Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Citizen's juries

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.


The "jury" is to a large extent self-selected.

They mailed 123,489 random people.

7,033 (6%) responded - these were by definition those with an interest in being on the jury

They then filtered this group down to 1,196 people on a demographically representative basis, and selected 103 members at a ballot ceremony.

It isn't clear if members were paid or not. The assembly met for several weekends and thus would have taken up a substantial amount of time.

I would argue that this gives a strong bias in favour of those with (a) a general interest in political activity and (b) a specific interest in the question (electoral reform).

In the case of electoral funding, I would dispute that any report would be representative. At best, it would be a set of options that could then be considered by the parliament of the day. At worst, it would force us into an option that represented not actual public opionion, but the views of a self selected group.

Posted by Rich : 6/19/2007 01:03:00 PM

Rich: The "jury" is to a large extent self-selected.

That's largely due to the practicalities of the thing - you're asking people to give up a substantial chunk of time, far more than they would for an ordinary jury trial. Getting people who are willing to make that commitment and are going to participate properly is essential.

Sure, this leads to a sample which is interested in the subject. This is unavoidable, in that uninterested jurors wouldn't do the work, and in any case I don't think its a bad thing. The point here is the nature of that interest - politicians are interested as participants in the system and people who hope to directly benefit from it. The interest of voters is rather different.

(I should also point out that if this is a problem for a citizen's jury, it's also a problem for a Royal Commission or other expert inquiry, something that people seem quite happy to support. What makes elite interest excusable when democratic interest is not?)

As for the final result, the aim is to get an opinion that is more representative amd more aligned with the interests of the voters than one generated by politicians. And I don't think you've challenged that at all.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/19/2007 01:29:00 PM

Rich: It isn't clear if members were paid or not.

See ch 15. Members got a per diem of C$150 / day, plus travel and expenses.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/19/2007 01:31:00 PM

Parliament contains parties, which are groups of MPs with a (fairly) common ideology. Thanks to MMP, we have a range of ideologies which are proportionately represented.

This is of course a distillation of popular opinion. There are policy areas where parliament is not aligned at all to popular opinion - but that's often because people don't see them as important in choosing who to vote for.

It would be interesting to have conducted a issues based opinion survey on the Ontario group to look at this and compared it with a randomly selected group and with the Ontario parliament to see which was better aligned.

But I don't see any reason why a (partly) self-selected group should be any more representative of popular opinion than elected MPs?

Posted by Rich : 6/19/2007 02:52:00 PM

The other thing I'd be interested to know is what percentage of the jury were political party members/activists - compared to the general population?

Posted by Rich : 6/19/2007 02:58:00 PM

Surely this model as described by Rish would mean that the unemployed and the underemployed would be over-represented?

Posted by Anonymous : 6/20/2007 03:21:00 AM

I take issue with the definition of "citizens jury" vs "Citizens Assembly"
In my mind the terms should be kept separate as they both have separate places in a democracy.

I propose an alternate definition
While both are large(ish) (50-300 people), and are selected at random from the citizens
I would argue that a "citizens jury' would keep the limitation of a traditional court room Jury.
ie. They Can debate an issue, reason, and weigh evidence but in the end they will simply pronounce judgement on somebody else's decision.
While a "Citizens Assembly" would be able to have choose from all available options and refine via deliberation any options it considered worthy.
I would say a good place for a "Citizens Jury" in a democracy is as replacement for the upper house in most bicameral legislatures. Replacing the Senate with a different group of random citizens on each piece of legislature, and allowing them to "Judge" if the legislature needs to be rejected or not.
Where as a "Citizens Assembly" is more useful for informed consultations.

An Example of a question that would go to a "citizens jury" would be :
Do we want to put the next Dump in Carp?

And Example of a Question that might go to a "Citizens Assembly" would be
Where do we want to put the next Dump?

Posted by hswerdfe : 6/20/2007 07:46:00 AM