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E-petitions aren't enough - Britain should learn from the 'Oregon model' of citizen juries

For the first time in Britain, the public has used e-petitions to successfully push for Parliamentary debates - but we could go much further. We need only take some lessons from across the Atlantic, where Oregon has set up citizen juries and embedded direct democracy at the heart of government.

For the first time in Britain, the public has used e-petitions to successfully push for Parliamentary debates - but we could go much further. We need only take some lessons from across the Atlantic, where Oregon has set up citizen juries and embedded direct democracy at the heart of government.

The Government’s new e-petition website has collected hundreds of petitions from members of the public keen to see their issue debated in Parliament. In the last week, the two with the most signatures, one demanding that people convicted of rioting have their benefits stopped, and one calling for the release of the Hillsborough disaster papers, have made their way into the Parliamentary chamber.

The government’s aim is to allow citizens’ voices to be heard directly in Parliament. However, the fact that MPs ignored the key issue raised by riot petition demonstrates how difficult this will be in practice.

Recent developments in the Pacific Northwest state of Oregon make it clear that there are ways that petitions can be used to raise the tone and substance of public debate. Oregon recently became the first American state to institutionalise a citizens jury-style process to improve one method of lawmaking known as the citizens' initiative. The tale of how the Oregon Citizens' Initiative Review (CIR) made it into state law is instructive for anyone seeking to embed public participation in government, wherever they may live.

Oregon has historically been a democratic innovator. During the gilded age of the 1890s, "big money" (particularly railroad and oil companies) regularly bought off politicians to ensure laws supported their interests. In response the new state of Oregon adopted several Swiss-style direct democracy tools to empower people to bypass and/or limit the impact of corrupt politicians. One important tool was the citizens' initiative which allows ordinary citizens to propose a law, put it to a popular vote and see it enter directly into law. Women's suffrage and the eight-hour workday have been two of its greatest achievements. Inspired by its success, other American states later adopted elements of the "Oregon system" of direct democracy.

Fast forward a hundred years and "big money" has now learned to use the citizens' initiative for its own benefit. In recent years state policy making, especially budgeting, has been distorted by a flurry of anti-tax, anti-public services citizens' initiatives from a handful of wealthy "policy entrepreneurs". In response the state legislature has enacted politically-divisive technical reforms making it harder for initiatives to qualify for the ballot. In Oregon, unlike other states, the citizens' initiative tool itself has become a bitterly partisan issue.

Healthy Democracy Oregon, however, developed a reform that all involved could embrace. Its Citizens Initiative Review (CIR) uses a citizens jury style process to study each citizens' initiative in-depth. It then produces a one-page summary of its findings which is included in the official state voter's guide. This is then sent to all registered Oregon voters. Most voters' only sources of information on an initiative are advertising (often misleading), and statements in the voter's guide which are paid for by the initiative's supporters and opponents (also often misleading). The CIR statement is thus a dramatic improvement on existing voter information.

In Spring 2011, after a field test, and a state-sponsored pilot and rigorous scientific evaluation, the Oregon state legislature made the CIR a permanent part of Oregon elections. Unlike other reforms to the citizens' initiative, the CIR has been relatively uncontroversial.

The approach adopted by its organisers, Healthy Democracy Oregon, is instructive for others who seek to embed deliberative democracy processes in government. Specifically they:  

  • Focused on one aspect of a specific issue about which there was wide-spread agreement that something needed to be done: poor voter information for citizens' initiatives.

  • Involved all key players all the way through the process, from the state's main election official to the very "policy entrepreneurs" some blame for ruining the citizen's initiative.

  • Considered early on how the CIR might be implemented into law, adding to its seriousness and making it difficult to dismiss as an idealistic experiment.

  • Broke the process down into multiple small, unthreatening steps that were easy to support: outreach to explore the idea, field test to trial methodology, legislation for a real-life pilot project, scientific evaluation to measure its impact on voters and finally legislation to make permanent.

  • Anticipated potential opponents' charges of bias in the process, and regularly and methodically evaluated the neutrality of their work, as well as observed as much transparency as possible.

  • Evaluated not just the process, but also the CIR's impact on voter behaviour and panellists' civic engagement. Voters not only found the CIR statement helpful, but an online test-control study showed a dramatic difference in support for the particular initiative between those who read it and those who did not. Furthermore, panellists (citizen participants) became more politically self-confident and engaged in their local communities.*

  • Separated the CIR process from its funding. The law institutionalising the CIR allows for a range of funding sources, both governmental and non-governmental. This allows the process to become institutionalised even at a time when state finances are tight.

In 2012, a state commission will be formed to oversee the first official CIRs for initiatives on the 2012 ballot. As the CIR becomes better known and more citizens participate, it will be possible to learn even more about the impact of the CIR on both voters' behaviour and panellists' long-term civic engagement. Also, while this process was created specifically for the citizens' initiative, now that it has been institutionalised, it could potentially be extended to include other methods of lawmaking.

So keep your eyes on Oregon. The American state which first demonstrated what direct democracy could achieve is now set to show the world just what deliberative democracy, once institutionalised, can do.

For more information on the Oregon Citizen's Initiative Review visit www.healthydemocracyoregon.org.

* Evaluation Report to the Oregon State Legislature on the 2010 Oregon Citizen's Initiative Review

About the authors

Janice Thomson is EU Public Engagement Advisor for Involve and is based in Brussels.

Simon Burall is director of Involve, an organisation that designs and promotes processes for public participation in government. 


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