Mining our collective resources – are citizen juries the way to go?

I hadn’t heard of citizen juries until quite recently, when they were discussed in a podcast I listen to (The Minefield on Radio National/Radio Australia). The name ‘citizen jury’ is a bit confusing because they are not about court cases or dispute resolution as you might think.

They are probably better described as ‘citizen panels’. And they are a mechanism where citizens of a country, or a province or a town, come together to decide on how to address a particular policy issue. It could be something discrete, like whether to build a road or a bridge. Or it might be something bigger like childhood obesity or youth unemployment.

The mechanism works by bringing together an informed group of citizens, selected to represent the overall population of the affected area. The panel isn’t intended to be an alternative decision-making body. Its purpose is to provide recommendations that will influence the relevant decision-makers.

The process includes having access to expertise and knowledge to inform the panel’s deliberations. This might include data provided by the national statistics office, or a presentation by a civil engineer, or an explanation of a relevant government policy by a departmental official.

There are certainly aspects of this approach that would appear to fit very well with the Pacific context. Collective discussions to guide decision-making are a feature of many Pacific societies.

And there is reason to think that this sort of activity is one that people would appreciate. During the development of Vanuatu 2030 (the National Sustainable Development Plan), there were community consultations in each province, which were well supported by all accounts. In 2012, the ‘MP Face to Face’ programme that was facilitated by the Pacific Institute for Public Policy was very well received.

These panels are used in parts of the USA and also in Australia, particularly in the state of Victoria. So there are quite a few resources available to see how other countries have made use of them. There are some key factors that I think are important to think about when developing something like this for a country such as Vanuatu.

The first is that what is expected to result from the panel’s deliberations is a set of recommendations. This means that we would expect more than just a discussion about what people think or their complaints about something or some vague statement like ‘government should do…’ On the other hand, the panel does not have any decision-making function and we need to manage expectations on all sides to ensure that this is clear from the outset. The role of the panel is to influence decision-makers, not replace them.

Perhaps the most important aspect of how a mechanism like this might work is that the panel needs to be representative. Panels need to include members who can represent the viewpoint of all the groups that are affected by the issue under discussion.

This means that there may be people in the room who have views or concerns that differ a lot from those of others. This presents both an opportunity and a risk. The opportunity is that a wider range of knowledge and experience is available to help the panel deliberate. Perhaps more importantly, a process that includes hearing from those with whom we disagree helps make it clear that there will always be trade-offs in decision-making. The risk is that discussions become conflicts and people withdraw from the process because they find it uncomfortable or unproductive.

Elsewhere, panels of this type make use of an expert facilitator to guide the process. This allows for everyone to contribute in ways that are meaningful for them and helpful for the panel as a whole.

The facilitator can also ensure that all the members of the panel are able to participate fully, regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, or sexual orientation. This is important to ensure people from groups that might otherwise be left out can take part in these processes.

One of the main concerns about citizen juries that I have is the cost involved. If they are to be used effectively, there will need to be some investment of resources, including time. In the context of how they are used in Victoria, Australia the issue of whether these panels provide value for money has been discussed. In addition to the direct benefits associated with receiving well-informed proposals to guide decision-making, there are other less tangible positives. For example, using a process of this type can create goodwill in the wider community. It also allows for governments and other decision-making bodies to have access to resources, knowledge and expertise that they might not otherwise be able to draw on.

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