A Citizens’ Jury is an innovative means of involving everyday people in the process of government decision-making. They are the complete opposite of an opinion poll. Instead of a four-minute telephone call, they are a 40-hour in-person, deliberative process. As the name suggests, in essence, a Citizens’ Jury is a group of everyday people chosen by democratic lottery convened to consider a given topic and provide a response or recommendation to the governing body. In Australia and around the world, these juries have increasing become recognised for their capacity to deliver outcomes that are trusted by the broader community.
The success of the jury model is based on the premise that if the public knows that a representative group of their fellow citizens have reached a consensus around a decision, they immediately have more trust in the decision than if it were made solely by someone in elected office or the public service.
Citizens’ Juries work because they can convey to the wider community that citizens like them are being given complete access to information, are studying detailed evidence, and hearing from subject-matter experts of their own choosing. In a murder trial, public trust is placed in a jury’s verdict, without looking at each piece of evidence, because a trusted group of citizens was given sufficient time and access to information – and was free from outside influences (or even the perception of such influences). There is ample research evidence that supports that this same model can be applied to public decisions in general. In fact, more than 1,100 case studies globally have shown that, by giving a representative panel time and information upon which to deliberate, stronger public engagement is achieved – as well as higher quality decisions.
How does a newDemocracy Citizens’ Jury work?
While each project we operate is unique, there are a number of central tenets to the approach we take.
Governments inevitably hear from the noisiest voices who insist on being heard. In contrast, our process gets beyond these usual voices and recruits “people like us”. To do this we make use of a democratic lottery, a process that uses a type of stratified random sampling to draw a representative mix of the community, usually of about 30-40 people.
Most policy problems that warrant the investment in a jury will be complex topics, so we need to allow people the time to educate and immerse themselves in the topic. Presented with a clear remit and a meaningful level of authority, citizens will invest the time. We generally take around six months to deliver the process from beginning to end – as a guide, citizens need at least 40 hours in person, meeting five to six times to meaningfully deliberate and find common ground without feeling (or being!) pushed toward a pre-ordained outcome.
The neutrality of information is a core principle, and we are careful to alert all juries that all writers have their own bias and perspective and they need to critically analyse this. To counter the view that “you can find an expert to say anything” we focus the start of a process on asking “what do you need to know… and who would you trust to inform you” – and use this as a way of selecting the speakers and input for subsequent jury meetings.
A plain language question phrased neutrally is essential. This is the most time-consuming aspect of finding an agreement with a sponsoring government body. Everyday people (not impassioned activists) need to instantly understand the problem to care enough to get involved.
To get everyday people in the room making a considerable time commitment, they need to know that the recommendations they reach mean something and won’t be consumed within the bureaucracy. The convening authority should make a clear public commitment to at least responding to recommendations, a better commitment is to promise a trial of recommendations, the best commitment is to agree to implement recommendations.
By their nature Citizens’ Juries, will tend to reach consensus (or group consent) positions on the questions they are asked to address. For the purposes of shifting the mindset from adversarial, two-party, either/or contests, newDemocracy recommends an 80% supermajority be required for a final decision from the jury. In practice, they rarely need to go to a vote and decisions are frequently unanimous, however, minority views can be recorded and noted in reports as the objective is to most accurately reflect the view of the room. We always work with skilled facilitators, experienced with deliberative methods and generally, these facilitators are members of the International Association of Public Participation.
How do we select participants?
newDemocracy directly undertakes the jury selection process to ensure there is the highest public confidence in the rigour and independence of the randomisation of invitations.
Democratic lotteries are the key tool used to identify a range of participants who meet a descriptively representative sample of the community. We match participants to Census data by the key variables of age and gender, and others as each project requires such as geography, education and home ownership. This is not claimed as a perfect method, but it delivers a more representative sample than any other process.
We post invitations to a random sample of physical addresses (not billing addresses) drawn from land titles information or Australia Post databases. This ensures that tenants and those not on electoral rolls are reached – in short, the widest possible catchment. Recipients of the invitation are asked to register online to indicate that they are available for the final selection. Based on those available, a second random draw is done which seeks to randomly match to the demographic proportions required. This draw generates the final membership of the jury.
newDemocracy does not provide any juror information to the governments or agencies with which we work.
Citizens’ Juries elsewhere
Citizens' Juries were invented in April of 1971 by Ned Crosby, three months after Peter Dienel, a professor of sociology in Wuppertal, Germany, invented virtually the same process. They didn’t learn of each other until 1985.
Across the country and around the globe, Citizens’ Juries and similar techniques have been used expansively to address issues as diverse as environmental sustainability (Geraldton, WA), waste management (Noosa, Queensland), energy reform (Parliament of NSW), constitutional reform (Ireland), political donations (Estonia), chemical exposures and public health (USA), rebuilding of lower Manhattan after the World Trade Centre attacks (USA), mental health strategy (Canada).
While the vast majority of deliberative processes have been produced on a one-off basis, in some locations this has gone even further. In 2010, the Oregon legislature mandated that a pilot of a Citizen Initiative Review would be held. This was designed to allow the citizens of Oregon to evaluate state-wide ballot measures on two initiatives that would go to a vote later that year. This was one of the first major deliberative processes called for officially by legislature and in 2011, the Oregon Legislature voted to make this Review process permanent.
In 2019, the German-speaking community of Belgium became the first region to institute a permanent role for randomly-selected everyday citizens as part of how they do democracy.
Time and time again, Citizens’ Juries have been proven to show that everyday people can come together to weigh competing viewpoints, identify experts of their own choosing, navigate a diversity of information sources and reach agreement on fair outcomes that can be implemented by government and are trusted by the communities they impact.