The critical success factor in making citizens’ juries work is ensuring there is no censorship. That’s one of the key lessons from VicHealth’s citizens’ jury on obesity, according to an insights report published last month.
It argues credibility, transparency and permission are “essential principles” for a citizens’ jury process, ensuring stakeholders and the public are able to trust recommendations were arrived at impartially.
“The fundamental proposition of a citizens’ jury is that, when given a clear remit, adequate time and unfettered access to information, a group of representative citizens are capable of arriving at a sensible position that broadly reflects the views of the wider population,” the report argues.
“Neutrality of information is critical to success. This means representing fairly, proportionately and, as far as possible, without editorial bias all of the significant views within the community and among stakeholders.”
The involvement of independent organisations in the process helped reduce commonly-held concerns about self-interested stakeholders’ input and government consulting as a fig leaf to pushing ahead with a pre-decided policy. The citizens’ jury idea was initiated by VicHealth, a statutory authority; the process was designed by newDemocracy Foundation, a nonpartisan organisation with no stake in the issues.
“The independent and apolitical voice offered by VicHealth as a statutory authority was an essential element in being able to indicate a neutral conversation,” the document argues.
Feedback suggested the process imbued a sense of trust in the jurors — 90% said they perceived VicHealth’s role and influence on tackling obesity to be very or somewhat effective. Almost two-thirds of participants reported that if they heard a citizens’ jury process was commissioned by another government department, they would very much trust what it said. Only 3% indicated they would not trust what it said.
Some 50% of stakeholders surveyed responded that they would use the jury’s report in their work.
It warns against an over-reliance on technology, however. Technology played a key part in collaboration: facilitators used email, news groups, chat rooms, blogs, wikis and podcasts to facilitate interactions and share information. But personal interaction was still highly important — a number of respondents suggested an initial face-to-face gathering would have been useful.
“While the online component assisted the jury to digest and deliberate the submissions, the face-to-face gathering was instrumental in the jury’s arrival at supermajority consensus on a broad range of asks,” the report states.
The jury’s evaluation survey also indicated a need to improve useability and accessibility of the online platform used.
The citizens’ jury process
In late 2015, a jury of “everyday Victorians” were taken through an initial online process before meeting over two days to discuss evidence, opinions and recommendations to be written as a report.
VicHealth wanted to ensure participants were as representative of the community as possible. The newDemocracy Foundation employed a random selection process of 117 people, with the sample stratified by a range of variables including age, gender and geography. A citizens’ jury of this scale and magnitude had not previously been attempted in Australia.
The jury was asked to respond to a question: “We have a problem with obesity. How can we make it easier to eat better?” The choice of food as a topic allowed jury deliberations to remain focused. It was also felt food was a useful point of discussion given its universal importance — “everyone has a relationship with food”, the report notes.
Jurors were provided with 64 submissions encompassing a broad range of views from public health advocates, food retailers and industry groups, community organisations and individual community members.
The initial pool of 117 jurors commenced an online process reviewing and discussing this evidence. They used a specially designed collaboration platform and asked to identify any gaps and to select experts they would like to hear further evidence from in person. This initial online aspect allowed for individuals to withdraw without jeopardising the validity of the process.
Later, 78 participants came together in person as citizen jurors to consider the additional evidence, consolidate their views and develop their “asks”, or recommendations. A supermajority of 80% of jurors was used for voting on which asks to include in the final report, with a minority report for jurors to provide background on discussions that didn’t achieve the support required for a supermajority. Jurors were able to discuss their ideas with members of a steering group to help them strengthen or clarify their asks, before final voting and report writing.
The jury presented 20 asks to a steering group comprising key government, industry, public health and community decision makers and convened by VicHealth. The group included representatives from a broad range of stakeholders — AMA Victoria, Australian Beverages Council, Australian Food and Grocery Council, CHOICE, City of Melbourne, Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research at Deakin University, Coles, Foodbank Victoria, Obesity Policy Coalition, Tennis Australia, VicHealth and the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
The steering group publicly responded to the jury’s asks in December. The progress of the jury’s asks will be monitored by VicHealth.
The steering group were also able to observe the online process and face-to-face discussions. This also enabled the steering group to see the deliberations of the jury as they reviewed the evidence and formulated opinions.