Citizens’ Initiative Review: Helping citizens make better informed voting choices
An interview with Linn Davis
Linn Davis is a programme manager at Healthy Democracy, a US-based nonpartisan non-profit that designs and coordinates deliberative democracy programs. He manages the Citizens’ Initiative Review program, as well as design and outreach for emerging local government and high school programs.
The Citizens’ Initiative Review is a unique deliberative process. In the OECD’s forthcoming report Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave (2020), it is categorised as a distinct deliberative model. What is it about the CIR that makes it different?
Usually representative deliberative processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies are initiated when the government is interested in informed citizen recommendations on policy questions. The Citizens’ Initiative Review is set up to enable informed citizen evaluation of ballot measures that are soon to be voted on by the public. So citizens are preparing helpful material for other citizens, rather than for the government.
What is the Citizens’ Initiative Review?
The Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) is a representative deliberative process that provides a platform for a representative group of citizens to evaluate proposed ballot measures and provide informed arguments for both sides of the issue. This citizen statement then goes out to all voters alongside their ballot papers. The final output of the CIR is not addressed to the government, but rather to fellow citizens, helping them make better informed choices when it comes to voting on a ballot measure.
How does it work?
The state of Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Reviews typically gather an average of 22 randomly selected citizens for four consecutive days. Before the first meeting, citizens have no information about the policy question they will be addressing. Due to the political pressures of these reviews, organisers do not prepare briefing documents in advance; rather, citizens receive all testimony directly from campaigns and experts during the review.
The process begins with training for participants, covering the fundamentals of deliberating and evaluating information. Participants then assess written evidence submitted by those for and against the ballot measure, and question independent experts and campaigners. The participants then add to, edit, deliberate on, and prioritise all the evidence collected.
The result is a collective statement drafted by the participants that includes the most important information for both sides of the ballot question that all voters should know. Their final statement is presented publicly in a press conference and is included in the voters’ pamphlet.
How did the Citizens’ Initiative Review come about?
The Citizens’ Initiative Review was developed by Healthy Democracy around 2008. At that time, representative deliberative processes such as Citizens’ Juries were not very well known in the US; the only organisation implementing them was the Jefferson Center.
The rationale behind creating a deliberative process linked to the ballot measures was to produce better quality voter information that voters would trust. So a classic Citizens’ Jury model was modified and adopted for this specific goal.
How was it institutionalised into state law?
The CIR was institutionalised in 2011 in a fast and unprecedented way. Healthy Democracy was in touch with a wide range of current and former politicians to introduce the idea. Some of them were sceptical as they did not trust randomly selected citizens being able to evaluate arguments and facts fairly, or doubted that it is a good use of Oregon state funds. However, others were interested in the idea. We also did door-to-door canvassing to gain grassroots citizen support for the CIR.
Thanks to our advocacy efforts, in 2010, we had a chance to do an officially authorised pilot CIR process in Oregon. No funding was provided, but the state agreed to use the outputs. This is how we got our foot in the door.
After the successful pilot and a positive independent evaluation from academia — a report from John Gastil — the legislature was convinced of the value of the process and passed a law in 2011 to institutionalise it.
The output of the CIR — the citizens’ statement — was granted an official place in the Voters’ Pamphlet, which reaches all Oregon households. However, the institutionalisation only happened with a guarantee at the time that the CIR will never be publicly funded.
So it was important to have independent evaluation from the very first CIR?
Independent evaluation of the process by John Gastil was in fact key to convincing the legislature to make the CIR permanent. The rather positive evaluation showed the validity and usefulness of the process, as well as that citizens could produce information that was accurate, fair, comprehensive, and readable to non-experts. Since then, the same academic team has evaluated every CIR.
I believe it should be standard for every practice across the world, giving it credibility and legitimacy. Evaluation is also equally important for us as practitioners. We change and improve the process as a result.
As it has been almost ten years since the CIR was put into law, what have you observed that works well?
What I think works well and can be an example for others is the way that the CIR is governed and how the ballot measures to be reviewed by citizens are selected. The CIR is governed by a committee called the CIR Commission. It’s composed of 11 people from three different groups. The first group is the politicians, who are appointed by the governor (two of them from the opposition party, one from the party in power). The second group is four former moderators of CIRs. The third group is comprised of four former participants of CIRs.
I think the composition of the Commission is ingenious in the way it balances perspectives and interests well: it is a mix of people who are primarily concerned with political questions and those who are there to ensure the process of the CIR is of high quality.
Each year, the CIR Commission selects one or two ballot measures to be reviewed by citizens. These could be initiatives (coming from citizens/interest groups) or referendums (coming from the legislature). They choose it based on the following criteria, which so far has also worked well: whether is it a constitutional issue, how much of an effect it has on the budget, how controversial the issue is, whether it is likely to cause voters a lot of confusion, and how much money is likely to be spent on the campaign.
The CIR Commission also hires two outside groups to implement the process — the process practitioners and the academic group that selects the experts who will present to the citizens’ panel. What has worked very well so far has been this institutionalised separation between the political decisions that the Commission makes, the process practitioners, and the independent evaluators. I think it helps us avoid legitimacy problems.
What do you think could be improved?
What works less well is that the CIR is privately funded. It was a trade-off we made to get the CIR into law, but it also set us up for a situation where raising funds for each CIR is unsustainable. At some point, the foundations were no longer interested in funding the CIR. Private funding also creates a conflict of interest, as Healthy Democracy was raising the funds for the CIR Commission and then was hired to implement the process.
As a result, in 2016 we decided not to privately fund the CIR anymore. Since then, we have been lobbying for state funding and no new CIRs have taken place in Oregon since 2016.
What we have learned is that no process should be promised private funding in perpetuity. It is important that every deliberative process should have at least some level of public financial buy-in and the expectation should be that if it goes well, the share would increase in the future. I know it is not always possible to do something publicly funded from the very first process, but in places where it has happened before, public funding should be the goal.
Do you think the CIR can work on various levels of government?
Absolutely. It is applicable where there is a policy issue with a strict binary choice, constructed for a referendum or an initiative. We have implemented CIRs on city, county, regional, and state levels. There have also been a couple of them implemented in Europe last year — in Finland and Switzerland, so they have proven to work in various contexts.
What would you advise those who are designing a new democratic institution such as the CIR in their communities?
One should always try to institutionalise at any level, no matter how small it is. For example, if you do a deliberative process on the local level, try to get a commitment from the city council to do one at least every year. It is already a small step forward! Never do a process without follow up. Ad hoc projects do not necessarily lead to institutional reform as one might hope.
This post is part of the New Democratic Institutions series. Read the other articles:
The New Democratic Institutions Participo series will take a closer look at how some of the institutionalised representative deliberative processes came about, how they function, and what lessons can be drawn from their implementation so far.
An interview with Yves Dejaeghere, one of the key people involved in designing the permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien, the German-speaking Community of Belgium.