Deliberative forms of democracy are certainly coming into fashion. From the Irish Citizens’ Assembly that led to the historic repeal of their constitutional ban of abortion, to that which informed the Health and Social Care Committee’s recent report on future funding options, government is looking to citizens to solve otherwise intractable issues.
The Department of Digital, Culture Media and Sport has also now decided to pilot participatory democratic approaches in local authorities around England. Scotland and Wales are having their own discussions.
As with many innovations, the devil will be in the detail.
They will need to be representative of the area they are discussing. If half the residents are over 50, half the jury members should be too. They mustn’t be self-selecting: they can’t be yet another platform for the already engaged.
In order for them to be Citizens’ Juries in more than just name they need to have three equally important phases.
The first phase is learning about the options and how the process will work. Participants are guided through the current state of affairs and presented with the options for change.
Traditionally this has meant impartial experts preparing papers and delivering short lectures, which Ed Hammond correctly points out can get quite expensive. To combat this, we ran an experimental deliberative programme in the run up to the EU referendum with recorded videos from academics from the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe project.
Following their briefing, participants then hear from campaigners, presenting their case for why the assembly should side with them. Members can question them armed with the knowledge they gained in the previous phase, and – if the assemblies I’ve attended are any measure – will rigorously scrutinise them.
The last phase is the deliberation itself. Breaking up into small groups and facilitated to ensure no one person dominates, they discuss amongst themselves everything they’ve heard, feeding back into the full assembly and eventually voting.
Citizens’ Juries are nothing like the fractious social media debate that tends to pass for political discussion today. All sides have a common pool of knowledge to draw from, and by discussing issues face-to-face, are far more likely to compromise.
They are also, in many ways, at the opposite end from the local councils they will be advising. Due to the voting system, local government in England is not representative of local political opinions, let alone local demographics.
It would be a shame if Citizens’ Juries became just another institution bolted on to deal with the unrepresentative nature of our local electoral system, rather than deal with the problem at the source.
But together with following Scotland and Northern Ireland in reforming our local electoral system - and dedicated action to improve engagement such as weekend voting, a unified electoral register and scrapping the ID plans - they could become an integral part of a revived local democracy.