With deliberative processes being increasingly used to ascertain community views, Iain Walker explains the citizen jury process used by newDemocracy.


Democracy, at its best, should be something far more than the blunt tool of “the vote” – it is an expression and the enacting of the informed will of the people. Yet finding the will of the people has become harder and harder as those pushing a specific issue learn from the experiences of others how to ‘get a result’ from the current system where even the hint of an impact on the vote makes decisiveness an unwanted trait.

At The newDemocracy Foundation, we seek to conduct practical trials of potential systemic changes to ‘how we do democracy’ so that citizens, bureaucrats and elected representatives can see the practical results. Are the outcomes sensible, trustworthy and representative of an informed community view? In short, do they better identify the will of the people?

One key innovation is the use of random selection to generate representative groups to deliberate on complex issues. The Citizens’ Jury is one form of this, but it is the principle of using random selection that we see as being of merit and worthy of research testing. To explore why, in this article we’ll take a step through what we see as the systemic flaws in the democratic process today. Our focus is threefold: we aim to deliver an innovation which is more representative, more deliberative (rather than driven by adversarial debate) and earns greater public trust.

Our democratic bodies are most successful when citizens see “people like me” among their representatives. This is made challenging by the nature of the democratic contest, and means that while we see a number of very talented individuals elected, they tend to emerge from a handful of life experiences and personality types rather than being reflective of the breadth of the community. Remove the lawyers, student politicians, former political staffers and those with family connections to elected office and one would thin the ranks of any parliament in the world quite quickly. This is not a comment upon the fairness by which they were elected – simply that our elected bodies rarely, if ever, resemble a mix of people we would see in the street.

A deliberative process like a Citizens’ Jury is one which allows people access to information and the time to reflect upon, question and openly discuss that which they have learned. It allows for the addition of expertise and for new solutions to be found. This is a singular failing of many campaigned propositions – they formulate a single solution (“The Government must do x”) and encourage people to lend their names to a petition as electoral democratic legitimacy comes from the law of large numbers – not whether those numbers have any depth or meaning. It’s akin to equating Facebook friends with actual friends: the real test is how many would help you out of a bind (not many). The numbers themselves become meaningless. It is for this reason that the Foundation does not advocate for any form of direct democracy, as there is no way (as yet) to allow for this type of exploration and assimilation of information.

Trust is harder to measure, but easy to know when we see it. The public view of politicians has descended to such a level that if a local member was to say “Good morning”, then a fair proportion of constituents would look up at the sky in order to check for themselves that it was. On most issues, all possible policy solutions are open not just to critique, but brutal cynicism – especially from those who wear their political identity very openly. As citizens, we look into the decision for the dark hand of the donor, the lobbyist, the populist position which the decision maker doesn’t believe in but does so for electoral advantage. At newDemocracy we suggest that there are a great many decisions which would be more trusted if taken by everyday people, even if the exact same decision was taken by a Premier, a Minister, a Mayor or an expert group, because the latter was probably commissioned by someone we elected. The electoral imperative has become our barrier to trust.

The three principles explored are better executed through the use of a jury. The use of random selection with a rough match to the Census profile of the community (technically a stratified random selection) delivers us a more representative match to the everyday people in the community. We see diversity by age, gender, education, background, income and career. Done with large enough numbers of people (thirty or forty rather than six or eight) the nature of sampling will ensure a diverse mix of people are selected. Our view is that this selection should be conducted by someone outside government – a research foundation, a university, the Electoral Commission or even the Sheriff’s Office (which manage the jury roll).

Importantly, the only people we choose to exclude from eligibility are those in a paid political role. If people are members of political parties, activist groups or have commercial interests then these will tend to occur in the same percentage they occur in the wider community and their presence contributes to it being representative. As long as people’s active or conflicting interests in the process are declared then there is no need to touch the sample.

The Citizens’ Jury process must then ensure people are given time and space to deliberate. A great deal of government consultation (from local to federal) tends to have a final result not just in mind but in the form of a draft report! Our baseline for getting involved is that government must be open to all possible solutions and that no draft solution exists: if it’s a hard decision then they should just take it and own up to it, but a Jury process won’t work if it’s an effort to ‘launder’ a hard decision. Jury processes that lack time are the clearest indicator that there is a draft decision that someone is trying to push through, and this remains the key reason why the Foundation has declined projects over the past year.

Our democratic bodies are most successful when citizens see “people like me” among their representatives

Neutrality and comprehensiveness of information provision and avoidance of agenda setting by organisers is difficult to achieve. Our starting point is to ask juries at the outset “what do you need to know and who would you trust to inform you” and respond to their wishes on that basis. Where the jury does not have the capacity to call its own expert speakers or (especially) when information is tightly controlled or ‘interpreted’ by a facilitator telling people what they have heard then that is a red flag of an attempt to steer a process. It is worth noting that organisers such as ourselves shouldn’t make an effort to apply ‘quality control’ to requested expert speakers: citizens are smart enough to make their own decisions about who they trust and whether they feel they are being misled. A poor speaker can be just as informative in some respects.

Moreover, a feature of every process we run is an open call for submissions. We look at the community in two ways and ensure we make space for both ‘insisted voices’ and ‘invited voices’. Active voices who may have a history of not always productive dealings with government get the chance to make their case to everyday people and see if right is on their side and their argument stands without people being coloured by the legacy of past conflicts. Equally, bringing in invited people through random selection is the circuit breaker that lets all parties make their case, including corporate and council views. A robust deliberative process will have an open and accessible information gathering process that lets people and groups provide submissions for the jurors review, and places as much agenda control as possible (in choosing who they hear more from) in the jurors’ hands.

A great deal of our time spent with elected representatives is spent on the question of the amount of authority to give everyday citizens brought together for a deliberative process. In our experience, the greater the devolution of authority the greater the response rate from a diverse mix among the community will be achieved, as more people are willing to give up their time once they see their decision is meaningful rather than ‘advisory’ – it’s what prompts people to give up considerable time (50-100 hours) to participate.

When we assisted the Public Accounts Committee of the NSW Parliament to conduct an Energy Inquiry, it was pointed out that the Committee didn’t have the power to commission wind turbines or new power plants. We asked what power they did have, and the answer was that they could table reports to parliament, compel response by Government, and ensure the matter was debated. We simply asked for that same level of authority to be devolved to citizens (it was), and this turns out to be a far better hearing from government than most people will ever experience. Equally, the MPs valued the chance to hear from a genuine mix of people who had committed the time to inform themselves and open themselves up to new positions such that as a group they could present a consensus set of recommendations to the Parliament. They didn’t come with an unachievable wish list: instead they did the hard task of making trade-offs, and in so doing what they presented was of much greater value. A range of their recommendations were acted on, advanced by the (bi-partisan) Public Accounts Committee and subsequently the Government.

For those active in their local community, I would suggest that you welcome governments undertaking jury processes for one reason. Even if you disregard all the high-minded and well-meaning sentiments for democratic reform expressed above, there is one great promise of the juries: if you feel ignored by those in elected government or among the executive staff, then the jury is the great equaliser and everyday people like you will recognise a good idea and sound logic regardless of power or position. If right is on your side, then a jury of 30 or 40 of your peers will respond to common sense without the limitations on judgment that the political process applies by its very nature. With the jury having greater pre-agreed authority than any other form of community engagement, your path to a fair hearing and action on the results is magnified by having it endorsed by a truly representative mix of citizens.

Iain Walker is the Executive Director of The newDemocracy Foundation, a non-partisan and non-issue orientated research foundation. For more information go to www.newdemocracy.com.au