A Citizens' Jury discussed municipal merger options prior to a referendum on the topic. The Jury's mission was to provide voters with reliable and balanced information concerning this locally polarized issue. The Jury process followed the Citizens' Initiative Review model.
Problems and Purpose
The Citizens’ Initiative Review model has been used in Oregon and elsewhere in the US to provide voters with balanced information on ballot initiatives (e.g. Knobloch et al 2014). The Citizens’ Jury on Referendum Options organized in Korsholm, Finland, in 2019, was the first time when the CIR method was applied outside the US. Therefore, it provides a test case on the applicability of the CIR method in a wholly new context, namely in a bi-lingual Finnish municipality.
Background History and Context
Korsholm Citizens’ Jury was organized as a part of PALO research project in order to test the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) model in a new, non-US context. The purpose of CIR, originally developed by Healthy Democracy Oregon, is to assess citizens’ initiatives and to provide voters with a Citizens’ Statement including relevant, reliable and balanced information on the ballot question. In Korsholm, the CIR model was linked to a non-binding referendum initiated by the municipal council. The topic of the referendum was a municipal merger of the predominantly Swedish-speaking municipality of Korsholm with the neighboring, predominantly Finnish-speaking city of Vaasa.
Korsholm is a municipality on the west coast of Finland with about 19,000 residents. The municipal merger had been a topical and deeply dividing issue in the municipality for several years. In 2017, Korsholm and Vaasa started negotiating a merger agreement. A non-binding referendum on the agreement was organized in Korsholm in March 2019. In the referendum, a clear majority, 61.3%, voted against the agreement (turnout 76,4%). Consequnetly, the municipal council also rejected the merger.
Proponents of the merger argued that it was necessary in order to sustain the vitality of Korsholm, whereas opponents feared that it would considerably weaken the position of the Swedish language. For some, the merger was also a question of identity and independence. In the run-up to the referendum, public discussion about the merger was very polarized. The organizers of the CIR hoped that the Citizens’ Jury could help alleviate these tensions and provide voters with balanced and reliable information on this sensitive and emotional issue.
Korsholm Citizens’ Jury was the first time the CIR model was used in Europe, and also the first time it was linked to a top-down, government-initiated referendum process that are typical in many West European democracies.
Organizing, Supporting and Funding Entities
The Citizens’ Jury process in Korsholm was initiated, organized and funded by a research project entitled ‘Participation in Long-Term Decision-Making’ (PALO). The project develops and tests new forms of citizen participation that can address the problem of short-termism in representative democracies. The four-year PALO project (2017-2021) receives its funding from the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland, a national science institution funded by the Finnish government.
PALO’s researchers from the Finnish-speaking University of Turku and the Swedish-speaking Åbo Akademi University were responsible for the Citizens’ Jury. During the preparation of the Jury, PALO consulted with Healthy Democracy to ensure the Jury process would follow the CIR guidelines as accurately as possible. Healthy Democracy also shared some practical advice based on experiences of earlier CIR cases.
The Jury took place in Korsholm town hall, which was provided by the municipality free of charge. The municipality did not participate in organizing or funding the event in any other way. This was regarded as a way to ensure the impartiality of the Citizens’ Jury which task was to discuss the merger of the municipality.
The recruitment of participants began with a survey accompanied by an invitation letter mailed to a stratified random sample of 1,400 adult residents in Korsholm. This figure corresponds to around 10 percent of the adult population of the municipality. In the recruitment survey, respondents were asked about their views concerning the merger and politics in general, as well as basic socio-economic characteristics. In addition, they had the opportunity to indicate whether they would be willing to participate in the Citizens’ Jury. Participants were promised a 500 € fee.
Of the sample, 320 (23 percent) responded to the survey, and 73 respondents volunteered to take part in the Jury. A demographically diverse Jury of 24 members was formed from the group of volunteers. The aim was to have a Jury that represents the population of the municipality in terms of language, place of living, gender and age, and is balanced in terms of merger attitudes.
