Would you trust randomly selected citizens to be the source of insight for drafting foreign policy? Shauna Sylvester is leading a large independent project called Canada’s World, that will do just that.
Public consultation on policy is common practice for the Canadian government (see consultingcanadians.gc.ca). Arguably these requests for comment gather input that is more representative of lobbyist efforts then of well informed public opinion. Alternatively, there is a growing model for gathering more wise and representative public input by using citizen dialogues (aka citizen juries, citizen panels, citizen councils, citizen assemblies), where randomly selected people learn about a topic, and through facilitated deliberation, come to considered recommendations. BC and Ontario governments both used citizen assemblies to author recommendations for electoral reform and Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN) lists many citizen dialogues they have conducted since 1999, including the Romanow Commission on the Future of Health Care.
Unlike most previous dialogues, the goal of Canada’s World is not to directly change government policy, but to change the perspectives of all actors involved with international decisions, including the private sector, the public sector, NGOs, and individuals. The project aims to engage Canadians in developing a new common vision for Canada’s role in the world, and to share this vision with decision-makers who can help make it a reality.
Independent of any government agency, the Canada’s World project is organized within the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue partnering with a growing list of over 40 organizations including respected academic centres, NGOs, foundations and institutes, such as The UBC Liu Centre, the Munk Centre at U of T, WUSC, Free the Children and Le Conseil des Relations Internationales de Montréal (CORIM) in Québec, and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). To date, they have raised $1.6 million in cash and in-kind donations for the first two phases of the project.
The Canada’s World project will be launched in early February 2008, starting with a national poll. They will continue by conducting eight to nine regional dialogues across Canada on a variety of themes including climate change, shifting global powers, diversity, peacekeeping, global inequality, the communications revolution, international law, indigenous rights, and the power of cities. Each dialogue will include 30 participants randomly recruited by a polling firm, over the age of 18 and screened for representative demographics (e.g. urban/rural mix, field of work, age, gender, ethnicity). Special outreach will be conducted to include hard-to reach populations, with an emphasis on connecting with ethnocultural and Diaspora communities, and ensuring youth take leading roles in organizing the engagement of youth. After reading the specially authored Citizens’ Dialogue Handbook to inform them on topics related to Canada’s role in the world, the selected citizens will participate in a two day face-to-face facilitated discussion. Participants will debate various approaches, question experts, make trade-offs about key policy choices, and together author their own set of policy options. The outcomes of each dialogue will be recorded in a wiki, allowing participants to review and correct any inaccuracies.
The CanadasWorld.ca web site (hosted on Igloo.org, a social networking site described in a previous WorldChanging article) will offer resources for additional independent dialogues to be conducted in schools, communities, and each of the partnering organizations. Online public forums will collect ideas and continue discussions from all the various face-to-face dialogues. They aim to use connections with YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and other sites, along with videos, audio, wikis, blogs, and more, to pull in and extend their project’s online presence. At the end of the ten-month process they will conduct a 5-day National Dialogue of 30 participants selected from the regional meetings. This final dialogue will pull together all the recommendations from previous dialogues and online discussion to produce a final report. The results of the National Dialogue will be published as a popular book describing the Canadian Citizens’ International Policy Agenda. Evaluation is planned for every step of the process to promote success, and they plan to work with public affairs and media relations specialists to ensure average Canadian and key decisions-makers learn about the Citizen’s Agenda and take it seriously.
Our world is in great need of better democracy success stories where the public is led by our own true common voice as discovered through informed deliberation. Canada’s World could be one of those success stories. The question is: will it be considered legitimate, and will it have influence? Citizen dialogues are still considered new and experimental and thus open to criticism in their points of potential bias and insufficiency. The voices of politicians are known to be influenced by lobbyists, insiders and personal agendas, but their legitimacy and influence are maintained by tradition and institutional structures. Hopefully Canada's World will help us build new traditions of policy created by citizens.