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Deliberative Democracy • Innovation

A laboratory of deliberative democracy

Peter MacLeod - 14 July 2015

How Canada led the way in democratic innovation

Over the past decade Canada has quietly become something of an unrecognised laboratory for democratic innovation and experimentation. Since the completion of two provincial citizens' assemblies on electoral reform, in 2004 and 2006, policymakers across the country have been turning with growing regularity to panels of impartial and randomly selected citizens to advise government. These bodies — known alternatively as reference panels, citizens' assemblies and citizens commissions — have come to play an increasingly central, if under appreciated, role in developing and reviewing sensitive public policies.

This month three significant deliberative processes were completed, including the year-long Grandview-Woodland Citizens' Assembly which advised Vancouver's City Council on land-use planning, the Metrolinx Residents' Reference Panel in Toronto which provided detailed guidance concerning the development of a $200m rail overpass in a densely populated neighbourhood; and Canada's first national reference panel for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which brought 36 randomly selected Canadians to Ottawa to identify priorities for a forthcoming national mental health action plan. These projects are only the latest in a growing list of ambitious initiatives. From cancer care protocols to privacy legislation to new regulations for condominiums, policymakers are increasingly inclined to refer controversial issues for public review.  So why has Canada proved to be a fertile political space for deliberation?

First, Canada has benefitted from having the right mix of institutional advocates and actors. A small constellation of municipalities, provincial health systems, university centres and practitioners have consistently invested in innovation, identified policy opportunities that are well-suited to deliberative input, and put a practical emphasis on doing the work rather than speculating about it.

Second, in Canada the work has largely been spared the attention of political parties, allowing the field to mature under the protection and support of a professional public service. This stands in contrast to other jurisdictions, like Britain, where early involvement by political parties quickly soured public interest by undermining the legitimacy and perceived impartiality of these processes.

Now several important conventions have taken root that broadly shape the culture of deliberative work in Canada.

Importantly, there is broad agreement that deliberative processes are complementary to — but no replacement for — the work of public servants, stakeholders and decisionmakers. Too often proponents of deliberative processes, and public engagement more generally, have a tendency to make themselves out to be more legitimate than the public authorities they serve. This is both wrong and counterproductive.  Deliberative processes have also helped to upend the pervasive myth of civic apathy. Panels, commissions and assemblies have played a constructive role by consistently demonstrating a viable counter-narrative: that there is a deep reservoir of public interest and ability available to government that is waiting to be tapped. 

Last, governments and practitioners alike have been modest about their goals and careful to manage expectations. Though they are an important tool for bridging citizens and government, deliberative processes are not the answer to every democratic question. They require a clearly defined task, sufficient time to learn about an issue from different perspectives, access to impartial expertise, and an arm's length relationship to government to ensure their independence and integrity.   Now the major focus for Canada is not innovation, but normalcy. Methodology and novel techniques are less interesting than accelerating the pace and reach of emerging standards. To do so, advocates will need to turn their efforts to see that the work becomes properly embedded within public institutions.

One solution that is currently being proposed would establish a merit-based funding model within government that awards deliberative services to internal proponents with the strongest case for policy impact. This would go a distance to increasing the professionalism and reach of these processes, while safeguarding their independence and integrity. Hopefully this proposal will go forward. Until then the most important key to sustained innovation will be simply waking up and doing it again.

Peter MacLeod is one of Canada's leading experts in public engagement and deliberative democracy. He is principal of MASS LBP, which has led some of Canada's most original and ambitious efforts to engage citizens in tackling tough policy choices

The Grandview-Woodland Citizens' Assembly is one of the case studies detailed in our new report by Claudia Chwalisz: The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change


Tags: Peter MacLeod , Canada , Deliberative Democracy , Grandview-Woodlands Citizens' Assembly , citizens' assemblies , public engagement , deliberation

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