Of the 24 selected and invited to the Jury, 21 participated in the Jury. Basic information about the participants can be found below.
Age: mean 47 years old; youngest 18 years old; oldest 65 years old. The elderly people were somewhat underrepresented in the Jury, which resulted from attrition during the last stage of recruitment.
Gender: 9 woman, 12 men
Language: 14 Swedish-speaking, 7 Finnish-speaking
Place of living: The participants were selected to represent all six areas of the municipality, albeit more populous areas were overrepresented.
Merger attitudes: The Jury was quite balanced in terms of merger attitudes, although there was a small overrepresentation of people in favor of the merger.
Methods and Tools Used
Korsholm Citizens’ Jury used the methods and techniques of the CIR process. Facilitated deliberation and voting were used in developing and ranking the claims. Information was gathered mostly through expert presentations, expert panel Q&A and advocate hearings. Participants received a printed version of the merger agreement as background information. A specific Content Manager, an excel sheet developed by Healthy Democracy specifically for CIR, was used to keep track of all the claims and votes. The Citizens’ Jury worked in two languages, Swedish and Finnish, and the claims were updated in the Content Manager in both languages.
In addition to the recruitment survey, the participants filled in surveys at the beginning of the Jury and at the end of each day. These surveys were used to monitor changes in, for example, opinion and perspective taking, and to receive feedback from the participants. At the end of the Jury, organizers also conducted short interviews with four of the participants to gauge their feelings about the Jury process.
Citizens’ Jury produced a bilingual Citizens’ Statement, which was sent to all voters about three weeks before the referendum. The researchers conducted a survey experiment among random sample of voting age population in Korsholm (N=1000, number of respondents 176) in order to measure the effects of reading the statement. This was done right after the Jury had completed its work but before the statement was sent to all voters in Korsholm, A post-referendum survey was also conducted among a random sample of voters (N=1000, number of respondents 244) soon after the referendum.
What Went On: Process, Interaction and Participation
The Korsholm Jury on Referendum Options followed the Citizens’ Initiative Review process very closely. Participants were recruited through a random sample. The four-day structure and the program of the CIR Jury were followed, consisting of advocate and expert hearings, facilitated discussions and votes to determine the contents of the Statement. And finally, the Citizens’ Statement was mailed to all households before the referendum.
Some changes were made in order to adjust the CIR process to the local context. All materials were prepared in both languages and all moderators were bilingual. Participants could use either language, and moderators helped in interpretation when necessary. The Citizen Statement was also produced in both Swedish and Finnish. While the CIR juries held in the US are open to the public and the media, because of the risk of social pressures in the small community, the Citizens’ Jury in Korsholm was organized behind closed doors, except for the advocate and expert hearings. The Jury took place over two consecutive weekends and not four straight days like the CIR, in order to allow people working on weekdays to participate.
The Jury program followed the CIR timetable quite faithfully. During the first day, participants familiarized themselves with the Jury process and the topic. They heard expert presentations about municipal referenda and mergers in Finland. They also practiced evaluating claims with a fictional exercise. At the end of the day, they heard the advocates’ opening statements.
The second day was devoted to gathering evidence. The Jury prepared and asked questions from the proponents and opponents of the merger and from independent experts. Jury members could also develop new claims based on the information they had gathered.
The third day was dedicated to evaluating and improving the claims. The Jury worked consecutively in small groups of four to six people and in one large group in order to make the claims they had as relevant and reliable as possible. They also voted on each claim and discarded those that were deemed least relevant or reliable. Discussion in the large group always preceded voting.
At the start of the fourth day, the Jury took one last look at the list of claims they had developed. Then they had an opportunity to add something if they thought that some crucial issue was not taken into account or that something very important was still missing. Then they prioritized the claims to three sections of the statement: key findings and most important claims for and against the merger. After this, they performed a language and spell check of both Swedish and Finnish versions of the statement, and also made sure that the two language versions matched fully. This was followed by the final vote, where the Jury passed the statement unanimously.
