Do citizens really like citizen juries?

By Alan Davies

June 6, 2019

Picture: Getty Images

Citizen juries are generally great PR for agencies and businesses, but as this recent case shows, they’re an artificial environment. The practical conclusions that can be drawn from their deliberations are limited.

Earlier this year, Infrastructure Victoria set up a 38-member community panel to consider proposals for changing the way roads and public transport are paid for. The proposals cover a number of ideas, but the key one is imposing a price on the use of road space i.e. road/congestion pricing. As Infrastructure Victoria says in its report on the community panel:

In our 30-year Infrastructure Strategy released in 2016, we recommended the introduction of a comprehensive transport network pricing scheme within 5-15 years to help tackle congestion and create a fairer, more efficient and sustainable way of paying for transport in Victoria. We think this type of scheme where users pay different amounts based on how, when and where they travel could deliver profound social and economic benefits for Victoria.

What seems absolutely astonishing is the panel came out in support of the idea! The members attached some caveats, but nothing that any sensible government courageous enough to implement road pricing wouldn’t do e.g. use the revenue to improve transport services, compensate those on low incomes.

It’s an amazing result because premier Daniel Andrews is supremely confident Victorians hate the idea of road pricing. When Infrastructure Victoria nominated “introducing a comprehensive and fair transport network pricing regime to manage demands on the network” as one of three priority recommendations (out of a total of 137) in its 2016 30-year Infrastructure Strategy, the premier immediately rejected it outright on the day the report was released to the public:

We’ve had a very consistent policy about not tolling existing roads. That remains our policy and that won’t be changing.

Community panels – or citizen juries as they’re sometimes called – are commonly used by all levels of government and by business to test things like budgets and new ideas. What’s especially interesting is they usually conclude, after much deliberation, that what the sponsoring organisation is proposing is generally the appropriate course of action.

Why are community panels apparently so rational, so reasonable, and so in tune with the thinking of the sponsoring organisation? More specifically, how can the support for road pricing offered by this particular community panel be explained? Is every politician who thinks road pricing is electoral poison actually wrong?

One possible reason is that notwithstanding Infrastructure Victoria’s claim that it’s a “broad, random sample of people”, the profile of its community panel is nothing like that of Victorian travellers.

What Infrastructure Victoria thinks a ‘random’ sample of Victorian travellers looks like. Source: Infrastructure Victoria

As the exhibit shows, it’s heavily overweight in professionals, in inner and middle suburban residents, and in non-drivers. For example, public transport accounts for less than 10% of all passenger travel in Victoria, but 28% of community panel members’ mode of choice. Unbelievably, motorcycle riders make up 26% of panellists even though they only account for around 1% of all travel in the state.

Both older and younger persons dominate. Notwithstanding their over-representation on the panel, persons aged 65 to 74 years only make up 12% of all Victorians aged over 19 years. You wouldn’t think it from the exhibit, but there are one and a half times as many Victorian adults aged 35 – 44 years (18%) as there are in the 65 – 74 years category.

This simply isn’t a representative panel; it’s not even close. It looks like a self-selected group of probably very well-educated citizens who’re keenly interested in transport issues (it’s notable level of education isn’t shown). In fact, I expect they think a lot like me and doubtless like many who’re reading this; but they don’t look much like the great majority of Victorians whom governments must convince of the merits of road pricing.

Yet even if they were approximately representative, there’s a reason why these sorts of panels tend to agree with their sponsors; they’re an artificially rational environment. In this case, the 38 members spent a day actively considering, evaluating and analysing the idea of transport network pricing. But that’s not how voters usually approach the many issues that play out in the media and community; they might only catch a snippet on the TV news or a derisory comment in passing from a friend or acquaintance.

Moreover, the panel was provided with specialised information and, perhaps more influentially, professional analysis. Infrastructure Victoria even invited a number of experts to participate in the deliberations; you can see them in the small group discussions in the official video. Again, that sort of methodical, rational approach isn’t how most citizens arrive at their view on an issue that’s of little immediate interest to them.

And no matter how well intended the organisers might be, they control the information that’s provided to the participants. In this case, Infrastructure Victoria clearly has a strong apriori position on this issue; the scope for unintended bias is large. I doubt that many of the invited experts were as dismissive of road pricing as the premier!

Given the composition of the panel, another factor might be that any participants with a view that differed from those of the majority, or who were less confident in public debating and speaking, might’ve elected to say little or nothing.

I think there’s an excellent case for implementing reforms to network pricing along the lines recommended by Infrastructure Victoria in its 2016 report. Most of what the community panel recommends is pretty good too. But I think exercises like this should be interpreted with care. Infrastructure Victoria should be wary about making claims like it did last week:

We asked 38 Victorians if they would accept a change in how they pay for roads and public transport. They said yes.

More generally, while community panels and citizen juries seem to produce good PR for sponsoring agencies, they rely on creating an artificially rational environment; that’s true even if the profile of members really is representative of a broader population. Their value as realistic indications of how the wider community feels about an issue is accordingly limited, even potentially misleading.

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