In a context where approval ratings for democratic institutions are at historic lows, politicians are increasingly relegating their decision-making around tough issues to independent inquiries and, increasingly, to referendums.
They are left in a situation described by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker as “we all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it”. Decisions such as whether or not to build a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, for instance, have been pushed back for years with millions of pounds spent, leading to ineffective policymaking.
The result is that people feel as though their voice does not count in the decisions taken by those elected to represent them. A new survey published last month found that across 10 European countries, “only 8% of the public answered that politicians care about what people like them think”. This has profound implications for democracy and for government’s legitimacy. Legitimacy depends on there being a strong link between the public will, public policies and public office-holders. This link is currently in a very weak state.
Bringing in the citizen’s voice
In my new book, The People’s Verdict: Adding Informed Citizen Voices to Public Decision-making, I outline one type of solution to these problems that can help citizens regain trust in government, lead to more effective policymaking and, in the longer term, restore legitimacy. This can be achieved by involving the public more meaningfully and constructively in public decisions to give them an informed voice through “long-form deliberative processes”. These processes consist of about 50 randomly selected people who are given the time and resources to learn, deliberate, and come up with concrete recommendations to government.
In The People’s Verdict, I look at around 50 examples from Canada and Australia of ministers, mayors and other public officials using this approach to solve policy dilemmas. In Canada, they tend to call these processes citizens’ reference panels; in Australia, they often call them citizens’ juries. But in both countries, the process is almost exactly the same. There are six key characteristics of long-form deliberative processes, which are essential for their success.
Firstly, authority. They are always commissioned by someone with the decision-making power to act on the citizens’ recommendations. This makes participation meaningful and ensures that “ordinary” citizens and not just impassioned activists are willing to participate.
Secondly, random selection. People are chosen through a fair, transparent and rigorous two-stage lottery process. In the first stage, between 10,000 and 20,000 invitations from the person in authority are mailed out at random. Among those who respond saying they are interested and available on all the meeting dates (usually between 3% and 15%), a representative group of around 50 people is chosen to reflect society in terms of age, gender, geography and socioeconomic characteristics.
Thirdly, time and resources. The group usually meets meets from 4 to 6 times over the course of 2-4 months, sometimes complemented by additional online activities. There is usually a gap of 1-3 weeks between meetings to allow participants the time to speak with their friends, family members and colleagues and gather their input, as well as time to reflect on the topic at hand. The key is ensuring that the end result is a set of informedrecommendations.
Fourthly, deliberation. There is an emphasis “long and careful consideration or discussion”. It’s about the force of the best arguments winning out, rather than the loudest voices, the greatest numbers, the most money or other forces shaping a policy outcome.
Fifthly, publicity. It is a public process, with media coverage before, during and after the process to hold the authority to account.
And finally, independent organisation. In all the cases in Canada and Australia, there is an independent entity (MASS LBP in Canada and the New Democracy Foundation in Australia) which organises, facilitates, and moderates the deliberations to ensure that everything is done fairly, rigorously and transparently at arm’s length from government.
Weighing trade-offs and priorities
The book covers 48 examples, honing in on 10 in depth. The Canadian examples are: Ontario’s housing legislation; Toronto’s transport infrastructure and its city planning; citizen ID cards in British Columbia; and a national Canada mental health action plan. The Australian cases are: Melbourne’s People’s Panel to decide the city’s 10-year, AUD5 billion plan; an obesity strategy and a 30-year infrastructure investment plan in the state of Victoria; community safety at night in Adelaide; and a royal commission in the state of South Australia on nuclear waste.
These examples highlight the wide range of issues that long-form deliberative processes have been used to solve. The key to deciding whether a topic is appropriate for this process must be about weighing trade-offs and identifying priorities rather than answering a black-and-white question. Furthermore, these processes have been used to help governments of all levels, from local to national.
The research demonstrates that, beyond the obvious democratic benefit, involving citizens in big policy decisions and giving them the time to become informed before they give their recommendations leads to more legitimate and effective policies. When given the opportunity to play an important role in shaping policies that affect their lives, people take it seriously and have proved time and again to be competent.
Using a long-form deliberative process is also a win for policymakers. It gives them agency to act on issues where government is “stuck” due to political pressures, gaining the legitimacy to make hard choices. A number of the examples also highlight the fact that such a process permits public authorities to be more radical than they might have dared otherwise. However, because participants always have to consider their recommendations within budgetary and feasibility constraints, they are nonetheless pragmatic.
Governments in other countries would do well to learn the lessons from Canada and Australia and realise that adding informed citizen views to the heart of big public decisions can help them win legitimacy for their policies and public support for their actions.
Note: This article was originally published by the Centre for Public Impact on 27 July 2017.