newDemocracy in the Media

A selection of newDemocracy related articles in the Media.

Infrastructure Victoria’s experience shows citizen juries can play a vital role in delivering major milestones. This lends weight to the idea of institutionalising deliberative democracy.

Infrastructure Victoria’s year-long journey to create a 30-year infrastructure strategy was a big undertaking for the newly formed organisation of around 30 people. It knew it was crucial to get community input, given the complex and controversial nature of some of the options on the table. But more than just gaining feedback on pre-formed ideas, Infrastructure Victoria decided to make jury recommendations direct part of the strategy.

Over six Saturdays in mid-2016, the two juries — one regional and one metropolitan — consisting of around 43 people each, met to explore one question: ‘what should we do to meet Victoria’s infrastructure needs?’

Deeper engagement across the State

Running a citizen jury allowed participants to engage deeply with complex materials, rather than just providing an initial point of view, says Adele McCarthy, director of strategy and research at Infrastructure Victoria.

Given the state-wide impact of the strategy, Infrastructure Victoria wanted to make sure views across the state were represented. Thus the idea to conduct both a regional and metropolitan jury was born. While adding logistical challenges, one jury was run from Melbourne and the other from Shepparton. Somewhat uniquely, the two juries also ran simultaneously, necessitated by a strict end of year deadline to deliver the recommendations.

As well as shrinking timeframes, the concurrent processes allowed staff to directly compare jury deliberations. While one jury initially went narrowly and deeply into some select issues, the other considered a broad range of issues at a high level, with both jury approaches evolving over time as they dove further into the process.

Engaged leadership helps get more out of the process

Senior leadership were present throughout the process, achieving buy-in from the top and signalling to the jurors the importance the organisation placed in their views. To protect the legitimacy of the process, staff were mindful to remain spectators. McCarthy, who was in charge of providing content to the juries, said that “sitting on my hands was the most important thing I did a lot of the time, [as] it wasn’t our place to lecture them.”

Should one voice speak for many

A two-step process was used to obtain a selection jury members. Invitations were sent to a random sample of about 12,000 people. A second stratified random sample was drawn from those who registered interest to ensure sufficient diversity in age, gender, and socioeconomic status.

A common question asked about citizen juries is how much the randomised sample of people on the jury should speak for the rest of the community. As McCarthy said, no process can provide the community’s view perfectly, but “this is a very useful tool”. To provide check and balance, Infrastructure Victoria also collected feedback, including counter-views, from the wider community, which was fed to the juries to consider.

Of course, it is also worth keeping in mind that to date citizen juries don’t have a final say in decision-making. In this case, Infrastructure Victoria adopted most, but not all, recommendations ultimately delivered to the government, which is responsible for all final decisions.

Infrastructure Victoria was transparent with jurors over how it accepted recommendations. As McCarthy explained, after considering the juries’ final reports, senior management met with the juries a final time — to thank them and talk through what they did with the output.

Citizens are fundamentally interested in participating in government

As seems to be the common experience of those conducting citizen juries, staff were surprised and delighted by the enthusiasm and dedication shown by jury members — giving up their weekends, doing pre-readings and sometimes taking on research assignments between sessions.

This is an encouraging sign of the sustainability of these mechanisms. Citizen juries are consistently shown to be rewarding for people participating. As expounded by McCarthy, these processes allowed jury members to help shape and contribute to their society and to be heard as one voice among scores in a room, rather than one in millions.

It also reveals that despite perceived apathy, at a fundamental level citizens are interested in participating in government decision-making. But, as explored in a previous article, this desire does not seem to be met by enough intelligent, balanced exploration of issues by the media or by accessible government forums. For example, a survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit indicated that while over half of people want to interact with their cities, less than a third of citizens end up providing feedback to local authorities.

While providing an argument for government to use these mechanisms more frequently, this then raises the question of how scaleable these juries are? Surely the amount of time and resources required means that they will be suitable for a small amount of circumstances. And the increased engagement stops with individual jury members itself.

Maybe, but maybe not. According to economist Nicholas Gruen, it can be scaled “perfectly well”. In a three-part article series, Gruen outlined his vision of how political institutions could be set up to facilitate deliberative democracy in government, establishing citizen chambers which could be drawn upon to deliberate on issues as representatives of the community. This would provide a powerful source of legitimacy for government, helping the community to feel they have been represented and engaged in the process. This is also be beneficial to government as sitting jury members’ opinions of politicians and agencies goes up, while their esteem for the media decreases, once they start delving deeper into issues. The in-person interactions would also benefit agencies in other ways. As Gruen stated, face-to-face contact  promotes agreement within the groups dealing with social dilemmas. I would think that this would extend to those officials involved in the process, and could be used to help resolve contentious inter-agency issues.

However, it is important to note that to date, jury members have opted in to these processes. If citizens were called upon to participate in the compulsory manner as the legal sphere, would they have the same amounts of satisfaction and engagement with the process? Given that the popularity of citizen juries seems to be rising, we may yet find out.

Where to from here

Infrastructure Victoria tabled the final 30-Year Infrastructure Strategy to parliament in December 2016, with evidence based recommendations spanning nine infrastructure sectors, including health, education, justice, water and energy. Ultimately, the two citizen juries have helped deliver a strategy consisting of 137 recommendations, totaling $100 billion and reaching across 70% of the state. The Victorian government has 12 months to respond, and provide a five year plan of infrastructure priorities.

By Victoria Draudins, The Mandarin, 17 March 2017