Since writing on the question of whether citizen’s juries might be better than focus groups I have been thinking more about the kinds of questions a randomly selected group of citizens could usefully deliberate upon. The answer probably depends on the objective of the process.
When Gordon Brown became prime minister of Britain in 2007 he announced citizen’s juries as his ‘new big idea’. It seems from his speech announcing the policy initiative that his aim was to improve communication between his government and the general public. His emphasis was on new ways of listening to people, consulting on new ideas and engaging in a dialogue and deliberation. He attended some of these citizen’s juries himself. An internet search indicates that the response at the time ranged from strong support to cynical suggestions that his motive might have to obtain more photo opportunities. Remarkably, within about a year the big new idea seems to have vanished without leaving a trace on the internet. I don’t know what happened. It is odd that there doesn’t seem to have been a public post mortem about what went wrong (or right) with the process. My guess is that the novelty of listening and consulting might have worn off.
It seems to me that the most useful objective of citizen’s juries would be to influence public opinion by providing a considered point of view that people might consider more trustworthy than the views of political leaders, interest groups or experts making judgements outside their areas of competence. In other words, this process might help to address the combination of rational ignorance and hubris (or narcissism or whatever) that tends to lower the level of public debate on policy issues.
So, what types of questions might usefully be put to citizen’s juries? In my view the relevant questions would arise mainly from the issues that professional politicians find difficult to deal with because public opinion is ill-informed or unstable. Establishing citizen’s juries to look at such issues could be viewed as experiments to help a government to decide whether to take the political risks involved in introducing reforms.
I am not sure to what extent citizen’s juries have previously been viewed in that light. From the little I have read on the topic, the inclusion of unorganized citizens in policy processes is often seen as a desirable end in itself.
Greg Cutbush, a visiting economist at ANU Enterprise, responded to my last post by suggesting that before I get too enthusiastic about citizen’s juries I should take a look at a citizen’s forum on a proposal for a container deposit scheme in New South Wales.
In brief, the citizen’s forum was part of a review of container deposit legislation conducted by Stuart White of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS in 2001. Other parts of the review included a cost benefit study of container deposit legislation (CDL), stakeholder and community consultations and a ‘televote’. The ‘televote’ involved two polls, the second of which followed provision to respondents of ‘balanced written information on the various arguments in favour and against CDL’. The eleven members of the citizen’s forum were provided with essentially the same written information, presentations from government officials and independent CDL experts, as well as exposure to three days of deliberation.
As a result of the provision of information in the televote process, support for CDL fell from 71 percent to 59 percent. By contrast, the citizen’s forum unanimously agreed to the implementation of CDL. I wonder whether the emergence of consensus reflects the impact of three days of deliberation.
In the aftermath of the exercise one member of the project team, Carolyn Hendriks, commented:
‘The introduction of new players to the policy debate, particularly in terms of their representativeness and legitimacy, was one of the key concerns raised by the interest groups in a recent Australian citizens jury held on Container Deposit Legislation (CDL). There were two key issues here. Firstly, interest groups questioned the capacity of ordinary citizens to comprehend their arguments. Secondly, most of the CDL interest groups saw themselves as the only legitimate stakeholders. According to this viewpoint, citizens with an opinion or interest in the issue can only enter the policy debate via a valid group. Extending public participation to virtual stakeholders such as lay citizens appeared to insult interest groups because it down-played their expertise and their long-term investment in the issue.’
The problem she alludes to was the withdrawal of some stakeholders from making presentations to the citizen’s forum, which necessitated reliance on written material. It is not clear whether this had any impact on the outcome of the deliberation process.
However, I have doubts about the value of the whole exercise because it isn’t clear that participants in the forum were asked the most appropriate question. As pointed out by Access Economics, in its review of the White report, the question of how best can governments increase recycling rates requires a ranking of CDL against other feasible options rather than an a consideration of whether a CDL scheme might be better than the status quo.
If citizen’s juries are asked the wrong questions they might reach unanimity about matters that are not particularly relevant to the policy choices that governments have to make.