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applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Citizens’ Initiative Reviews: Democracy via Vicarious Deliberation?

Although there has been much talk (or rather speculation) in deliberative democracy circles on the potential and possible pitfalls of “intensive” citizen deliberation–especially on Equality by Lot–there has been little discussion of actual deliberative forums in practice. Below is a video interview (first 16 minutes only) of two panelists from last fall’s Citizens’ Initiative Review pilot in Colorado. Further below, you will find links to two peer-reviewed articles evaluating the 2010 CIR in Oregon. Oregon is, to my knowledge, a unique contemporary example of the incorporation of citizen deliberation into a political system. The link at the end of the post is to Oregon’s CIR Commission and to the Statutes that govern it.

Panelists from the CIR pilot in Colorado last summer

Did They Deliberate” (Knobloch et al. 2013) evaluates the quality of the deliberation that took place during the first two official CIRs in the summer of 2010.

The findings, which are in line with other studies I’ve seen, can be summarized:
1) Intensive deliberation appears quite feasible in practice.
2) Panelists were strongest at weighing and presenting pros and cons of the measures.
3) Panelists were strong at checking factual accuracy of claims, although advocates and witnesses were not always prepared to comply.
4) On the other hand, panelists were not strong, perhaps because of the framework, at directly evaluating priorities & values.
5) Facilitation was adequate at keeping the process democratic, preventing domination of the discussion by any individuals and panelists overwhelmingly thought they had their chance to speak.
6) Panelists took the task seriously and felt time pressure at the stage of drafting the Statement.

Here are some highlights:

Criteria for assessment
Most working definitions of public deliberation incorporate three criteria: analytic rigor, democratic discussion, and well-reasoned decision making (Burkhalter, Gastil, & Kelshaw, 2002; Mansbridge, Hartz-Karp, Amengual, & Gastil, 2006). The analytic aspect of deliberation involves four steps: creating a solid information base, identifying and prioritizing key values, identifying a broad range of solutions, and weighing the pros and cons of decisions (Gouran & Hirokawa, 1996). This entails processing both factual information and the vantage points of affected parties with often conflicting values and viewpoints (Benhabib, 1996). A democratic social process requires four conditions: an adequate distribution of speaking opportunities, mutual comprehension, consideration, and respect (Burkhalter et al., 2002; Gastil, 1993, 2008; Mansbridge, 1980). This includes providing opportunities for all participants to express themselves and respecting different ways of speaking and reasoning (Young, 1996). Finally, deliberation requires well-reasoned decision making. Any collective decisions reached must reflect the considered judgments of the participants, who should be satisfied with and stable in their final judgments. Resolutions and policy choices should be reached through an appropriate decision rule (Cohen, 1989; Gastil, 1993; Mansbridge, 1980) that provides an opportunity for dissent (Barber, 1984).
In August 2010, HDO staff developed and convened two panels in Salem, Oregon. Each consisted of a random sample of 24 registered Oregon voters demographically stratified to match the Oregon electorate in terms of sex, age, ethnicity, education, geography, and party affiliation. For five days, citizen panelists, assisted by a pair of experienced moderators hired by HDO, reviewed a single ballot measure to develop insights and analysis for their Statement in the Voters’ Pamphlet. On the first day, panelists received training in deliberation. The moderators first presented the panelists with rules for discussion and emphasized ‘‘staying in learning mode’’ that they might hear the information presented before making a decision and maintain respect for one another and the presenters. Panelists then practiced a mini-version of the CIR process on a subject unrelated to the ballot initiative.
