Jay Weatherill: governments lost the art of talking to people


Democracies get into trouble when the judgement of experts supplants listening to the people it is supposed to represent, says South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill.

In an op-ed for DemocracyRenewal, Weatherill says the use of experts — “scientists, specialists in particular fields of knowledge and bureaucrats who come up with ‘rational’ answers to issues that they decide are the problem the community should think about” — is important, but if overzealous can disenfranchise people and create distrust in government.

“Governments that have failed to recognise this and simply sought to impose change have found their reform agendas floundering and have heightened citizens’ mistrust of politics. Compounding the problem, governments that choose to find ways to more meaningfully involve citizens in policy-making are likely to find their bureaucracies inadequately equipped for the task.”

For South Australia the answer has been Citizen Juries, crowdsourcing grant decisions, community cabinet meetings, and the SA online consultation hub YourSay. In August Weatherill released it’s plan for encouraging participation.

“Citizens’ Juries — groups of randomly selected South Australians called upon to deliberate on policy dilemmas and make recommendations to government – are a prime example. In a reversal of the norm, it is the citizens who decide what experts they need to hear from and then make the recommendations to government. These recommendations are taken to the Cabinet and the Parliament, unedited and unaltered.

“Given a genuine and transparent responsibility to influence matters of public policy, our citizen jurors responded in-kind. They exhibited the best qualities of ‘citizens’ in the true sense of the word by setting aside self-interest, focusing on what is in the best interest of the broader community, and delivering considered judgments.

“It is sometimes a surprise to people in government and bureaucracies that this is the case. Yet, in many ways, it’s a process we deal with as we go about our daily lives – assessing new information, reassessing our priorities, and making compromises where it is necessary to deliver important change.

“Rather than being a threat to established institutions and reform, our Citizens’ Juries have demonstrated that the involvement of citizens in public decisions enables change and helps to restore faith in the political process. Independent evaluation has shown that the cynicism and suspicion people had felt towards government decreased as a result of being involved in the citizen jury process, with a strong interest in participating again.”

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