Thursday, January 25, 2007

Issue of the Day: Citizen's Assembly

VP Academic candidate Bruce Krayenhoff's campaign has some new ideas ("green power" cards, and borrowing textbooks rather than buying them), one in particular stands out. His "Citizen's Assembly." It's generally a very good and creative idea. But I have an important criticism.

In sum, the body operates as follows:

  • Randomly select 12-36 students from across campus, and pay them to sit on the Assembly.
  • Serve as a consultative body for UBC and the AMS, as well as select a few issues each year to be decided by referendum.
The idea is that it will be more representative of the campus as a whole, which is a problem with the current AMS. Moreover, one of the premises of the argument is that this will give voice to the 87% of people who don't vote. There's a significant problem with this argument - this body only gives voice to an additional 12-36 people! This doesn't reach out to the disenfranchised, it reaches out to a couple dozen of them. In fact, this vests decision-making authority in a body that's more elite than Council. Additionally, the model suggests that the AMS is low-information, and this hurts engagement. That's true. But adding another bureaucratic body won't lower the cost of information; it can only raise it. He also suggests that this will remove self-selection. That's not true; it is still limited to people who choose to accept the role, unless the AMS plans to force students to participate.

My basic criticism of the model deals with the appointment: random, while an interesting application of Grecian democracy, is inherently flawed, because there's no guarantee of engaging students in the manner in which they're connected to campus, and each other. It's just some random people in a room. So I (owing a debt to Spencer Keys) support a model, similar to Bruce's, but, in lieu of a random appointment process, choosing a body from among various student groups. Student clubs, residences, Greeks, teams, resource groups... these are how students engage with their University and student society.

So why this model? You're more likely to get a variety of perspectives while ensuring that they're students engaged with campus life. Moreover, it validates these groups as important elements in student life. The current model (aka Council) only engages students involved with undergrad societies. Bruce's model engages only those students who choose to accept their appointments, if they win the lottery. While my suggestion reaches out to students in ways in which they are already engaged. Plus, they have some element of a representative mandate, there exists some context for their involvement beyond the mere hand of Fate.

I should note that, principally, I support Bruce's idea, or a similar body. Particularly, I like the idea of students bringing ideas before it, and getting a "hearing" on an issue or proposal. But that's just me. What are peoples' thoughts on a deliberative student assembly?