic Cafés.
I’ll end with another approach to publicity that is also a plug for Talk Shop. In 2018, parliament, in the shape of two select committees, commissioned its first citizens assembly, on adult social care and its funding. We have taken the 30 hours of discussion that assembly members had, and condensed it into a discussion kit that supports a two hour discussion. More details and how to get hold of a kit here, while a link to an online version is here.
In the case of assemblies, familiarity breeds not contempt but consent, not rejection but acceptance. Let’s keep talking about them.