Letting the people decide … but will government listen?


If we now have the technology to allow citizens to vote directly on all issues, what job remains for public servants?

While new technology may provide new options to contribute, the really important thing is governmental willingness to actually listen, says Maria Katsonis, the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet’s director of equality.

The balance between citizen consultation and public service expertise in decision-making remains a hot debate, with South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill warning last year that while expertise in policy is important, overzealous bureaucrats and politicians can disenfranchise citizens.

The internet is assisting government to attain opinions from people more easily than ever before. SA, for example, has embraced the use of citizen juries in policy formation through its youSAy portal — though as yet on only some issues. Finland has experimented with digitally crowdsourcing input into the policymaking process.

The Victorian government, meanwhile, has received blowback around claims its recent announcement for a “skyrail” in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs went ahead with very little consultation.

Is government willing to listen?

Process-based proposals to increase consultation raise multiple issues, Katsonis told an event in Melbourne on Wednesday night.

“[There is] the whole issue about consultation, whether consultation is done with 21st century means, such as new technology, whether it’s done through people panels, whether it’s done through the old fashioned way of I’m going to put a submission into a discussion paper,” she said.

“This is an example of countries experimenting. Some things will work, some things won’t.”

“For me it comes down to the power dynamic between the decision-maker and the people who are contributing to the consultation. The question becomes: is government actually going to listen? Is it simply about getting information? Is it empowering allowing people to decide as you may do in the case of people’s panels?”

New means of collecting people’s ideas will not do much to enhance democracy if public servants and politicians are not willing to concede some part of its decision-making control, she argued. “It’s more than just about the technology, it’s about the power dynamic between people who are being consulted and the people who are being asked to contribute and the people who are fundamentally making the decisions,” she said.

Nonetheless, there are interesting experiments happening around the world with approaches such as crowdsourcing legislation, said University of Melbourne public policy fellow Nicholas Reece. Finland, for example, has set up a system under which a proposal that collects 50,000 signatures must be considered by the parliament. Of seven that have reached the threshold, only one has succeeded so far — marriage equality.

“This is an example of countries experimenting. Some things will work, some things won’t,” said Reece.

Indeed, even a direct vote doesn’t mean the government is really listening to the people. A notable example of a government using a poorly designed popular vote to rubber stamp its own intentions was an online poll in Queensland on whether to cut public transport fares which was worded to suit the government’s own predilections.

Giving citizens the tools to contribute

Katsonis said she didn’t want to “diss crowdsourcing”; governments should think about where using it might be appropriate, and where it might not. Directly crowdsourcing legislation is perhaps not the best way to use the “wisdom of the crowd”, she suggested.

Instead, agencies could look at an initiative in the United States that crowdsources solutions to specific problems with incentives.

“Someone like the Department of Health can say ‘we’re putting $100,000 on the table for someone who can help us solve the problem of how we can reduce this particular rate of infection within the hospital system’. It’s saying the best people don’t necessarily work for you, but expertise might reside outside of our organisation,” she explained.

The use of people’s panels to inform policy and budgeting — for example at the City of Melbourne — shows some promise as one tool to improve engagement. Participants of people’s panels — which see groups of ordinary citizens being given background information about the task at hand and then asked to come up with a proposal for what to do — tend to report a higher trust in governmental processes after they’ve gained some experience of the difficulty of making those decisions.

One of the benefits of that system is the chance to give participants the tools to understand those processes for themselves, rather than going in cold, as some other direct participation tools do.

“I looked at some of the research and evaluation around the people’s panel and what really impressed me was that you didn’t just put however many people you had on the jury in a room and let them decide on the budget, that they were actually given some financial and budget literacy,” Katsonis said. So they had a base level of information and knowledge in order to make those decisions, and I think that’s important as well.”

Of course such initiatives are not risk free. Former prime minister Julia Gillard was widely seen as having shirked responsibility to lead in her decision to host a citizens’ assembly on climate change. There were grumblings among Melbourne’s business community over the people’s panel.

More democracy can’t fix all problems

Despite the risks, processes such as citizens’ panels are still a more nuanced approach than calls for frequent referenda or the new breed of internet-based political parties, such as Australia’s Online Direct Democracy, that promise their members of parliament will vote however a majority of voters tell them to.

As one event attendee pointed out, such ideas have an echo of the 1970 satire film The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, which sees a British prime minister give citizens the duty to vote on every question before the government in the hope they’ll tire of democracy and allow him to rule as a dictator.

A whole range of innovations, as well as a shift in thinking, is driving a reconsideration of how government deals with vested interests, from companies to unions — even bureaucrats themselves to an extent, Katsonis added.

“The question is how do you get the balance between elected representatives, the stakeholders, the policy elite — the bureaucrats — and also the community,” she said. “And I think that’s where we’re looking. That’s where I think the future is, that’s where I think hope is.”

Reece pointed out that while more opportunities for contribution could help inform decision-makers better, democracy will still inevitably create winners and losers.

“I think one of the traps that we fall into when we talk about democratic reform is thinking that if we had more democracy then all our pet grievances — whether it’s climate change or coal seam gas or our refugee intake — that more democracy will solve those things,” he said.

“You’ve got to think carefully about institutional design.”

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