One of the better ideas to come out of last week's Transparency International / VUW Institute of Policy Studies symposium on The Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns was the idea of convening a citizen's jury to consider the issue and make recommendations. Unfortunately, it was immediately rejected by the politicians present (with the honourable exception of the Greens' Dr Russel Norman). However, given their comments, it is clear that most of the politicians and party hacks had little idea of what exactly they were rejecting: both NZ First's Doug Woolerton and ACT's Gary Mallett confessed that they had no idea what a citizen's jury was (Mallett seemed to think such a body would be directly elected), while Labour's Mike Williams said that we already had such a body and "it's called Parliament" (a view echoed by Judy Kirk). These views display a fundamental ignorance of what a citizen's jury actually is. So, I thought I'd try and explain it.
At its heart, a citizen's jury is a largish random representative sample of voters. They're given an issue to explore, administrative support and expert advice, and told to think about it and produce a report. They may hear evidence or request written submission from the public, or confine themselves to judging between expert testimony depending on the subject. In other words, it is much the same as a Royal Commission or select committee inquiry, except with a much larger number of ordinary people in the place of experts or politicians. The model seems particularly suited to subjects with a large degree of public involvement and ownership, such as electoral systems or constitutional issues.
A concrete example is the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, which recently recommended that that province shift to an MMP electoral system. The Citizen's Assembly documented their entire process (here [PDF]), and its quite interesting reading. First, they appointed a chairperson, a former politician and family court judge, responsible for facilitating meetings and dealing with the administrative side of things. Then they used a process of successive random selection to select one member and two alternates from each of Ontario's ridings (electorates). The members were balanced as to gender, and provided a rough demographic cross-section of the adult population; all had agreed to participate and were aware of the substantial time commitment which would be required of them. Meetings were held on weekends, and members were paid for their services.
Members first went through a six weekend "learning phase" in which they were briefed by a team of academics on the merits and flaws of various electoral systems (they were also assigned reading - effectively they were given an extramural course in political systems). The briefings and reading material were made available on the web so as to inform the broader public for the subsequent consultation phase of public meetings, oral presentations, written submissions, and focus groups. Here the members were split up, and so had to summarise information and highlight evidence for others, but were also assisted by the secretariat and by use of the web. Finally, there was a six weekend deliberation phase, in which they pulled it all together and decided on their recommendations, which will be put to the public in a referendum. The entire process seems to have worked well, and resulted in broad public involvement in and ownership of a decision of vital public interest.
The chief benefits of the system are that it is democratic, participatory, and avoids blatant self-interest from political parties (something you want to avoid in e.g. deciding on electoral systems). There's no reason why we couldn't use such a model to decide the long-term shape of our electoral funding laws and ensure that it reflects the interests of voters, rather than politicians.