Citizens juries: how do they fit into democracy?

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October 12, 2016

Earlier this year, 50 randomly selected citizens of South Australia were brought together to deliberate about the role that nuclear might play in the future of SA. This month, 300 more join them to come up with recommendations for the Premier and the state.

This is the biggest, hottest citizens jury process the country has ever seen. So, it’s timely to think about how such processes help with tricky political decisions, and how they fit into the democratic system.

Citizens juries are designed to bring public judgement to political decisions. That means going beyond public opinion — there are no knee-jerk gut reactions in the final report. The jury, made up of a bunch of ‘ordinary people’, are given the time, information and support to get to the bottom of the issue, explore their different perspectives and arrive at a collective judgement.

“The contribution is in stimulating a higher quality of debate — amongst politicians, journalists, and the wider public.”

What’s consistently impressive about citizens juries and similar processes is the capacity of these lottery politicians to get their heads around complex topics and come up with reasonable and valuable findings. No spin or deflection here.

First developed in the US, citizens juries (also known as citizen or community panels or people’s panels) are growing in popularity in Australia. There are now many examples of CJs providing local councils and state governments with input on difficult areas of policy — from alcohol reform to infrastructure investment to sustainable development — and they have become trademark processes for progressive jurisdictions like South Australia and Melbourne.

CJs that are sponsored by government are always under suspicion of being ‘cooked’ — set up to legitimise existing policy positions. For this reason, they need to be as transparent and accessible as possible. Increasing jury autonomy during the process — to select witnesses, set their agenda and write their report — increases credibility as well. So does having an independent body responsible for recruitment and oversight. In Australia, this independent audit role has been played by the newDemocracy Foundation.

NewDemocracy is an independent, not-for-profit research foundation, established in 2010, that organises, researches and promotes deliberative democracy work in Australia. They are joined by a vibrant network of practitioners and academics and by champions in governments and public services across the country.

What are the benefits of citizens juries?

Citizens juries can lead to better decisions. The diverse jury can bring more knowledge and lived experience to the issue than a typical elite group such as a council, government or bureaucracy. This is especially true for social policy issues. A CJ may also bring a more accurate picture of the values and aspirations of the wider community — their recommendations are likely to better reflect what ordinary people want. This is particularly relevant to planning and development issues.

CJs have traditionally been considered Rolls-Royce citizen engagement. Yet my research suggests that, in the context of policy making, CJs may be more effective and efficient than inquiries or bureaucratic reviews. In bringing the range of stakeholders and experts into the room, having them apply themselves vigorously to providing evidence and arguments, and having a naïve jury (without pre-existing positions) filter this information and come to judgement, may produce a more useful result in less time with a lower budget.

CJs can also provide governments with a mandate or cover for politically risky actions. This is not as negative as it sounds. The scope for action of governments has been increasingly constrained by the rigours of the media spotlight, popularity politics and constant criticism in public debate. Many worthy political decisions have been thwarted by public opinion, shaped and packaged by a partisan media and powerful interest groups (mining super profits tax, pokies reform, carbon tax). CJs can provide an impetus and a case for governments to go ahead with potentially unpopular policies.

One of the most evidenced benefits of CJs is capacity building amongst citizen participants. The experience of a CJ is often quite transformational, giving citizens new confidence in their ability to make a democratic contribution, new skills in grasping complex information and coming to collective judgement on it, new faith in their fellow citizens, and new understanding of political issues and the complexity of government decision making.

One of the less sought-after benefits is the potential of CJs to improve the quality of political debate generally, both in public and political spheres. Given the quality of much of what passes for political debate in modern democracies, the more deliberation that can be brought to political discussions, the better. The main contribution of the CJ here is not in working out ‘the right answer’, and success is not universal acceptance of its verdict. The contribution is in stimulating a higher quality of debate and informed judgement across the board — amongst politicians, journalists, and the wider public. In order to achieve this, CJs need to report not only their recommendations and conclusions, but also the arguments and reasons that led to these, as these are grist for the deliberative mill.

The democratic legitimacy of citizens juries

Some proponents would like to see more CJs fully empowered — where government promises to implement the recommendations. Yet, this puts a lot of faith in the method and its democratic credentials. Politicians would be handing over their democratic responsibility to this group of citizens. How strong is the claim that these citizens genuinely speak for the rest?

Ultimately, CJs are made up of several dozen people. Even bigger juries (like the nuclear jury of 350 people), represent a tiny proportion of the wider populations they represent. The size of a CJ is constrained by the requirements of deliberation and consensus building. Too many and it just doesn’t work.

CJs may be able to achieve considerably more diversity and representativeness than your typical council or parliamentary chamber, or stakeholder panel, but their representativeness is always limited. They are never able to include the full range of people or views on a particular topic.

Ultimately, the democratic legitimacy of a jury depends not on its size, its representativeness, or even the quality of its work, but on whether the wider community accepts the jury as speaking for them. This requires not only that the jury recommendations resonate, but that the results and the process of the jury are broadcast to the wider community, and preferably that the wider community is also engaged and given opportunities to be heard on the issue.

Unfortunately, public reception of CJs is filtered through public opinion (less informed, not deliberated, polarized, which is why we needed the CJ). Many argue, therefore, that improving the quality and standards of public debate is crucially important for this kind of deliberative democracy to flourish.

How do CJs fit into democracy?

The legitimacy problem points to the importance of integrating and connecting CJs with larger public debate. CJs have potential to contribute to making public debate more deliberative — by opening it up, providing new ideas and arguments, and raising the standards of public discourse. This includes lifting the bar on political and media debate.

However, this role for CJs is in tension with a role in substituting for public opinion and participation and having a decisive role in political decision-making, which tends to close down debate, provide answers rather than suggestions, and turn its back on the wider public.

Deliberative democracy scholars have always considered deliberation in the context of society at large. They are interested in deliberation in politics (such as in parliaments, bureaucracies and committees), in the wider public sphere, and in designed spaces like CJs. They’re also interested in how these interact to increase the deliberative quality and the democratic credentials of the system as a whole.

Taking this systems approach, its possible to see that CJs, even if they have perfect deliberation internally, may reduce the deliberative quality of the system at large if they close down public debate.

So, rather than a panacea, CJs need to be looked at as one more element in a vibrant democracy. To this end, a group of scholars and practitioners will gather next month to consider the overlaps, intersections and tensions between CJs and other democratic innovations, including digital democracy, co-design and grass-roots democratic movements. This workshop, Beyond the Vote, will be held during Open State, the SA government’s democracy festival, which kicks off in Adelaide next week.

The SA nuclear jury process has made considerable investment in stimulating a public debate about future directions for SA, and in connecting up the CJ process to that wider debate. The outcomes of the jury process, the progress of the public debate, and the decisions the SA government makes on the back of it, will all be well worth watching.

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