Citizen’s Initiative Review

Korsholm (Finland)


Photo (c) Christoffer Björklund The Citizens Initiative Review (CIR) was employed to consult with representatives on a merger referendum. The municipality of Korsholm in 2019 called for a local referendum on an administrative merger with the Municipality of Vaasa. Within the research project PALO (Participation in Long-Term Decision Making), the University of Turku piloted the CIR methodology developed by the Healthy Democracy organisation in Oregon. The CIR process was used to provide information to voters and help them make informed decisions. The citizen’s jury was tasked with reviewing key facts and pros and cons related to the referendum dispute. The key learnings from the process include the importance of transparency, the need for clear communication, and the value of involving citizens in decision-making processes. Despite the fact that results were not binding, but aimed to better inform the voters, the process was successful in increasing voters’ knowledge and confidence in their decision-making. The majority of the voters opposed the merger, as did the Municipality of Korsholm.  

The merger referendumA referendum (in some countries synonymous with plebiscite, or a vote on a ballot question) is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. in Korsholm was prompted by various factors. It originated from the response of the political class in Vaasa, the larger municipality, as well as the potential incentives offered by the Finnish government to encourage municipal mergers due to their belief in increased efficiency in larger municipalities. This merger has been a long-standing topic on the political agenda, encompassing deeply rooted issues that have led to polarised public opinions among both proponents and opponents, especially within the smaller municipality of Korsholm.

The approach taken in organising the referendum in Korsholm differed from the method employed by the Healthy Democracy organisation in Oregon, which focused on citizen-initiated referendums. Instead, the Korsholm referendum did not rely on a citizen’s initiative, but it followed procedures modelled after the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR). Notably, this marked the first instance of utilising the CIR methodology in Europe.

Furthermore, one of the key divisive aspects of this issue is the bilingual nature of both municipalities. Vaasa predominantly comprises Finnish first-language citizens with a Swedish minority, whereas Korsholm is primarily composed of Swedish first-language citizens with a Finnish minority. The language question stands out as a significant challenge in this context, followed by issues related to identity.

People in this region are notably active, generally possessing a strong local and self-organised identity. In terms of legal provisions for citizen participation in public discourse, the region has a relatively weak legal framework. In practice, the authority to call for a referendum lies solely with the Municipal Council, and the referendums they initiate are consultativeA consultative (or representative) referendum is a type of referendum through which the outcome of the popular vote does not have a direct legal effect, only issuing a set of political recommendations for elected representatives to act upon. in nature. Consequently, Finland primarily operates as a representative democracy, with limited emphasis on participatory mechanisms, despite their existence on paper.

Furthermore, these participatory tools are inadequately explained to the citizens, resulting in a lack of awareness about their existence and functioning. While there are options like municipal referendums, citizens’ juriesA Citizens’ Jury is a small group of randomly selected citizens, representative of the demographics in the area, that come together to reach a collective decision or recommendation on a policy issue through informed deliberation., and town hall meetingsTown hall meetings are a way for local and national politicians to meet with their constituents either to hear from them on topics of interest or to discuss specific upcoming legislation or regulation., the only legally mandatory mechanisms pertain to public hearingsPublic hearings are typically organized as a way to gather public opinions and concerns on political issues before a legislature, agency, or organization makes a decision or takes action. for specific zoning and land-use decisions.

It is worth noting that these public hearings primarily serve an informational purpose for the citizens. Concerning municipal mergers, it is common practice to conduct referendums to gauge public sentiment. However, it is intriguing to observe cases where Municipal Councils have made decisions contrary to the majority of voters, adding complexity to the situation.

The PALO research project was financially supported by the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland. This project fell within the academic realm and focused specifically on participation in long-term decision-making. Its core objective was to explore how participatory tools and methods could enhance the legitimacy of long-term governance.

It is noteworthy that the controversy surrounding the merger issue emerged later in the development of the project. At the time of drafting the project proposal, this matter and the subsequent pilot project were not yet known.

In terms of expenses, the overall costs were approximately €60,000. These costs encompassed various elements, including the distribution of the citizens’ jury statement to all eligible voters in the municipality and the compensation for facilitators, including the Healthy Democracy trainer who conducted a training session. An essential consideration in selecting facilitators was their ability to communicate bilingually.

A distinct feature of this citizens’ jury was that participants received a compensation of €500 for their involvement in the entire four-day process. This financial incentive was designed to ensure their commitment for the entire duration of the jury’s activities.

The recruitment of participants for the citizens’ jury initially involved a random selectionRandom selection is a form of sampling where a representative group of research participants is selected from a larger group by chance. of residents in Korsholm. Additionally, volunteers were included in the process while ensuring the jury’s representation from both language groups, various areas of the municipality, diverse gender and age groups. Ultimately, the organisers formed a group of 21 representatives, slightly fewer than the 24 members envisioned by the Healthy Democracy guidelines. This reduction was due to some individuals withdrawing from participation later on, although the organisers strived to maintain the required diversity. The organisers believed that, despite not being fully representative of Korsholm’s population, the jury was reasonably balanced.

The composition of the jury reflected the demographics of the Korsholm population, and no specific actions were taken to include marginalised or vulnerable groups. However, during the process, a survey was conducted, revealing that the jury members were slightly inclined towards supporting the merger. This insight was particularly significant given the subsequent referendum’s outcome, which opposed the merger. It implies that when the jury members joined, they would have likely voted in favour of the merger. Nevertheless, the citizens’ jury selection criteria did not involve personal positions on the merger. The emphasis was on evaluating and making judgments about the arguments for and against the merger to draft a statement for the voters. Participants were continually reminded that their role was not to discuss the merger issue itself, but to assess the credibility and relevance of the arguments.

