Reference Panels have been developed in Canada to assist governments and public agencies to examine challenging policy issues and make difficult choices


Over the past decade, Reference Panels have been held across Canada by municipal and provincial governments, as well as federal agencies, to obtain detailed advice from citizens on divisive and complex policy issues. Reference Panels do things which survey research, stakeholder consultations and public meetings simply can't — they provide an opportunity for a demographically representative cohort of citizens or residents to learn about an issue, deliberate, reach consensus, and produce detailed recommendations. In this way, Reference Panels push past top-of-mind opinion and elite preferences, and instead empower citizens to take a seat at the table and grapple with the hard choices confronting public officials.

Reference Panel Basics:

  • Each panel will have 24-48 citizens or residents who are randomly selected by civic lottery and demographically representative of their community or relevant jurisdiction

  • The Panelists meet for 4-10 full-day sessions over a period of several months, and work in plenary and small groups

  • The process is focused on learning and creating a forum for citizen-expert dialogue

  • The Panel works towards consensus regarding a series of detailed recommendations

  • The Panel is independently chaired and overseen by a third-party secretariat


At MASS we set out to develop a different approach to public participation. We believe the practice of democratic politics should be a form of human and social development, and that participation in meaningful and effective processes pays a dividend to the individual and to society. Reference Panels are productive learning processes that work to find common ground as participants advance from first principles to priorities and ultimately to providing detailed recommendations.

We believe that enlisting citizens and residents to participate in the development of public policy is an important and progressive step towards strengthening public confidence in government as well as improving policy outcomes. They can help strengthen the democratic fitness and readiness of citizens to play an expanded and more resilient role in the public life of their communities.

Reference Panels draw on the personal experiences of their members while also tapping into the capacity of all people to learn and reason on behalf of others. In this way, we are sharing the work of governing and the privilege of representation exercised almost exclusively by elected officials.

If you want to understand how we put into practice a set of democratic values, watch The Black Deck


Long-form deliberative processes go by many different names: In Germany, these processes are often called "Planning Cells." In the US, they are called "Citizens' Juries." Australia, Ireland and Canada have each held large-scale "Citizens' Assemblies." In Japan and Australia, they also describe these processes as "mini-publics."

Even though each process may use somewhat different methods, they are still based on similar principles: requiring randomly selected groups of people to spend several days learning about an issue, deliberating, and advising governments or public agencies.  At MASS, we use the term "Reference Panel" to distinguish our approach from these participatory siblings. By adopting this term, we think we are more clearly describing the function of the process. Governments and agencies refer issues to groups of citizens and residents who refer back their recommendations. We  think this term helps to underscore the advisory function performed by Reference Panels, and their relationship to elected or public authorities.

Interested to learn more about our origins and approach? Read our practitioner’s note in the Journal of Democratic Theory

Running a Reference Panel

A Reference Panel is a long-form deliberative process that typically involves 36 randomly selected citizens and residents who meet over three or more days to examine an issue, reach consensus and draft detailed recommendations for public authorities.

Reference Panels are commissioned by government and public agencies with an explicit mandate to advise public authorities on divisive and complex issues that typically involve trade-offs or compromises. In several respects, Reference Panels resemble coroner's juries — they are non-adversarial, evidence-informed processes that seek to understand the circumstances surrounding an issue by hearing from experts and engaging in dialogue to reach a consensus on a series of recommendations that can be directed to government, industry and society-at-large.

Reference Panels can also complement and integrate with more traditional forms of public consultation. For instance, survey research can help to inform the panel's deliberations, and the panel itself can host public meetings during its term to ensure that all members of the public have an opportunity to participate and share their perspectives.


There are three phases in a Reference Panel

1) Orientation and Learning  

This phase is designed to ensure that each participants shares a common understanding of the panel process, relevant context, and the subject matter expertise they need to make informed recommendations. This information is often conveyed through short presentations from senior public servants, academics, as well as stakeholders and constituents. Later, invited guests, each with divergent views, will stage three or four person discussions that provide participants with different perspectives and ideas to consider. Working in small groups, panelists will start by articulating and agreeing to a set of shared principles or values which they will later be able to apply to their recommendations.

2) Deliberation

During the second phase, Panel members work through a series of group activities to deliberate on the input they have received from experts and other presenters. Together they begin to identify a range of issues, themes, and options, and work through their implications.