About a week after the Jury, a press conference was held in Korsholm. At the press conference, the Jury statement was published and read aloud in both languages, and the organizers and a few participants got a chance to talk to media about their experiences. After the press conference, the statement was mailed to all households and published online.
The Jury’s facilitation team consisted of one main moderator, three to four assisting moderators and two information coordinators. In addition, there were researchers monitoring the process. The main moderator’s task was to lead discussion and voting in the large group and steer the Jury process forward. The assistant moderators were in charge of moderating small-group discussions, counting and recording votes, translating and keeping time. Information coordinators took care of everything related to Content Manager, e.g. printing out ballots and performing the edits. Whenever there were unexpected problems or questions regarding the Jury process, the team, including researchers, gathered to discuss further steps.
All progress during the Jury was tracked and documented using the Content Manager. It allowed for the real-time editing of the information the participants had gathered and redevelopment of the claims, as well as a means to track voting results. Because the Citizens’ Statement was written in two languages, two Content Managers and two information coordinators were needed. The Jury’s work was stored in the Content Manager also to allow for analysis of the details of the process.
Influence, Outcomes and Effects
Based on a survey conducted by the researchers after the referendum, 76% of those surveyed had read the statement by the Citizens’ Jury. Of those who read the statement, 63% found it at least somewhat useful, 55% got some or a lot new information and 72% found the information to be somewhat or very trustworthy. This indicates that the statement reached a clear majority of the voter population, and fulfilled its purpose – providing reliable and balanced information – rather well. On average, the Jury was found more trustworthy source of merger-related information than local politicians, civil servants of Korsholm and local media, but less trustworthy than independent experts.
The survey experiment conducted before the publication of the statement indicates that reading the statement also had a clear positive impact on voter knowledge and efficacy and helped in considering the issue from other peoples’ perspective. The fact that reading the statement increased trust in the Citizens’ Jury further supports the observation that voters found the statement to be relevant and reliable. This is notable especially when taking into account the polarization of the merger issue.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Based on the participant surveys conducted during the Jury, the participants were satisfied with the process and found it to be impartial. This is remarkable since the participants – like many other voters – had very strong views about the issue. Moreover, some doubts about the impartiality of the Jury had been raised in the local media. The CIR process, developed to establish relevant, balanced and reliable information on ballot initiatives, seems to work well in top-down referendums and polarized issues.
Although all participants knew both languages and lived in bilingual community, a couple of Jury members reported having difficulties in following the discussion from time to time because of language barriers. In the light of this, the use of professional translators for simultaneous interpretation should be considered in multi-lingual CIR’s.
The results of the post-referendum survey conducted among voters in Korsholm suggest that a large share of the public read the Citizens’ Statement. Based on a survey experiment, there were clear learning effects and increased perspective-taking among those who had read the statement. In this respect, the results of the Korsholm CIR process were very similar to those gained in the CIR processes in the US (e.g. Már. & Gastil 2019).
Overall, the results indicate that the CIR model worked well in Korsholm, although it was a ‘hard test’ for the model. Our findings suggest that CIR-type processes could be used to provide relevant and reliable information for voters in a variety of political and cultural contexts.
Knobloch, K. R., Gastil, J., Richards R., Feller, T. (2014). Empowering Citizen Deliberation in Direct Democratic Elections: A Field Study of the 2012 Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review. https://journals.openedition.org/factsreports/3448
Leino, Mikko; Bäck, Maria; Christensen, Henrik Serup; Kulha, Katariina; Setälä, Maija; Strandberg, Kim; Taskinen, Mari (2019): Puntaroituja äänestyspäätöksiä? – Kuntaliitoskysymyksen käsittely Mustasaaren kansalaisraadissa. Politiikka, 61:4 https://doi.org/10.1080/00344893.2019.1691639 (In Finnish)
Már, K. & Gastil, J. (2019). Tracing the Boundaries of Motivated Reasoning: How Deliberative Minipublics Can Improve Voter Knowledge. Political Psychology. Online early https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12591