In general, the organisers believed that, in a deliberative process, it is not productive to start with a clear division between individuals who hold one perspective and those who hold another. The focus was on evaluating the arguments rather than personal opinions or voting intentions.

The researchers from the PALO project at the University of Turku were initially drawn to Vaasa city’s interest in integrating the municipality of Korsholm. They saw this as a potential pilot project. Notably, this was not grassroots or bottom-up referendum, and the municipality, as a direct stakeholder, remained somewhat uninvolved in the participatory process to prevent conflicts of interest. Intrigued by the methodology of the Citizens’ Initiative Review, researchers from the PALO project reached out to Healthy Democracy leaders and Professor John Gastil, an expert on the methodology, in their quest to better understand the process.

The citizens’ initiative review method implemented in Korsholm aligns with Arnstein’s theoretical framework’s degree of consultation. It involves the citizens’ jury discussing the issues related to a referendum and informing the citizens about them. The statement produced by the citizens’ jury is distributed to all voters before the voteA vote is a formal indication of a choice between two or more candidates or courses of action, expressed typically through a ballot., serving as a means of providing comprehensible and reliable information to the public, thus reducing the risk of manipulation in large-scale participatory processes.

Photo (c) Christoffer Björklund

The participatory project followed the methodology rigorously. Initially, a wide range of documents, including laws and the merger agreement, were provided for the jury’s critical analysis of the referendum text. In the subsequent phase, experts and politicians from both sides of the referendum were invited to participate. A repeated process ensued, resulting in the identification of eight key facts (relevant factors) and three arguments for and against the issue, totalling six arguments. These key facts and arguments were in first instance refined and discussed in small groups, and subsequently examined by an expert panel. The entire process, including arguments, modifications, and revisions, was meticulously tracked using an Excel spreadsheet managed by process secretaries and facilitators. It was essential to remind the participants that they were not representing themselves but were working on behalf of the broader population and voters.

Regarding the final decision, the outcomes of the citizens’ jury are non-binding. Instead, they serve as informative material promoted by the jury to the citizens who must cast their votes for or against the matter, in this case, the merger.

In the evaluation of the process, several impact studies were conducted. Immediately after the citizens’ jury statement was finalised but prior to its distribution to all voters, it was sent to a group of 500 randomly selected city residents for surveying. Simultaneously, a control group of 500 randomly selected voters was provided with surveys only. This approach was aimed at assessing the influence of reading the citizens’ jury statement.

The results indicated that individuals who had read the statement were better informed and displayed greater confidence in their decision. Notably, those who had read the statement were more inclined to vote against the merger. While a significant portion of voters had already formed their opinions, the information within the statement influenced some individuals to adopt a more critical perspective on the merger. It’s important to recognize that the impact of the Citizens’ Initiative Review was somewhat limited due to its implementation at an advanced stage of the merger debate.

There are few aspects that did not go according to the plan. For instance, the CIR in Korsholm was conducted at a relatively late stage in the merger debate. Ideally, such a review should take place earlier in the process. Despite the fact that the impact of the CIR was positive in terms of informing and engaging citizens, it was limited due to the advanced stage of the debate. In fact, the evaluation indicated that the majority of voters had already formed their opinions, which reduced the potential influence of the CIR.

The Citizens’ Initiative Review method has demonstrated the potential for replication in different contexts. It can be effectively utilised in conjunction with direct democratic processes, such as popular votes and referendums, as it serves as a valuable means to provide information to citizens. This methodology has also been successfully applied in Switzerland.

Typically, this method is employed for popular referendums initiated at the grassroots level. However, the unique aspect in this case is that it was used for a consultative referendum initiated by the local government. It can indeed be effective in this context. However, when the referendum pertains to a standard policy issue, it might be feasible to involve the municipality in its organisation.

Yet, for matters as significant as the city’s future, particularly with regards to its existence, as was the case with Korsholm, it may be more advisable to avoid direct involvement of the municipality. This approach ensures a more unbiased and impartial evaluation of the issues at hand.

The Citizens Initiative Review (CIR) in Korsholm was chosen because it was seen as an effective way to inform voters and provide them with reliable information. In this regard, it is important to highlight that the merger issue in Korsholm was polarising because both municipalities are bilingual, with Vaasa having a majority of Finnish first-language citizens and a Swedish minority, while Korsholm has a majority of Swedish first-language citizens and a Finnish minority. This language issue was a significant problem, and it was compounded by identity issues, which led to polarised public opinion between supporters and opponents of the merger. Importantly, were conducted studies that found Citizen Initiative Review to be effective in increasing voter’s knowledge and confidence on the matter. However, while Professor Maija Setälä believes that the methodology can be replicated in other areas (in Europe, apart this pilot, only in Switzerland has it been tested) and recommends its use together with direct democratic processes, popular votes, and referendums, she also notes that the impact of the Citizens’ Initiative Review was limited because it took place at an advanced stage of the debate. Additionally, the success of the transfer depends on the context and the type of referendum. If the referendum is about a normal policy issue, it may be possible to involve the municipality in organising it. However, if it is about the future of the city with respect to its existence, as in the case of Korsholm, it may be better not to involve the municipality in organising it. Therefore, it is important to consider the context and the type of referendum when transferring the Citizens Initiative Review to other areas.

Based in an interview conducted with the PALO (Participatory in Long-Term Decision-Making) research project coordinator at the University of Turku, Maija Setälä ( on 26 June 2023. 

Here is a description of the case on Participedia, a global network and crowdsourcing platform for researchers, educators, practitioners, policymakers, activists, and anyone interested in public participation and democratic innovations: 

Here is a video on the Healthy Democracy website that tells the story of the CIR idea, how it came to be, and what makes it different: