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The Citizens Initiative Review: From Pilot to Permanent—An Interview with the Co-Director of Organization Charged with Implementation

Due to it’s length, this interview was split into two parts. The first part of this interview, which
discussed Elliot Shuford’s background as well as background for the project can be read by clicking the link in the Related Articles box below.

Daniel Schugurensky

How did you recruit these participants?
We started with a random sample of 10,000 voters. We sent them a letter inviting them to apply to the CIR. From those who express an interest, we created a pool of several hundred potential participants, and from that pool we selected 24, taking into account the six demographics factors that I just mentioned.

When you were selecting the last 24 participants, how did you avoid accepting or rejecting people you knew?
In that final selection, when we moved from several hundred people to the final list of 24, we only knew participants by numbers. We didn’t have access to their names. We also invited initiative advocates, legislators and other groups to participate in the selection process, which was held as a public process.

How did you remove some of the costs of participation?
We provided a daily stipend of just under $150, which was the average wage in Oregon at that time. In addition, we provided a transportation stipend, accommodation, food, and a stipend for childcare. Participants understand from the beginning that this is a public service to convey useful and balanced information to voters.

How did the field test work out?
The process worked very well. The advocates for and against, the panelists and the League of Women Voters all agreed that the process was essentially fair and free from bias. At that point we knew that we were in a good position to promote the model.

How did you promote the model?
In 2009 we spent several months lobbying the legislature again, this time for an official pilot, with the results published prominently in the statewide voters’ pamphlet. We also wanted to have an independent evaluation of the process. The legislature agreed, and we started to organize and fundraise for the 2010 elections. We were fortunate to receive support not only from Ned and Pat, but also from the Saling Foundation as well as from the Bourdin and the Hancock family foundations.

What was the 2010 pilot about?
We had two panels. One reviewed measure 73, which was about mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. The other was measure 74, which was about creating medical marijuana dispensaries.

Can you explain how the panel works?
As I mentioned before, the panel meets for five consecutive days, from 9 am to 4 pm. The first day consists of an orientation to the process and an introduction to the ballot measure. The second day they hear from the advocates for and against the measure. The third day they talk with background experts and start drafting their findings. The fourth day they hear from the advocates again, so the advocates have another opportunity to make their case and to clarify any misunderstandings before the panel finishes their findings. The last day they write the Citizens’ Statement, which is the one that is circulated to voters before the election.

What is a Citizens’ Statement, and how is it circulated to voters?
The Citizens’ Statement is a one-page document that includes key factual findings, as well as pro and con position statements, all written by the panel of citizens. It also lists how many panelists were in favor and against. It has additional policy considerations, with things like fiscal implications and other relevant information about the issue. It is published as a prominent page in the voters’ pamphlet that is sent to every voter.

Do CIR participants have other ways to present their findings to the public besides the Citizens’ Statement in the voters’ pamphlet?
Yes. There is information posted on the website of the Citizens’ Initiative Review, and this remains in the archives of the CIR for future consultations. Also, the panel gives a press conference at the steps of the State Capitol. Each subgroup, the for and against, explain why they are in favor or against the initiative. This press conference is covered by journalists, and finds its way to the public through different media.

Is there any facilitation of the process?
Yes, there are professional mediators who facilitate the process and must have expertise in conflict resolution. These facilitators, who are expert mediators and do not have a personal stake in the outcome of the vote, are responsible for ensuring that the entire review process is fair and balanced.

What if there is a perception of bias?
At each stage of the review, from the selection of participants to the final statement, the process has been designed to eliminate the introduction of bias. Each day, and also at the end of the process, panelists and initiative advocates evaluate the process in terms of fairness and bias. These evaluations indicated high scores for fairness and lack of bias, not only from the panelists but also from advocates and critics of the initiatives.

Has there been any external evaluation of the CIR?
Yes, there was an independent evaluation, and it confirmed the results of the internal evaluations. The 2010 pilot of the CIR was evaluated by a team led by John Gastil and Katie Knobloch from the University of Washington. Gastil recently moved to Penn State University, where he is the Head of Communications Arts and Sciences. Knobloch is now writing her doctoral dissertation on this topic.

What were the main findings of this evaluation?
There were two main findings. The first was that the CIR was a high quality deliberation. It was fair, democratic and analytically rigorous. The second finding was that voters found it very useful: it was widely read and helped provide unique and important new information for voters.

What has been the main learning for Healthy Democracy Oregon from the 2010 pilot?
We learned better ways to bring the advocates into the process. We need to involve them sooner and give them a better idea of what to expect at the CIR. The CIR is different from a campaign or a jury trial, and we need to communicate this better to the advocates from the beginning. Another learning is that panelists needed to have more time to write their statement, so we re-arranged the agenda to accommodate that. We also need more and better online engagement that’s part of where we’re going in 2012.

What was the impact of this experience on participants?
It was huge–this is precisely the focus of the doctoral thesis of Katie Knobloch right now. Essentially, I believe that her findings indicate that most of them became civically and politically transformed in many ways.

Do you remember any examples?
I remember a young wheat farmer who took a bus to the CIR, said he had never voted and he wasn’t comfortable speaking in groups. By the end of the process, he was actively working on language for the panels’ key findings. He was really engaged in the process, and said very emphatically he was going to vote in every election from then on. We’ve also had seven or eight panelists who have started to volunteer with Healthy Democracy Oregon: they came down and testified in the front of the legislature to make the CIR a permanent feature in the electoral system, and are really wanting to be more involved with the CIR in the future. It’s really cool.

How did participants react when they realized that some of their original assumptions were challenged by certain facts or arguments?
Hard to say–for some it is quite challenging, while others are more open and exploratory by nature. No one walked in an expert on medical marijuana or Oregon’s criminal justice system, so everyone learned a great deal as part of the CIR. I think one place where people really have to work hard in examining their assumptions is on the fourth day when they have to argue both sides in an exercise. We’ve heard from the panelists and researchers that this exercise was particularly helpful with their deliberations.

What has happened since the 2010 pilot?
We got legislation to make the process permanent for every general election in Oregon in the future, and the Governor signed the bill in June 2011.

This is a great accomplishment, but at the same time I imagine that it poses a new challenge, doesn’t it?
Indeed, it does. In reality, now we have two main challenges ahead. One of them is to institutionalize the CIR in a way so that it remains fair and unbiased in the future. The other is finding sustainable funding, because the legislation does not include public funding.

We wish you luck with that. To wrap up this conversation, are there any final words that you would like to add?
It is really inspiring to me how well randomly selected citizens work together. I heard several people remark how they never knew people’s political party through the whole process, when they thought they’d figure it out on the first day. I think that outside the town hall meetings of the 1700s, this is the first time that deliberative democracy is institutionalized in the US, and it is probably the first time that it is legislated. The Citizens’ Initiative Review gives voters a new tool to easily find reliable and clear information about the pros and cons of ballot measures. I believe that the Citizens’ Initiative Review provides an important contribution to the revitalization of democracy. I hope that people outside Oregon share this view and that they develop an interest to replicate it or adapt it to their own contexts.

Daniel Schugurensky is part of the Participatory Governance Initiative at Arizona State University. Email: [email protected]

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