The Edmonton citizens' jury on internet voting.

AuthorKamenova, Kalina
PositionA New Participatory Policy Model - Report

The weekend of November 23 to 25, 2012, seventeen Edmonton citizens took part in a Citizens" Jury, which deliberated on whether to introduce Internet voting as an alternative voting method in future municipal elections. This unique public engagement process was modeled by the University of Alberta's Centre for Public Involvement and is the first of its kind in Canada. The Jury heard testimony from expert witnesses, evaluated the evidence presented and, after extensive deliberation, delivered a verdict in favour of Internet voting. This article summarizes the Jury process, analyzes its outcomes, and discusses lessons learned from this approach to participatory policy development and decision-making.


In recent years, Canadian governments at all levels have looked to public consultation to help bring the voice of citizens into policy decision-making processes. Most notably, the province of British Columbia made history in 2005 by developing and deploying the world's first-ever Citizens' Assembly to help weigh in on electoral reform. Ontario followed in 2007 by convening its own Citizens' Assembly to obtain public insight on the same topic. Although the recommendations of these citizen initiatives were never passed, they helped establish a new tool to foster public participation in policy processes that are typically dominated by elected representatives. Since then, other deliberative public engagement models have been introduced to gain citizen perspective on policy issues or proposed legislative changes. One such event is the Edmonton Citizens' Jury on Internet voting, implemented by the City of Edmonton in collaboration with the University of Alberta in November 2012, to advise local officials whether to proceed with the introduction of Internet voting as an option in future elections, beginning with a pilot in 2013. Much like the Citizens' Assemblies, albeit smaller, the Edmonton Citizens' Jury sought to tackle a complex policy topic using a novel approach to citizen engagement.

What is a Citizens' Jury?

Citizens' Juries are an innovative, deliberative method of political participation, which promote direct involvement of citizens in policy development, strategic planning, or technology assessment. The major assumption of this approach is that lay people make well-reasoned decisions on complex problems when they participate in focused, deliberative processes. (1) Juries rely on the participatory representativeness of a small group of citizens, rather than statistical representativeness achieved through more traditional consultation approaches such as polling a larger group of people. (2) They are usually composed of 12-24 members who are randomly selected from the general public. Selection criteria reflect the need to achieve a demographically diverse group--a "mini-public" representative of the larger population. In many cases, additional attitudinal screening is conducted to ensure the jury is reflective of a broad range of societal views.

The most distinctive characteristic of this process is that decisions made by participants are evidence based and, in many ways, similar to the jury verdict delivered in a court of law. This deliberative process includes the following steps:

* jurors hear evidence from expert witnesses;

* they question the witnesses;

* the information presented is critically reviewed and evaluated;

* the group engages in sustained discussions and deliberation; and

* a "verdict" on the issue or question ("the charge") under consideration is achieved.

Like a legal jury, the Citizens' Jury method follows the conventional reasoning that if a small group of citizens, representative of the population, is presented with evidence, their subsequent deliberations and recommendations will reflect the wisdom of the whole community. It is a unique consultative tool that enables the direct representation of citizen views to policymakers. Juries are particularly effective when there is a commitment on the part of government to affirm the Jury's verdict, or when this participatory policy model becomes an institutionalized aspect of lawmaking. (3)

A Citizens' Jury in Edmonton

In Canada, Citizens' Juries had previously been deployed for participatory technology assessment as part of a nationwide public consultation in 2001 on regulatory challenges presented by xenotransplantation. (4) In Alberta, a pilot project was developed in 2008 to evaluate the use of Citizens' Juries for engaging citizens in priority-setting for health technology assessment. (5) In both cases, citizens were asked to form an opinion and provide policy advice concerning the introduction of a particular technology, but the process outcomes were not directly linked to decision-making (e.g., the jury's recommendation was not delivered to a body of elected representatives). By contrast, the verdict and recommendations of the Edmonton Citizens' Jury on Internet voting were presented directly to City Council, making it the first of its kind in Canada.

The idea to use a Citizens' Jury came from researchers at the University of Alberta's Centre for Public Involvement (CPI). The fact that this method provided participants with a systematic, evidence-based education made it an ideal approach to tackle a technical topic like Internet voting. In recent years, the municipal government in Edmonton has worked to increase public involvement and was supportive of a participatory model for decision-making on Internet voting. In 2009, the city collaborated with the University of Alberta to jointly establish the Centre for Public Involvement, an academic centre whose goals are to promote research and learning related to public involvement and to enhance traditional decision-making processes through public participation. Since its emergence, CPI has partnered with the city to develop joint public involvement initiatives on issues such as municipal budgeting, urban planning, food and agriculture, and energy and climate challenges in Edmonton. The complexity and controversy associated with the subject of Internet voting, however, suggested a more thorough citizen-involvement and learning process may be appropriate. In particular, research conducted by city officials indicated that meaningful engagement of citizens beforehand was necessary to achieve public acceptance and had been instrumental in the success of Internet voting models elsewhere.

The Citizens' Jury was part of a robust consultation programme carried out concurrently with a pre-trial evaluation of Internet voting by city officials. In addition to the Jury component, the project included a security test that involved a mock "Jellybean election", which allowed citizens to register and cast an online vote for their favourite colour jelly bean. As part of the public involvement process, CPI also conducted roundtable advisory meetings with stakeholders (e.g. electors with special needs and seniors), and a series of online questionnaires. A total of six surveys were designed to measure a range of public attitudes toward Internet voting. Two of the surveys were administered to the general public, two to Jury participants (one during the selection process and the other afterward), and two were devised to survey citizens who participated in citizens' roundtables. These roundtables offered...

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