The story so far (and the route ahead)

Australia, Europe and elsewhere

The newDemocracy Foundation was launched in 2007, with Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Lyn Carson, Kathy Jones and Ian Marsh as the inaugural directors. Many colleagues have helped float this boat. We must note the contribution especially of Fred Chaney and John Button, former Senators who lent their names, and thus credibility to our early endeavours. Geoff Gallop and Nick Greiner — former State Premiers — took up the reins thereafter. You can find all our generous friends on the Supporters page.

Our founders have diverse backgrounds. Carson had designed and convened some of the first citizens’ juries in Australia a decade earlier. Kathy was — and still is — a leading practitioner in community engagement, having built her business into one of Australia’s foremost consultancies. Ian was a well-respected academic and political adviser to various Federal Ministers. Luca had a 30-year career in Transfield, a large infrastructure and engineering company founded by his father.

Our first big project was the Australian Citizens’ Parliament in 2009, which was an Australian Research Centre-funded citizens’ assembly involving 150 Australians deliberating on how to strengthen Australia’s system of government. We then decided in 2011 to get serious and employed our first full-time executive, Iain Walker. Over the next decade, Iain successfully reached out to government clients and undertook more than 30 citizens’ juries/assemblies.

During this period, as the number of like-minded people and organisations grew substantially, Carson prompted newDemocracy to establish a global hub for communication and learning, and thus Democracy R&D was born in 2017 as an international network, with over 120 affiliates reaching across all 5 continents and nearly 50 countries. David Schecter became the co-ordinator, based in San Francisco. Carson also began producing research notes with support from Kyle Redman, David Schecter and many international practitioners and scholars; and then a podcast series, Facilitating Public Deliberations, with Nivek Thompson.

That same year, we had our first taste of supranational issues when we participated in the Global Challenges Prize (USD5m), a competition to reform the United Nations. We didn’t win, but we learnt much about the maze that is international governance. We also started to participate in a number of international conferences, including the Athens Democracy Forum, where we were introduced to the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) who then subsequently engaged us to undertake 3 citizen juries - in Brazil, North Macedonia and Malawi. UNDEF also asked us to produce a documentary and a handbook. Based on that guide, Kyle and Luca wrote a modest little book in 2021, with an immodest title: ‘The A,B & C of Democracy’.

Still in 2018, we were invited to travel to Belgium with a several other academics and practitioners to consult on what would become the world’s first permanent Citizens’ Council in Eupen, the capital of the autonomous Ostbelgien region. After that success, we then decided with David van Reybrouck, who also led the Belgium group, to establish FIDE Federation for Innovation in Democracy Europe — as resource for expert advice on deliberative democracy in Europe. Yves Dejaeghere was appointed as the inaugural Executive Director, who successfully secured the underwriting support of several other international philanthropies. Back in Australia, in 2021, we launched Change Politics — a public facing campaign led by Polly Cameron, and kicked off with a spoof clip featuring Osher Gunsberg.

The route ahead

After Eupen, the City of Paris became the first significant jurisdiction to install a permanent Citizens Council, with FIDE approached by the City in 2020 to act as their principal adviser. The ‘Eupen/Ostbelgien model’ proved to be a reasonable template for a permanent ‘people’s branch’. However, it’s still rare for citizens councils to achieve ‘permanent’ status, as institutionalised alternatives to elected councils/parliaments are generally regarded as superfluous.

That’s understandable. Our already ‘cumbersome’ democracies don’t seem to need yet another time-consuming, public engagement exercise. Citizens juries are also expensive compared to other kinds of consultation tools, and as there’s never really a ‘predetermined’ outcome, governments (and activists especially) are reluctant to commission them. Also, government agendas are often oriented towards pre-considered ends, whereas deliberative democracy is a means, not an end.

So, today citizens juries haven’t yet become a regular feature in people’s lives — despite decades of practical successes. Notwithstanding, there’s a feeling amongst political tragics like us that they can and will be.