Reflections on the growing trend of using Citizens’ Juries in Australia (and how we might make them even more effective)
It seems that is becoming more common for governments at all levels to entertain random selection of citizens to enable an informed judgment on controversial or complex planning matters (one form being the Citizens’ Jury). As an advocate for, and facilitator of, such processes this is exciting and most welcome. There is a growing weariness with more conventional processes that are dominated by well organised stakeholder groups and ‘hyper-engaged’ individuals; processes which largely fail to engage the so-called silent majority. The NewDemocracy Foundation has been pivotal in promoting and arguing for alternatives and is getting serious traction.
Several years ago I met an academic David Kahane, from University of Alberta, Canada at a conference in Sydney, where we discussed the merits of these emerging deliberative processes and we thought that a paper could be written describing the rationale for the differing approaches, and their advantages and disadvantages. We were soon joined by Jade Herriman, Institute of Sustainable Futures, Sydney Australia and Kristjana Loptson, also from the University of Alberta, and after several months of research, and another few months of writing, we published our paper, titled Stakeholder and Citizen Roles in Public Deliberation, in the Journal of Public Deliberation.
Since co-authoring this paper I have been involved in several more deliberative processes (for ease I will just refer to them from here on as Citizens’ Juries, though other forms exist such as the Citizens’ Assembly and Citizens’ Initiative Review) and I have been reflecting on the paper we published once again, and felt the need to document some ideas to address some of their perceived or actual limitations. So here goes.
Limitation 1 – Breadth of participation
Citizens’ Juries are recruited through random selection are really effective for allowing a group to deeply dive into a complex issue/topic. Sadly the rest of the community is, at best, observers of the process. The journey the jury experiences is difficult to replicate, so the findings they ultimately reach may not be seen as legitimate by the broader community.
Ideas to improve
A longer engagement process can be used to help inform the deliberative process – for instance through the use of online engagement. This process could also help to identify other experts who could provide a balanced range of evidence to the jury.
Another idea is to provide the same questions being put to the jury for citizens to arrange their own meetings (BBQs and dinner parties), or to discuss in other established forums or community group meetings (this was an approach used with great success for The Queensland Plan). Responses can be logged online and fed into the citizens’ jury deliberative process.
Live streaming could also be used to invite viewers to frame questions or provide comments in real time. A theme team could cluster the questions and comments and provide them at a particular time to the jury to consider.
Limitation 2 – Stakeholders/experts feeling marginalised
Whilst the jury has an amazing learning experience, stakeholders and experts who give evidence generally provide their evidence, and then leave. Jurors and facilitators often feel that it would have been helpful for stakeholders to hear each other’s evidence, and have the opportunity to learn from each other.
Ideas to improve
Arrange panel sessions where witnesses with different perspectives can share information, and have a conversation each other, with the jury present to observe. In addition, the jury could access expert witnesses via video conference as they approach their final deliberations with remaining questions. Although by itself this would not assist witnesses/stakeholders to go on the learning journey, it would at least give some clues as to the journey the jury has been on.
A second idea is to include stakeholders/experts/witnesses as a resource group for jurors during their final deliberations.
Yet another idea, and this will be somewhat controversial, stakeholders could be included on the jury, but make up no more than one third of the total jurors. (I have been involved in arrangements such as these – whereby one third are randomly selected, one third are self selected from those who typically get involved, and one third are invited in to strengthen diversity (eg, you may not recruit anyone from an indigenous group, or a young person, from the first two cohorts). The principle here is about gaining a reasonable diversity, not about perfection, and the benefit this may have is that groups with very different views may become more understanding of each other’s interests and aspirations.
Limitation 3. Limited role in framing the ‘charge ‘, or questions to be answered
In most cases the commissioning body, process experts or a steering committee, (or any combination of the above) design the key aspects of the deliberative process. Decisions are made concerning the ‘charge’ or questions being put the jury, the duration of the process, the desired composition of the jury and the witnesses to be called. For some individuals and groups this is a reason to be skeptical about the deliberative process and any outcomes from such processes. In particular, if stakeholders do not believe the right question is being put, then the outcome of the process, the jury’s verdict’ can be irrelevant. When the ‘deliberative design formula’ is seen to be managed tightly by ‘others’ it can give fuel for mistrust.
When stakeholders have some influence over the process, in my experience, they are generally more accepting or even actively supportive of the outcomes.
Ideas to improve
Consistent with the Twyfords Collaborative Pathway, engaging a cross section of stakeholders in framing the dilemma or charge to be put to the jury can be very useful. It helps to generate questions that are seen as being the important ones to address, and invariably it helps to lay out the extent of the dilemma being faced.
Conclusion and suggested principles
So that is just a few ways that deliberative processes might be strengthened. From my perspective it is important that we continue to conduct experiments in democracy, and to learn from those experiments. The important thing from my perspective is not that we apply a proven design, but that we continue to invest in the co-design of the process so that there is a confidence in that process and the outcomes. It is also an opportunity for groups with different values and interests understand and respect each other more, so that the process itself contributes to be a more cohesive community.
It is also important that whatever design we use follows a set of core principles. This would be my list.
- The ultimate decision-makers are genuine in wanting the help of citizens and stakeholders/experts to resolve an important issue/ dilemma/ question/ puzzle.
- The decision-makers enter the process with the intent of using that advice, to take it very seriously, and to respond publicly if they do not follow the advice given (ie, the verdict)
- Reasonable efforts are made to advise the broader community about the rational of the process, and there is an attempt to gauge their views, concerns and aspirations prior to the deliberative process.
- The participants of the deliberative process (let’s say, the jurors) have access to a balanced range of information, and are not steered toward a particular desired outcome of the commissioning body or the facilitators.
- Jurors should be recruited through an independent social research company, and independently facilitated.
- The jurors have the ability to scrutinize those giving evidence.
- The jurors are given reasonable periods of time to process information, and then to deliberative over that information.
- Jurors must feel confident that they are all actively participating, and are not being overwhelmed by powerful personalities.
- The commissioning body and stakeholders must be confident that the questions to be posed to the jury are appropriate.
- The deliberative process itself should be transparent and recorded.
- The deliberative process is designed in such a way that it strengthens a ‘community of interest’ rather than fragmenting it further.
There are probably others, and I’m sure these could be developed further. If you have had experience in deliberative processes that rely on random selection I’d be very keen to hear your thoughts, and your feedback on mine.
3rd March, 2105