Citizens’ Juries have been gaining currency in this country as a tool for engaging citizens and providing input to tricky political issues. All eyes were on South Australia as they put on the largest and hottest citizens jury the country has ever seen. Seven times larger than normal, this group of randomly-selected citizens deliberated on the vexed issue of nuclear.
So what did we learn? Can citizens’ juries take the heat? Or do they let us down on the issues that matter most?
Citizens’ juries (CJs) are a particular type of ‘mini-public’ process. A mini-public is a randomly-selected group of ‘ordinary’ citizens who are brought together and provided with the time, information and support they need to thoroughly consider a policy question and come to judgement on it. They are a key example of deliberative democracy in practice and seen as an important democratic innovation.
The SA nuclear jury, the largest CJ to be held in Australia, had close to 350 people, compared to the usual 30 to 50. It followed a Royal Commission and a smaller CJ (of 50 people) designed to set the agenda for the discussion. The 350 citizens considered the question of whether South Australia should store nuclear waste from other countries. The proposal is on the table because of its promise of financial benefits into the future and its potential to revitalise SA’s challenged economy.“A group of jurors wore red ‘no’ stickers on their name-tags … This kind of campaigning is toxic to deliberation.”
The jury passed its verdict about nuclear waste storage in South Australia to the Premier on November 6. The jury report did not give a green light to the nuclear dump proposal, citing lack of trust in government processes as a major factor in the decision.
The recommendations of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission were challenged by the jury, particularly the strength of the economic case for a nuclear waste storage facility. An apparent lack of community support for the waste storage plan was reflected in a two-thirds majority rejecting the proposal outright and highlighting the lack of consent from the indigenous inhabitants of South Australia as a particular sticking point.
A surprise result of the process was a minority report from roughly a third of the jury, which challenged the majority position. This group supported further consideration of the nuclear waste storage proposal, with the first step being more robust economic modelling. This recommendation was made despite pressure from those in the group who were passionately anti-nuclear.
A polarised issue
The minority group also challenged the representativeness of the majority, suggesting that despite the random selection process, the nature of the topic may have resulted in more people with passionate positions against nuclear signing up.
Results from the community consultation process accompanying the citizens jury seems to support this challenge. Of the South Australians who chose to participate in the various consultation channels, over half (56%) were strongly opposed to the nuclear waste storage proposal. This was in contrast to a random sample of South Australians approached for phone surveys and focus groups, which reflected the demographic diversity of the state. Of these, only 23% were strongly opposed.
Heckling from the rest of the jury accompanied presentation of the minority report, reflecting divisions within the jury. A divided final position such as this, particularly an acrimonious one, is unusual for CJs. Generally juries work together to find a compromise position that they can all accept. There seem to be a number of reasons for this surprise result.“If the SA government was hoping to build a consensus, this tells them how difficult that will be.”
The highly polarised issue makes a citizens’ jury challenging. Topics on which everyone has an opinion and interest lend themselves to CJs, but high levels of polarisation are problematic for the process. This is because good deliberation relies on people being prepared to change their position in the light of evidence and other perspectives.
Highly polarised issues also tend to produce expert witnesses with strong positions. They employ rhetoric and the kind of adversarial debate we are familiar with in politics, seeking to win the hearts and minds of the jury to their strongly-held positions. Such strategies are problematic for deliberation, which functions best when jurors can consider evidence and views in a non-coercive environment. When deliberation is at its best, participants see through rhetoric to the arguments and evidence, but under pressure such performances can be influential.
So, polarisation is a problem, but it’s an integral feature of nuclear and its history. The same is true of other important topics; polarity may be why drawing on public judgement is so important in political decision-making about such topics. If the SA government was hoping to build a consensus, this tells them how difficult that will be. If they were hoping to get a sense of the topography of public debate, this shows them a landscape of opinion based on reasoned and informed debate among diverse citizens.
Polarity is a function of the high stakes of nuclear. These high stakes were critical to the government making such an investment in the process. This investment is justified on the basis of the investment/opportunity costs associated with moving forward on the issue, which dwarf the costs of the CJ process.
