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Perry Walker writes:

Initiatives and Deliberation (I&D): A Proposal for a Democratic Innovation


The name for this proposal is of course chosen to parallel I & R – Initiatives and Referendums. They were introduced in many US states between the 1890s and the 1920s. They were inspired by the Swiss system of referendums, which itself goes back no further than 1848. I chose the parallel in order to encourage myself in the belief that things can change.
The rationale for this suggestion, though, is very different from I & R in the USA. That was intended to counter the capture of local governments by special interests. The intent here is to contribute to a democracy of talk, to what the 1960s British politician Richard Crossman called a ‘live and articulate public opinion, able to criticise actively and make its own choices’.
No such proposal is original. This one draws heavily on Tuscany’s law on public participation and its Regional Participation Authority. Let’s take a look.

Tuscany’s law on public participation

The law was in force between 2008 and 2013. The Regional Participation Authority was in fact a single individual, called Rodolfo Lewanski. He is a professor of political science at the University of Bologna.
The law covered two different scales: the regional – covering large infrastructure projects – and the local, for local actors that wanted to run deliberative processes. (The name of the law is a misnomer: it did not cover processes that are participative but not deliberative, such as local referendums.) Requests could come from: local authorities; schools; firms; and citizens. In the case of citizens, the signature of between 0.5% and 5% of the residents was needed. The percentage varied inversely with the size of the community.
The Authority was allocated 700,000 Euros a year. In that period from 2008 to 2013, 220 requests were made and 116 were funded, at a cost of 3.6 million Euros. That’s an average of a bit over 30,000 Euros. 80% of the successful requests came from local authorities, but 14 were from schools and 11 from citizens.
The Authority advised on methods and on negotiating the content and design of processes. Lewanski says that he pushed the use of random sampling. There was some initial resistance, but most processes came to adopt it.
The local authorities were not obliged to follow the results. Those results might, for example, cut across their electoral mandate. If they didn’t follow them, though, they had to publish their reasons. As Lewanski puts it, rather neatly, their autonomy was respected, but their discretionary power was compressed.

The proposal for I & D

Any region could adapt this model. It shouldn’t need a law, or its equivalent – it could begin on an entirely voluntary basis. In the UK, I could imagine Wales, Scotland, Greater Manchester or the West Midlands having a go.

I & D in any country should build on what already exists. In the UK, a parish meeting can be called by any six residents. (Ten residents can call a parish poll. I helped call one in 2005, in a town in the English county of Herefordshire, to show that the views of the people on a planning proposal were not being taken into account by the planning committee.)

It should also draw upon any useful precedents. Also in Herefordshire, I was asked by the local council some years ago to organise a dialogue about the mobile library service. I arranged for the council to produce a ‘Statement of Influence’. This stated that there were some things that could not change – the budget and the number and type of library vans. But much else was up for discussion and for change, such as when and where the vans stopped and what they stocked. At each event, this statement was on display. The library staff explained both the statement and how people’s views would be taken into account.
I & D should also borrow from elsewhere. I like what happens in Switzerland with referendums. When an initiative attracts the 100,000 signatures required, there is a process of negotiation between the initiators and the parliamentary parties. This often leads to the government agreeing to change legislation to the satisfaction of the initiators, who then withdraw their initiative. If not, the referendum goes ahead.

Random sampling and its alternatives

Of course, the budget is likely to be much lower than in Tuscany, at least to start with. Involve, the UK participation organisation, put the costs of a full-blown citizens assembly at £66 – £100k, which I could imagine being the entire annual budget for the nations and regions of the UK mentioned above. So if random sampling is to be used, as recommended by Lewanski in Tuscany, it would have to be via a citizens jury. This has 12 – 24 members, as opposed to the 50+ of an Assembly, so is a lot cheaper. Involve put the cost at £15 – 20k. Even so…

Talk Shop has developed many discussion kits, plus formats such as Crowd Wise and the Win-Win Workout, which are much cheaper and easier to organise. But we acknowledge at least two issues when random sampling is not involved.

The first is a point made in Switzerland: “Direct democracy is demanding, and participation rates fluctuate fairly widely. So, especially when participation is low, the choir of Swiss direct democracy sings in upper and middle class tones.” One of the main roles of whoever takes on the Lewanski role will be to advise on how to avoid this.
The second is related to the first. From where comes the legitimacy of the process, if not from random sampling, from a mini-public? It depends on the nature of the issue. Take the mobile library discussions. It is evident that users of the service were more relevant than a random sample of the population. It was their experience that was wanted. They said things like “Avoid clashes with the over 60s club” and “Older people best in the mornings – have a doze after lunch.” Even then, we could have paid more attention to actual or potential users who weren’t present – people who were housebound, for instance. Another crucial question for the new Lewanski.


What are we waiting for? Who wants to be first?