Often during this phase, members of the public are invited to participate in an evening public roundtable hosted by members of the Reference Panel. This gives the panelists the opportunity to “check in” with the wider community and determine if their work and representative assumptions are on the right track. In pairs, the Panelists meet with members of the  public in small groups to exchange perspectives, ideas, and concerns . This approach enables the public sector client, members of the public, and the panelists to work together towards solutions in a collaborative, rather than adversarial, environment.

3) Drafting Recommendations

Ultimately, through an iterative dialogue process, each Reference Panel produces a set of consensus recommendations which is the basis for their public report. This report is written by the panelists themselves and conveys their perspective and advice in their own words.

Once a draft report has been created, it is circulated to the panelists to ensure that the tone, wording, recommendations, and account of the process are accurate. In addition to the consensus recommendation, each panelist is also invited to write their own minority report where they can convey any concerns with the process or its conclusions, or else emphasize an aspect of the recommendations which they believe deserve further consideration. These minority reports are an important check on the process, and help to ensure the accountability of the organizers and the satisfaction of the panelists.  Once completed, the final report is presented to the client and made public. 

Running a Civic Lottery

A Civic Lottery is a form of sortition that uses the postal system and a randomized selection process to recruit members of a Reference Panel.

The lottery begins when a minimum of five thousand invitations are mailed to randomly selected addresses within a community or jurisdiction. Each Civic Lottery package contains detailed information and encourages the recipient to volunteer. This letter is, in effect, a lottery ticket that invites the recipient — or anyone who resides at the address — to opt into a special pool of candidates. Once the response deadline has passed, the “winners” are determined through a randomized draw that automatically balances for gender, age, and geography as well as other attributes. This ensures that the members of the panel will be broadly representative of the diversity of the community they will serve. Civic Lotteries have a typical 4-7% response rate, depending on the time of year, issue and duration of the panel.

The lottery team also operates a 24/7 1-800 number where staff members are on-hand to answer any and all questions from prospective participants. As the deadline nears we place automated reminder calls to each household encouraging the recipient to apply and offering to answer any questions. Our goal is to put citizens at ease by providing as much information about the opportunity as possible while attracting the widest range of candidates.

In addition to the invitation materials, each package will often include a detailed survey as well as directions to the panel’s website where residents who are unable to volunteer can find other ways to participate and register their views. This information will then be used to inform the Panel’s deliberations.

Four steps to running a Civic Lottery

1) Craft the Invitation

Each invitation should be a call to public service. Rather than an appeal to come and "tell us what you think," a Civic Lottery letter should explain how the recipient can, by volunteering, help to solve an important policy challenge. By design, these are sober, purposeful letters that avoid any hint of spin or exaggeration. Each letter should explain in detail what the participant can expect if selected, and how their involvement will make a difference.

2) Define your Boundaries and Build a Mailing List

Based on the issue, the boundaries should be clear. Often they should be based on an existing political jurisdiction: a ward or series of wards at the municipal level, or one or more electoral districts at a state-level. However, for some issues, proximity is a factor that should be considered and may influence the distribution of lottery packages. For instance, a Reference Panel concerning airport noise or transit hubs might send more packages and reserve more seats for residents closest to these sites. Working with your postal system, you can then draw up the protocols for a randomized mailing to occur within these boundaries.

3) Make Follow-up Calls

Approximately one week after the invitations are posted, schedule an automated call to each of the households which have received a package,  alerting the recipient to the invitation and connecting them, should they wish, to a staff member who would answer any questions or register them over the phone.

4) Select the Reference Panel

The membership of each Reference Panel should, at minimum, be representative of the gender, age, and geographic profile of the boundary area it represents. You can also set aside issue or constituency-specific seats to ensure effective representative based on attributes like housing tenure or Indigeneity.

The composition of the panel is determined blindly by a computer program that randomly selects a series of attributes and then randomly selects a candidate who matches those attributes. Once all demographic targets are satisfied, the successful candidates are notified by phone.

To learn more about the Civic Lottery process,  download our guide.

To learn more about the Civic Lottery process, download our guide.

To learn more about commissioning Citizens’ Assemblies and Reference Panels,  download our guide.

To learn more about commissioning Citizens’ Assemblies and Reference Panels, download our guide.