Maija Setälä: Citizens’ Initiative Review and Finnish local politics

15 Mar 2019

In February 2019, a Citizens’ Jury convened over two weekends in Korsholm (Mustasaari) to deliberate on the proposed merger of the municipality with the neighboring city of Vaasa. The task of the Jury was to write a joint statement in order to provide voters with reliable and relevant information on the municipal merger before the referendum. The statement was sent to 14.800 voters in Korsholm before the referendum day in March.

The Citizens’ Jury in Korsholm followed the model of Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) process, which is an innovative way of involving citizens in direct democratic processes. The CIR, developed by the non-profit organization Healthy Democracy, has been used in Oregon, United States since 2010. The CIR involves a Citizens’ Jury that deliberates on a ballot initiative. The statement by the jury is sent to all those eligible to vote before the ballot. The purpose of the CIR is to help voters make more informed and considered choices and in this way to address problems of mass participation, such as voter ignorance and the polarization of public opinion.

The Citizen’s Jury of Korsholm was the first time a CIR process was carried out in Europe.The CIR pilot was part of the SRC PALO project (Participation in Long-Term Decision-Making). Municipal referendums are relatively rare events in Finland and, like in the case of Korsholm, they have usually dealt with municipal mergers. From the perspective of the PALO project, the referendum in Korsholm was a good case when it comes to both the timing and the topic.

Deliberation on a polarized and multidimensional issue

To select the jury, a random sample of 1400 citizens eligible to vote in Korsholm were invited to participate in a Citizens’ Jury on the merger issue. From 73 volunteers, a 24-member panel was formed so that it represented the population of Korsholm in terms of socio-demographics and opinion on the merger issue. Some of those selected dropped out, when replacements with similar socio-demographic characteristics were invited. In the end, 21 citizens turned out.

The task of the Citizens’ Jury was to write a joint statement in order to provide voters with reliable and relevant information on the municipal merger before the referendum. While the first two days of the jury were dedicated to gathering information and learning about the issue, the third and the fourth days were used to writing and editing claims and writing the joint statement.

The municipal merger was a challenging issue for a CIR process, not least because of its multidimensional character. Finnish municipalities are autonomous political units with the right of taxation as well as important providers of public services. Therefore, a municipal merger has potentially a variety of effects on residents’ every-day lives as well as local democracy. In the case of Korsholm, the potential municipal merger has language political ramifications: both Korsholm and Vaasa are bilingual; however, about 70% of the population in Korsholm is Swedish-speaking, whereas about 70% of the population in Vaasa is Finnish-speaking. Public debate on the merger has especially focused on the language issue.

The polarization and multi-dimensionality of the issue was reflected in the working of the jury. The scope of arguments covered a large variety of issues, such as the role of the Swedish language in Finland, linguistic division in the region, availability of public services in both languages, local democracy, quality and costs of public services – especially social and health care, as well as future of education and the economic prospects in the region.  

Can CIR work in a bilingual and polarized context? Some reflections

The organization of a bilingual Citizens’ Jury was one of the challenges in the CIR pilot in Korsholm. The linguistic division turned out to be manageable, mostly because most jury members were bilingual or at least capable of understanding the other language.

Overall, the CIR procedure showed its capacity to prompt critical thinking among deliberators with strong and conflicting opinions. The statement by the Citizens’ Jury was sent to about 14.800 voters in Korsholm about three weeks before the referendum day (March 17). The statement summarized key findings as well as three arguments for and against the municipal merger. In the polarized opinion environment of Korsholm, reading the statement may be one of few opportunities for voters to encounter and reflect on arguments from both sides. Obviously, the impact of the statement will be established later, after the PALO research team has analyzed the data from surveys conducted in various stages of the process.

In SRC blogs researchers and programme directors working with strategic research programmes blog about their research, interaction, and the application of their research findings, as well as about the societal challenges that research aims to find answers to. The writer's view is her or his own.

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