A giant jury
The size of the jury was another critical factor in the divisions that arose. This CJ, seven times larger than usual, was essentially an experiment, and tested the limits of the CJ model. The model held, but with signs of tension at the seams.
It was clear that the levels of trust and relationship that are key to CJs were lower than in smaller juries. The size of the jury gave rise to factions and strategic behaviour amongst some jurors. In a striking example, a group of jurors wore red ‘no’ stickers on their name-tags on the last day of the jury. This can be likened to legal jurors wearing ‘guilty’ badges to influence other jurors before reaching a verdict. This kind of campaigning is toxic to deliberation.
There were other breaches of the collaborative conduct that normally characterises CJs, with some jurors exchanging information with outside groups as the jury process was underway and actively campaigning within the jury. CJs normally establish clearer boundaries, not so much via rules or sanctions, but by virtue of their commitment to a collective task.“The ‘no nuclear’ campaign clearly believed the process was stitched up, and seemed genuinely surprised and delighted when the final verdict was handed down.”
The jury was under extreme time pressure, which exacerbated these problems. CJs are always time-constrained, and a certain amount of time pressure can help bring the group to a resolution. However, such a large jury deliberating about such a complex topic arguably needed more time.
Once again, the size and timing of the jury were trade-offs related to the high stakes topic. A larger jury can be seen as more representative, and attracts more attention, from the media and wider community, as well as from politicians. A large jury obviously costs more, but such a high stakes decision was seen to need this kind of investment. Predictably, the burden on taxpayers attracted criticism. Restricting the timeframe was part of allaying the cost and the criticism.
The combination of a polarised and highly political issue, a large jury and a short timeframe contributed to lack of trust in all directions. Jurors distrusted the designers and facilitators (newDemocracy Foundation, DemocracyCo), the agency (Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Consultation and Response Agency – CARA), and each other. External lobby groups distrusted the process, until they got the result they wanted. The ‘no nuclear’ campaign (contrasting with the official ‘Know nuclear’ program) both within and outside the jury clearly believed the process was stitched up, and seemed genuinely surprised and delighted when the final verdict was handed down.
The SA government may have been influenced to date by industry and business interests pushing for the economic benefits of nuclear waste storage, but the citizens’ jury outcome creates a strong imperative to temper this enthusiasm going forward, and in particular to pay ongoing attention to social licence in this sensitive area, including among indigenous communities.
So, was the process successful? Despite trade-offs, tensions and breaches, the jury succeeded in exploring the issues, sharing perspectives, seeking evidence, and deliberating on options. In three action-packed weekends, they came to a resolution on the most important issues, a final position (or positions) and a report written entirely by jurors, using butchers paper and laptops. The report may be rough around the edges, but represents an impressive feat by jurors and the design and facilitation team who supported them.
What was learnt? Pushing deliberation towards consensus on polarised topics can undermine many of the benefits of the approach. Despite the agenda-setting CJ, and attempts to frame the question in an open way (under what circumstances…), the process was set up as a yes/no debate. The very use of the CJ model, in preference to other deliberative designs (eg a consensus conference), focused on a verdict. Moreover, the Royal Commission, which came up with a clear recommendation, was a difficult starting point for a deliberative process of this kind.
On polarised topics, deliberative processes can be of more use exploring the details and nuances of people’s positions, and considering the conditions and contingencies that political decision-makers must meet in making a decision.
Was the jury too big? Arguably yes, but other design aspects such as the push for consensus and the time pressure clearly combined with size to create the problems described here. This suggests caution in supersizing such processes, and attention to design choices. It may also signal that we (and SA in particular) need to get over our obsession with citizens’ juries and starting using more of the range of well-tested deliberative democracy methods available.
Meanwhile, this process is a strong test for Jay Weatherill. He hasn’t impressed many people with his referendum proposal, which seems a backward step after his investment in the CJ (particularly in the shadow of Brexit and the same-sex marriage plebiscite proposal). It may be that he will have to choose, for his legacy piece, between a nuclear waste storage facility and a democratic reform agenda. The waste dump might last longer, but it feels like we need the democratic reform more.
Dr A Wendy Russell is a Visiting Fellow at the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and an Associate at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra.