Talk Newspaper: If there's one big hole in the fabric of self-government, it's probably trust.
"The purpose of the Citizens Initiative Review is to provide a clear, trustworthy and balanced evaluation of each initiative on the ballot in any of the 24 states that use the initiative process."
— from the Web site www.healthydemocracy.org
That sounds good, doesn't it? Especially the "trustworthy" part. If there's one big hole in the fabric of self-government, it's probably trust. Our biggest fights — over health care reform, climate change, wars abroad, even the meals tax — don't come from people drawing different conclusions from the same base of information. They're the result of people clinging desperately to completely different information, "facts" mined from the Internet, op-ed pages and talk radio. You know some good, caring people who don't read columns like this, or anything else that has to do with the news, because they're worn out trying to figure who to believe.
Enter the Citizen Initiative Review. It's a simple creation, something like a grand jury for politics. To evaluate and clearly explain selected ballot measures, 24 people are chosen at random, but in a way that reflects the diversity of the population at large. They're not political or government officials, corporate or union lobbyists, think-tank or media experts, people who have any stake in the outcome beyond the stake that every citizen has. They meet for five days and are paid reasonable wages for participating. A careful balance of proponents and opponents come before them to testify and field their questions, along with neutral specialists to give context and technical information.
Then they deliberate to some kind of judgment on the issue. They have facilitators to keep them on track, to make sure everyone's voice is heard, to encourage them to think independently instead of going with the flow, and to come up with the clearest possible conclusion.
Earlier this year, Oregon decided to try out CIR in a serious way, and to give voters a good chance to know what the panel decided. HB 2895, which authorizes and funds CIRs for up to three as-yet unidentified ballot measures coming up in 2010, became law last spring. Up to four "Citizen Statements" on each CIR will be given prominent space in the Voters Pamphlet, along with an explanation of the CIR process and the disclaimer that "A citizen panel is not the judge of the constitutionality or legality of any ballot measure, and any statements about such matters are not binding on a court of law."
No judges. It's just us thinking and talking as citizens, pretty much as Thomas Jefferson had in mind for us. The core assumption of CIR (beyond recognition that we've become desperate for information we can believe) is that people, "common" people, if you like, are pretty sensible. Given a little time and space, and a little distance from the shouting, we can digest and grasp complex information. We can to listen to one another and stay open to persuasion when we hear something persuasive. We have a rational sense of our self-interest, and may even care about the interests of those around us. If Jefferson were around, he might be tempted to say "I told you so," though he'd probably find a more elegant way to say it.
The CIRs are a version of citizen councils, part of what's broadly called the citizen wisdom movement. The roots go way back, and in recent times governments in Canada, Australia and elsewhere have empaneled citizens chosen at large to study, deliberate and pass judgment on especially tough issues. Oregon's CIR experiment comes at a good time, after a year when confidence that we can govern ourselves has taken a heavy hit. When thousands of people at public forums are shouted down for trying to offer their opinions on issues like health care reform, you have to wonder who we are as a national community, and whether our collective expression can find a clean way into public policy.
Citizen wisdom projects are pushing the other way. If you want to know more about how they work and what kind of real-world difference they can make, three good books are Ned Crosby's "Healthy Democracy," Jim Rough's "Society's Breakthrough!" and John Gastil's "By Popular Demand." Two Web sites worth visiting are www.healthydemocracy.org and www.co-intelligence.org, the creation of Tom Atlee of Eugene, who may be more responsible for nurturing and advancing citizen wisdom than anyone else working today.
Happy Thanksgiving. I appreciate having a platform to offer how the world looks to me, and that some of you take up the invitation to do the same. Like the people coming together to review initiatives, we're doing citizen work here. Let's keep going.
Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups," and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.