1 Jun 2017

It was good to take part in a citizens' jury "before the politicians get hold of them and bugger them up".

Transforming ACT democracy one citizens' jury at a time
Simon Niemeyer

The ACT government's pledge to improve public consultation using citizens' juries, as Andrew Barr outlined in The Canberra Times earlier this month, is laudable. It marks an important departure from the limited way that citizens are traditionally engaged in decision-making.

The article refers to the cost of citizens' juries but this should be seen in wider terms. It almost always pales in comparison to the costs associated with the decision they inform. And the benefits must be viewed beyond the terms of a single issue. Indeed, if done well, the initiative will have positive implications for the nature of politics beyond any given deliberative event.

Voters in last year's ACT election. Citizens' juries promise to change the way participants think about tackling policy issues. 

Citizens' juries – which democracy researchers often refer to as minipublics – involve facilitated deliberation by randomly selected members of the public on a particular issue. Although they are often described as "deliberative democracy", they are only part of a wider deliberative effort to improve the entire democratic process.

Public dissatisfaction with politics is well established. Something must change. That involves transforming the way politics is done, away from the strategically charged "winner-takes-all" approach characterised by hyper-partisanship. As part of that change, public involvement must be conceived more widely than filling out a ballot paper or being either sufficiently motivated or resourced enough to try to influence decisions between elections.

Listening to all, not only the noisy

There is growing interest in deliberative democracy. Unbeknown to most Canberrans, the world-leading Centre for Research in Deliberative Democracy is right here at the University of Canberra. The centre was set up in 2005 (originally at the Australian National University) and now sits alongside the better-known National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling as part of the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis. As well as minipublics, it researches wider issues relating to how we can better organise governance at all scales, from the local to the global.

Citizens' juries and their like can contribute to this change, but their role in the wider political process must be well conceived. Julia Gillard's aborted pledged to implement a citizens' assembly on the carbon tax was a poorly perceived strategy (possibly well-intentioned); it is perhaps a strength of the political system that it failed to proceed, although we disagree strongly with some arguments made at the time that these events have no place in a representative democracy. Whatever its provenance, the decision to implement the carbon tax was effectively already made, rendering the exercise redundant from a deliberative democratic perspective.

As is ever the case, the devil can be in the detail. But if well implemented, citizens' juries are a powerful mechanism for bringing the public closer to decision-making – or, rather, decision-making closer to the public. Of the nearly 20 deliberative minipublics I've been involved in as a researcher, it's always been exciting to witness what's possible when members of the public are promoted from spectator to meaningful participant in the politics of issues that affect them.

When constructed well, minipublics are much more than information or discussion sessions. When the process goes well, there is a dramatic improvement in the sophistication of the participants' positions, reflecting a transformation of their thinking about the issue – as opposed to a migration along a political spectrum. There is often disagreement at the conclusion, which is respectful and actually a good thing from a democratic perspective. Importantly, the deliberative environment gives citizens a chance to formulate their positions in a way that synthesises their own aspirations with the nature of the issue, often producing arguments that can recast the issue and confound the assumptions about what they really want – distorted as this is because of the reactive nature of the political process.

These observations provide a window into what's possible in politics. And minipublics can help revitalise it. Indeed, when conducting the Australian citizens' parliament on federal political reform in 2009, we found that one of the effects was increased appreciation by citizens for our parliamentary system, together with recognition that it needs significant reform to improve its potential.

The challenge here is not merely to conduct deliberative minipublics to inform decisions, but to harness the work of citizens who engage in them – a process we refer to as "scaling up" from a deliberative minipublic to a deliberative democracy, where political discourse is transformed writ large. This is a challenging and would likely take time and a strong commitment, but there is evidence it is possible.

There is still much to learn but, in the case of the ACT's interest in citizens' juries, the time is ripe for an innovative mechanism for not just informing better decisions but changing political dynamics. The ACT government should be applauded on this count, but care is needed. As one participant said after taking part in the first minipublic we analysed in 2000 (purely for research purposes), it was good to take part in a citizens' jury "before the politicians get hold of them and bugger them up".

Aware as we are about the pitfalls, we at the centre are a bit more optimistic about the possibilities.

Dr Simon Niemeyer is a future fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. He wrote this article with the help of Professor John Dryzek, who is also at the centre.

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