A woman’s place is at the policy table … and how citizens’ assemblies are helping make that happen

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When the governments of British Columbia and Ontario announced that they would convene Citizens’ Assemblies to explore the issues of electoral reform and democratic renewal, they introduced a new mechanism for decision making into our political process—a mechanism that has the potential to bring more women to Canada’s decision-making tables and to transform politics in the process.

Tens of thousands of citizens throughout both provinces were notified that they had been randomly selected from the electoral lists and invited to put their names forward for a draw to become members in the Citizens’ Assemblies. At selection meetings throughout both provinces, 250 eligible members were randomly picked to serve on the assembly. Those selected spent many months (18 in British Columbia and nine in Ontario) learning, deliberating and finally developing collective recommendations about electoral reform that were put forward in referendums. While the public rejected the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations to reform the political system, remarkable things took place in the meeting rooms of the assemblies.

Unlike their legislative counterparts, these assemblies brought together a diverse group of citizens to act as political representatives for their own communities. Members were chosen through a random selection process, which designated an equal number of places in the Citizens’ Assemblies for men and women.  This ensured that women were given an equal number of seats at this political table, and a different kind of politics soon emerged.  This was not about adversarial fighting matches between partisan factions; the assemblies were about building public understanding and consensus decision making.

The Citizens’ Assembly process involved four distinct phases: first, a civic lottery where citizens are randomly selected to serve. Members then participate in a learning phase where they hear from a range of experts, with diverse perspectives and opinions. In both British Columbia and Ontario, citizens then conducted community meetings to gather input and reflections from their fellow citizens. The members then re-group to spend time deliberating and working to establish a consensus on recommendations for decision makers.

In an age where 54% counts as an overwhelming majority, this mechanism goes much further to facilitate collective decision making. In Ontario’s process, 92% of the assembly members agreed on its recommendations. In British Columbia, 80% of the members endorsed their recommendation.

This is a different beast from town halls, community meetings, or answering a public opinion poll. Rather than the traditional modes of involving the public, where public opinion is tapped on specific questions or issues, citizens at the assembly have a seat at the decision-making table. In their role as members, they act as representatives and trustees on behalf of their communities. In the words of renowned public opinion researcher, Daniel Yankelovich, the assembly process results in “a richer public judgment.” 

In an effort to bring this process to scale, a Toronto-based group has set up a little shop called MASS LBP and are designing processes based on the citizens’ assembly for a range of public issues. MASS recently worked with the South East Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), one of Ontario’s 14 regional health authorities. When the Ontario government created the LHINs, one of the goals was to create more opportunities for citizens to be involved in health-care planning in their own communities.

A pilot of this process, the Citizens’ Regional Health Assembly was convened and 3,000 special invitations were issued to residents from throughout the region. This citizen-led project was designed to accomplish two goals: to produce a compelling vision statement that would help orient the design and delivery of health services in the region; and to demonstrate the practicality and power of working directly with citizens to make informed decisions. Each resident was invited to put his or her name forward for a further draw, where 54 citizens would become the members of the Citizens’ Regional Health Assembly. Members worked over the course of a weekend to develop the vision statement, which was then adopted by the LHIN’s board.  A new assembly is anticipated to convene in the spring of 2009, where citizens would work over the course of three months to inform the three-year strategic plan for health care in the region.

Unlike the formal legislative institutions that were created in an age where only white men of property were allowed to stand for office, the assembly model allows for a different and new set of players to learn the game of politics. By randomly selecting citizens, but keeping in mind dimensions such as gender, ethnicity, age, education, urban/rural, we create a new way of doing politics. The assembly automatically ensured that women would be equally represented, achieving far greater than our ambitions of reaching over 30% to form a critical mass. Suddenly, we had a group of citizen representatives that looked a lot more like the region they came from than an elected body. 

In both the BC and Ontario processes, members were provided with an honorarium for their participation at each session of the assembly. This was one way that members were compensated and recognized for their substantial contribution and commitment to the process. It also helped to ensure that members with lower incomes were able to participate in the process. 

Few in Canada would challenge the idea that more women are needed in public life. But, given the dismal track record of our political parties to change the infrastructure and the culture of our politics to be more inclusive to women, this civic lottery process would allow more women and other underrepresented groups the opportunity to take a seat at the decision-making tables.

Across a range of public issues, whether it is health care, climate change, poverty, childcare, the opportunity exists to ensure that all Canadians have a hand in shaping these decisions. As a feminist, and a political junkie who spent time as a young woman wandering the halls of Parliament Hill, first as an intern, then as a political staffer, it is so exciting to see how we can use this new mechanism to address the infinite range of public policy issues and to provide women a fair shot at putting in their two cents. 

Chi Nguyen is the Director of Participation and Process at MASS LBP and is a member of the board at the Canadian Women’s Health Network.