After the panels were completed, a professional service was hired to transcribe video and audiotapes of the proceedings to facilitate textual analysis. This also permitted assessment of the parts of the statement-writing segments, which HDO permitted us to record but not observe directly, lest our presence interfere with that delicate part of the process. Finally, with the help of the HDO staff, we maintained an archive of all the written evidence presented to the panelists.
1a. Learning basic issue information. The bulk of the CIR was structured to provide panelists with information. Days 2-4 involved hearing from and questioning advocates and witnesses, who largely succeeded in providing high-quality data and analysis (albeit along with less useful content, as well). When advocates and witnesses failed to include relevant information, the panelists usually could fill in the gaps by calling witnesses or questioning advocates. Staff provided copies of any written evidence presented, but the witnesses and advocates sometimes lacked such specifics. This hindered the panelists’ ability to comprehend the information, challenge claims, or utilize such content in their discussion. For example, during the first CIR panel, the proponents of mandatory sentencing argued that every dollar spent on incarceration saves the state four dollars, but they never backed up this assertion. Later, critics showed panelists a chart that indicated that each dollar spent on incarceration yields a net savings of just three cents. This could have been a crucial issue for the advocates, since cost-effectiveness was an important point in the deliberation; lacking direct evidence, however, the panelists were unable to weigh this claim fully.
1b. Examining underlying values. Though the CIR as a whole promoted rigorous analysis, the process did not provide sufficient conceptual and discursive space to address the values underlying many key arguments. Early in the process, moderators encouraged panelists to highlight larger ‘‘issues’’ (a term loosely defined to encompass values) to organize the claims raised by advocates and witnesses. Panelists could not, however, revisit the ‘‘issues’’ originally selected or add new ones. This prevented the panelists from addressing values that only became salient in light of new information and further reflection. As one panelist reviewing mandatory sentencing stated in her Wednesday comments, ‘‘I feel like perhaps we should re- evaluate our first core/central ideas. We chose them the first evening with little information behind us. Now, a few of them seem not important or at least less important.’’
2b. Comprehension of information. Small group discussions and the constant ability to ask questions encouraged comprehension of both ballot measures the CIR studied. As previously mentioned, on Day 1 the panelists underwent a training exercise that taught them how to sift information, distinguish larger issues from specific claims, and develop probing questions. Panelists used this training session as a frame of reference more than once during the small and large group discussions in which they identified and scrutinized claims made by the advocates and witnesses. During the question and answer sessions, moderators reminded panelists to ask for clarification about anything they did not understand and repeat questions that were not answered adequately. As one panelist noted, ‘‘The process . . . taught us how to extract critical information from proponent, opponent, and expert witness statements.’’ In sum, this suggests the utility of an appropriate training period during public deliberation.

