If citizens’ juries are the answer, what is the question?


It’s been so long since I blogged. I can’t recall a busier time as a consultant. Mostly, this has to do with the surge of interest in deliberative engagement processes, such as citizens’ juries. I’ve blogged about this before, but now I’m going to attempt to write to organisations, executives and politicians about what they are, what they offer, their different forms, and what needs to be considered for them to be effective. It will take a few blogs to cover it all of this. Here goes.

Although citizens’ juries have been around since the early 1970s, developed by Ned Crosby in the USA, they have become much more popular in recent times, especially in Australia. Why the sudden interest? Well for many of us who have been promoting deliberative forms of engagement, and alternative ways to strengthen democracy, it has not been sudden at all. I recall doing an assignment on deliberative processes in the mid 1990s, when Professor Lyn Carson was my lecturer at Southern Cross University.

Then, as consultant at Twyfords, Vivien Twyford encouraged me to read more about them and to look for an opportunity to ‘do’ one.  An opportunity arose in 1998, when a small council on the fringe of the Sydney metropolitan area, was desperate to try something different. The council manager expressed frustration with hearing from the same people, doing the same thing, and having the same kind of conversations. The jury’s job was to provide recommendations for council’s social and community plan. It was run on a meagre budget, and a number of corners were cut, but on the whole it was a fascinating experience for me, and a refreshing one for participants and Council.

Less than a year later I was co-presenting a session on Citizens’ Juries in Banff, Canada at an IAP2 Conference, with Doug Nethercutt, Executive Director of the Jefferson Center (which was set up by Ned Crosby in 1974), sharing the story of how the citizens’ jury process can be adapted for organisations with smaller budgets. The session was observed by an executive from the Australian Waste Association, and I was then invited to speak at further conferences, mostly closer to home. Funnily enough when someone from Australia approached Doug Nethercutt for advice he suggested to them to contact the Australian expert, Max Hardy. It was rather hilarious given my limited experience at that point.

During the early 2000s there was a surge of interest in Western Australia, when Planning Minister Alana McTiernan joined forces with deliberative democracy academic and practitioner Jeanette Hartz-Karp, which Geoff Gallop was Premier. They proved to be incredibly useful and very cost effective (an internal review revealed that for every dollar spent on this approach they saved five dollars when compared with more conventional community consultation practices).

The trend in Western Australia subsided temporarily with a change in State Government. By that time newDemocracy had formed, and there was definitely an appetite to explore alternate ways for democracy to be. Founded by philanthropist Luca Belgiorno Nettis, Lyn Carson and Kathy Jones, with the support and involvement of former politicians Fred Chaney and the late John Button, and supported by a host of willing volunteer practitioners, has opened many doors and minds, as to how citizens’ juries and other deliberative processes offer ways to improve decision-making for complex issues.

NewDemocracy is certainly gaining traction and has designed and overseen countless citizens’ juries in recent years, most recently Infrastructure Victoria’s 30 year priorities, and consideration of a Nuclear Waste facility in South Australia. But it begs the question, on the demand side, as to why there is such interest in citizens’ juries. If citizens’ juries are the solution then what is the question, or the issue for which they offer a solution? I know what academics and practitioners might say, but I’m just as interested in what politicians, CEOs and other executives have to say.

‘We just don’t know what the silent majority think about this issue.’  

‘We are tired of being yelled at by people who just don’t understand our context and our challenges! How can we create space for a more civil discourse?’

‘When we engage broadly with hundreds, even thousands, of people it is very hard to demonstrate we have listened and our decisions have been influenced by the process.’

‘We need an end point to our ongoing conversations and debates about some issues. We are stuck, and it seems whenever we are close to a resolution, a campaign is likely to send us back to the drawing board.’

Most of my experiences designing and facilitating citizens’ juries, and other deliberative processes, have been extremely positive. Not just positive, they have been inspiring. On the whole organisations are amazed at how sensible and wise everyday people are when given an opportunity to appreciate a complex issue from a number of angles, and given time to reach a conclusion. These blogs are testament to how jurors experience these processes too.

Liveable Yarra

Kiama Local Environment Plan

Deliberative processes, like citizens’ juries, have the potential to transform how government can interact with citizens, building trust, and drawing on collective intelligence. But they also have to be carefully and well designed, organised and facilitated. Lots can go wrong, and poor practice could easily see them lose their appeal. So my next blogs about deliberative processes will be about these topics.

  1. How do citizens’ juries and other deliberative processes differ in form? What are the variables and what are the essential ingredients? (aka When does a process cease to be deliberative?)
  2. How can we make sure it is ethical and genuine?
  3. How can we make sure it is ‘do-able’?
  4. How can we make sure it is ‘useful’?
  5. When might citizens’ juries not be appropriate?
  6. How do we connect deliberative processes with broader community engagement processes?

It is hard to know how much to pack into any blog, so I’m always keen to hear what people are most interested in – so please let me know!

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