The following is the seventh installment of Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politicsavailable from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. You can visit the Empowering Public Wisdom homepage here.

CHAPTER 7: How Citizen Deliberative Councils Could and Should Be Used

It is now well demonstrated that with this method ordinary citizens have a remarkable capacity to grapple with complex problems and come up with useful recommendations that serve the common good, thus realizing the elusive dream of democracy more fully than ever before.

Yet most citizen deliberative councils have only been convened as isolated events or sophisticated focus groups by organizations or agencies seeking input from the public. Only rarely—as in the examples from British Columbia and Denmark described in the previous chapter—are they given any real power in the political process. And only rarely do practitioners, activists, or political theoreticians and visionaries explore the many diverse facets of our public lives to which these citizen panels could be applied. The one pioneering exception is communication professor John Gastil’s By Popular Demand, from which a number of the ideas in this chapter were taken.

The purpose of part 2 of this book is to show how valuable citizen deliberative councils could be and why it is worth promoting and empowering them—and protecting them, as discussed in chapter 14. Once we see the wide applicability of this approach to generating public wisdom—an applicability almost as broad as the familiar democratic practice of voting—the larger vision of empowered public wisdom and its potential for salvaging our democracy and our world become compellingly clear.

Citizen deliberative councils (CDCs) could and should play many roles to help us take into account what needs to be taken into account in our public decision making. Here are some examples:

Providing Periodic Citizen-Based “State of the Union” Declarations

As embodied by Wisdom Councils and the Maclean’s initiative, microcosms of the public can consider how things are going in their community or country and articulate the frustrations, concerns, and hopes of the population on a regular basis. They can instigate a “time out” for a community to reflect on where it is and where it is headed, and to creatively tease out new directions and options. Such councils would tend to have more or less open-ended conversations. If the randomly selected participants were given tasks to do in such councils, they would tend to involve the exploration of values, visions, and scenarios more than studying facts and existing proposals. No experts would be needed except for the citizens themselves—who are, after all, experts in their own experience and longings.

They could recommend solutions, new directions, or the use of other CDCs to tackle specific public issues. They embody the unconstrained voice of We the People and provide an evocative mirror for the whole population, rather than the highly politicized annual State of the Union address of elected presidents. The regular use of citizen-based “state of the union” addresses would tend to build a strong sense of We the People consciousness in the population as a whole.

Studying Issues on Behalf of the Public and Public Officials

After studying balanced briefings and cross-examining a diverse spectrum of experts, randomly selected CDC members could provide voters and decision-makers with informed guidance about an issue, grounded in the core values of their community. Legitimate issue-oriented CDCs could be convened by legislatures, citizen petitions, prior CDCs, or by other means established by law or popular acclaim, when and as needed. They could address issues broadly, identifying new possibilities—or they could choose from a given set of options (in which case critical attention would have to be given to how those options are chosen and by whom). Annual CDCs could be convened in specified issue areas—such as economic policy, the environment, education, defense, or welfare—to provide an ongoing sense of the best “general interest” thinking in each of these areas. Such annual issue dialogues could be set up such that the CDCs conferred with hundreds of their fellow citizens in the random “jury pools” from which they were selected, in televised or online forums viewable by all—a process that would be educational for everyone, especially if the citizenry was engaged in other forms of grassroots dialogue and deliberation around these issues as part of the same participatory effort.

Reviewing Proposed Ballot Initiatives and Referenda

The randomly selected members of a CDC could interview both advocates and opponents of specific ballot measures, and then share with their fellow voters (through official voters’ pamphlets, the internet, and the media) their conclusions about the facts of the matter and their best judgment about the merits of those initiatives or referenda. Such a Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) could be put in place by a ballot initiative or by legislation establishing a governmental or nongovernmental office to convene CDCs in a timely way to review either all or just certain kinds of qualified initiatives.
This would significantly reduce both the special-interest manipulation and the mass thoughtlessness that has recently beset the initiative process, thus cleaning up and revitalizing what should be one of our best tools for popular empowerment. A CIR was officially established in Oregon in 2011. It and a proposal for a national initiative process in the United States will be covered further in chapter 11.

Creating Proposed Ballot Initiatives to Deal with Identified Issues

It is one thing for a CDC to review initiatives created by a special-interest group or legislature. It is quite something else for a CDC to generate initiatives that can then be placed on the ballot, as was done by the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. A CDC would draft one or more versions of an initiative to address a particular issue and interview partisans for their critiques and recommendations until they decided what would be best. Then they would have lawyers or legislators on hand to legally draft the initiative in a form that could be voted on and, if approved, passed directly into law. In a political system more fully guided by public wisdom, a Wisdom Council might identify and prioritize an issue on behalf of the community and recommend that a Citizens Jury or other CDC be convened to make recommendations on it. The Citizens Jury might sketch out policy guidelines they thought would best address the issue. Then an initiative-creating CDC could craft the initiative and submit it for a popular vote. In subsequent promotion of that ballot initiative, advocates could point out that it wasn’t created by a partisan interest group but by a group of randomly selected ordinary citizens convened to look into the issue, who became informed about it and used common sense to figure out how it should be handled. Perhaps even better would be to hold several CDCs like this and, if their recommendations differed, to hold a CIR (perhaps made up of members from the preceding CDCs) to recommend which one (or some integration of them) should be put on the ballot. As noted earlier, there is precedent for this: In ancient Athens, a deliberative council of five hundred— the boule, whose members were chosen by lot—set the agenda for the community’s assembly where everyone voted on the proposals the council put before them.

Ensuring Sober Public Evaluation of Controversial Legislation

Laws could be passed mandating suspension of decisions on controversial legislation whenever a certain large number of people petitioned to suspend the legislation pending review by a CDC. A group of perhaps a dozen citizens might then be drawn from a regular jury pool and given twenty-four hours to hear arguments from both advocates and opponents of the legislation and to decide by majority (or supermajority) vote whether to lift or sustain the suspension. If they decide to lift the suspension, then the legislators could proceed with their vote. However, if the initial jury sustains the suspension, then a full CDC would have to be convened to study the legislation in detail and cross-examine expert advocates and opponents. After the CDC’s findings are broadly publicized, the legislators could then proceed with their vote under the watchful eyes of their now better-informed constituents.

Reviewing Candidates for Elected Public Office

I have seen three interrelated approaches recommended for reviewing candidates—issue-centered, qualification-centered, and interview-centered—each of which is described here.

Issue-centered evaluation

Issue-centered evaluation would involve a CDC evaluating candidates’ positions on key issues (perhaps compared to positions favored by prior CDCs on those issues, such as by the “annual issue dialogues” mentioned above, or by the CDCs evaluating key pieces of legislation as described below). For example, before a national legislative election four issue-centered CDCs could be convened to evaluate each candidate in depth on the economy, the environment, security, and education. These CDCs would review the candidates’ records and interview the candidates directly, along with their supporters and their detractors. (Three of these were conducted by the Jefferson Center and the results widely reported by the media.)

Qualification-centered evaluation

Qualification-centered CDCs would ask experts and the candidates themselves what criteria should be used to evaluate candidates for the particular position they seek to win. Once the CDC chooses its criteria from that advice, it would have the candidates discuss their own and each others’ qualifications in terms of those criteria. Partisan and nonpartisan experts could also testify on candidates’ qualifications.

Interview-centered evaluation

Although interviews would usually be part of all CDCs evaluating candidates, interview-centered CDCs would more deeply engage with the candidates, not limiting themselves to positions and qualifications but reaching into each candidate’s character, responsiveness to the public, management style, and even indefinable “gut feelings.” Having each candidate face various challengers or challenging scenarios for several hours in the unscripted presence of a randomly selected citizen panel could be very revealing.

As previously mentioned, the evaluations of the CDC would be made available to the voters through the media, the internet, and official voters’ pamphlets.

An intriguing variant for evaluating legislative candidates (proposed by John Gastil) envisions a CDC convened to pick what the people feel are the ten most important bills proposed or voted on since the last election. Legislative candidates would be required to state their views on each of these pieces of legislation. The voting records of incumbents would already be available on bills that were passed or defeated. Then full CDCs would review each piece of legislation in the same manner that they might review a ballot measure. If a supermajority

(67 percent or more) of their members supported or opposed a piece of legislation, their judgment would be recorded as the “people’s preference.” The percentage of times a candidate’s record or position aligned with this “people’s preference” would be published as noted above, along with the CDC’s and candidates’ explanations of their views.