After the Arguments in Favor and in Opposition to the measure were drafted, the panelists came back together to check the factual accuracy and conceptual clarity of one another’s drafts. Members of the HDO staff and the research team also used this time to check the factual accuracy of the Statements. The panelists in the pro and con caucuses then chose whether or not to incorporate one another’s suggestions. In every instance, the groups chose to make those suggested changes that resulted in more careful and accurate Statements–in one case catching a rather large statistical error in the Arguments in Favor for mandatory minimums.

Vicarious Deliberation” (Gastil et al. 2014) evaluates the impact that those same CIRs in 2010 had on the electorate.

This study can be summarized:
1) The impact of the CIR Statements on the electorate was complex; voters didn’t simply follow the Panel’s recommendation.
2) Public awareness of the Statement was low, but those who read it found it helpful.
3) The Statement is different from the information currently provided in the Voters’ Guide because it contains analysis and evaluation.
4) The format of the Statement may not allow enough room for ambiguity; it appeared to have caused panelists to adopt findings that were less ambiguous than their drafts and discussions.
5) It was recommended (and later adopted) that the voting threshold for Key Findings and Shared Agreement sections be raised from 14/24 to 18/24 of the panelists to encourage consideration of minority positions.

Some highlights:

The state of Oregon established the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) to improve the quality of public deliberation during direct elections. To better understand how a deliberative “mini-public” can influence electoral deliberation on complex ballot issues, we analyzed the 2010 CIR’s Citizens’ Statements as well as how the Oregon electorate used them. Analysis of this case shows the political feasibility of intensive deliberation and the Oregon public’s appreciation of having access to neutral information developed by peers. This study also examines how the CIR Statements were written, their distinctive topical coverage relative to conventional voting guides, and what they left out of their policy analyses.
The legislation establishing the CIR required that the panel consist of a representative sample of between 18 and 24 registered Oregon voters, that the panelists meet for five consecutive days, that the process be implemented by a nonprofit organization with experience implementing such panels, and that the process should result in a four-part statement for the official Oregon voters’ pamphlet written by the panelists. In practice this equated to four distinct sections of each Citizens’ Statement that appeared in the voters’ pamphlet: a Key Findings statement of relevant information that at least 14 panelists (more than a majority) considered accurate and important, statements in favor of and opposed to the measure, each written by the subset of panelists who supported or opposed the measure, and a Shared Agreement statement adopted by a majority of the panelists (14), which ultimately contained a brief comment on the CIR process. (In addition, the secretary of state provided a 150-word description of the CIR process itself.)

The Oregon State Legislature approved the bill on June 16, 2009, and on June 26, 2009, Governor Kulongoski signed the bill into law. With Oregon holding initiative elections every other year, the first CIR was then held in 2010. Afterward, the legislature reviewed its performance, because the 2009 legislation had a sunset clause that committed the state to a one-time use of the CIR. When the evenly divided legislature opted to make the CIR permanent in 2011, it passed with bipartisan support. The CIR imposes no significant cost on the state, because private donations cover the expense of its operations. Consequently, few spoke out against the measure, although its support was not universal, as a bloc of conservative Republicans voted in opposition.
By contrast, regardless of one’s initial views on the medical marijuana initiative (Measure 74), three-quarters or more of each group rated the Statement as at least “somewhat important.” Among those who initially opposed the measure, however, a much smaller percentage (11%) found the Statement to be “very important” than did those who were undecided or in favor (45% and 41%, respectively).
More direct approaches to measuring impact have been presented elsewhere, but briefly, a survey experiment and a cross-sectional phone survey both showed evidence of the CIR Statements turning many voters against both Measure 73 and 74 (Gastil & Knobloch, 2010). For instance, online respondents who had not yet voted or read the voters’ pamphlet were placed in four experimental groups, and only those who were shown the Citizens’ Statement on Measure 73 changed from support (over 60% in favor of the measure) to strong opposition (59% opposed).

The desire to produce factually accurate statements carried through when crafting the final Statements. The transcripts from the statement-writing session provide an example. Proponents of mandatory sentencing argued that a $1 investment in incarceration ultimately saved the state $4 but did not produce evidence to substantiate this claim. When writing the Citizens’ Statement section in favor of the measure, the panelists supporting mandatory sentencing chose to exclude this information, even though it would support their cause, because they could not independently verify it:
them to use the information base they had established to make a well-reasoned decision. Although it is difficult to measure whether the panelists did take advantage of the best available information in deciding how to vote, the Citizens’ Statements were well informed and contained the best available information provided to the panelists.

Panelist 1: We didn’t want to put every one dollar spent saves four dollars.
Panelist 2: It would be good if we had a way to prove, I mean but—
Panelist 1: We don’t have a way of showing that.
Panelist 2: —somebody else next to those charts, then there’s another one from that same group that says it’s only a dollar and three cents, so we don’t want to get it mixed up.
Panelist 1: We don’t want to get that confused, yeah.

Because the panelists had been presented with conflicting information, they chose to exclude a piece of information rather than mislead voters, illustrating that the panelists chose the best available information when writing their statements.


For more information about the process in Oregon, visit the CIR Commission’s webpage below. Note that after the initial pilot, there have been three iterations of the CIR process in Oregon, 2010, 2012, & 2014, each year two ballot initiatives are evaluated by two separate Citizen Juries that meet for 4-5 days. It is an achievement that the Commission is mostly composed of former panelists and moderators, keeping it mostly outside the control of the political parties.
Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review Commission


One comment on “Citizens’ Initiative Reviews: Democracy via Vicarious Deliberation?

  1. Pingback: Ahmed Teleb on Citizens’ Initiative Reviews | Equality by lot

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