These ratings would be much like the ratings published by partisan organizations like the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club to approve or disapprove of representatives and senators, except that the CDC ratings would be from a nonpartisan perspective rather than from a particular special-interest perspective. The CDC’s rating (say, 20 percent—or 90 percent—agreement with the “people’s preference”) would not tell voters how to vote. Rather, it would provide a useful “rule of thumb” to augment the guidelines most people use—such as party affiliation, last name, gender, and interest-group recommendations. A further (and controversial) option would be to list the candidates and their “people’s preference” ratings right on the ballot in descending order.

Reviewing Government Budgets

Effective review of a government budget would probably best be done by several CDCs. One could review the budget proposed by the chief executive (mayor, governor, or president). Another could review the version submitted by the legislative budget committee. Other CDCs might review the budgets of past years, or budgets proposed by various interest groups, to suggest more general citizen guidelines for budgeting, or to review the effectiveness of past budgeting efforts.

Interestingly, when citizens are allowed to deliberate in an informed way about budgetary matters, they tend to support higher taxes to cover services they believe necessary for a healthy community or country, rather than cutting taxes to have more money for themselves. This fact could have a profound impact on budgetary crises at all levels of government, if there is a citizens’ movement to empower informed citizen deliberations like CDCs to evaluate budget proposals and publicize their public judgment to counter special-interest manipulation.

Note that this approach is different from the increasingly popular participatory budget approach used in hundreds of cities worldwide (see appendix 1). A mass-participation participatory budget program is not a randomly selected CDC, but the two could be used productively together.

Reviewing Government or Corporate Performance

Using the same model of hearing testimony from all sides of an issue, a CDC could hear witnesses critique and defend the performance of a public official, public agency, or corporation. This would be a particularly useful tool in touchy areas, such as periodic citizen review of corporate charters, police behavior, or the treatment of whistleblowers. Systems could be set up whereby a certain level of public petition would automatically trigger a CDC to investigate. In all cases, such a system of highly informed and impartial answerability could greatly increase the quality and responsiveness of all forms of power exercised over our collective life.


The broad citizenry could, if it chose, ensure that its long-term general interests were well and dependably championed through the use of randomly selected citizen deliberative councils. The quality of deliberation involved could replace or shape public opinion polls as an indicator of the public will and the general welfare—especially on controversial or high priority issues. The randomness, brief existence, and possibly even the sequestration of CDCs could make them at least as resistant to manipulation as trial juries. Well-monitored facilitation and briefings could help them produce sophisticated, common-sense results. The fact that they would be rooted in community values could counterbalance the greed, hunger for power, partisanship, and shortsightedness rampant in both public and private sector decision making.

CDCs are flexible enough to evaluate issues, proposals, legislation, candidates, public officials, and the general state of the community. In each case, the kind and quality of information, perspective, and guidance produced by a

CDC is unique—and uniquely valuable.

Implicit in this vision is the realization that nowhere else do we have a trustworthy source of generally accessible public judgment and public wisdom arising from extended high-quality investigation by diverse ordinary citizens deliberating together away from the shallow, one-sided manipulations of special interests.

Whatever issues, candidates, or proposals most excite our passion, they must pass through the decision-making processes that are built into our systems of politics and government. It behooves us to ask: are these processes set up to make sensible decisions on behalf of the long-term common good? If not, we have CDCs as a tool to inject public wisdom and popular will into that decision making.

We can give that collective wisdom and will as much power as we choose.

These reforms should start at local or state levels (e.g., evaluating local issues and mayoral or gubernatorial candidates) before they are pushed at national levels (e.g., evaluating national issues and presidential or congressional candidates). However, public servants at any level (including the national) could always convene CDCs to advise them or their agencies—or to influence their fellow public servants, other institutions (such as corporations), or the public at large toward more wisely democratic policies and behaviors.

Underlying all these details about citizen deliberative councils is a larger purpose: to bring about the urgently needed next step in the evolution of democracy itself. It is desirable and likely that regular use of CDCs can help transform We the People from a patriotic myth to a highly conscious and intelligently coherent political force. It can help bring real vitality to the ultimate democratic authority— the people—that is currently fragmented, enthralled, stupefied, and unable to act clearly and consistently on its own behalf.

The revolution in decision making that citizen deliberative councils offer us is of comparable magnitude to the revolution in decision making created centuries ago by the idea of majority vote. It can be applied virtually anywhere, and it could make all the difference in the world.