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Friday, 13 January 2017

99. Local policy by jury

Juror #8:  "It’s not so easy for me to raise my hand and agree a new residents parking scheme for the town without talking about it first"

I've touched on the idea of citizens juries before but never dedicated a post to it.  Of course it's something that has been widely discussed and tested - it's a type of participatory initiative that incorporates some of the principles that we associate with legal juries but not all.  My idea here is to use the jury system exactly as it and adapt the policy process instead.

So, let's start with citizen juries.

Graham Smith, in his wonderful report Beyond the Ballot  - 57 Democratic Innovations from Around the World, describes Citizens juries as initiatives that 'bring together a small group of citizens to deliberate on a particular issue'.

Of course it is this idea of deliberation that is the most important part - citizens debate an issue until they (hopefully) reach a consensus.  An opinion is formed collectively - not by an adding together of separately formed individual opinions as with an election or referendum.

Although they have some things in common with what you would recognise they also include adaptations to make them more suitable for contributing to the policy process. So, for example, they may:

  • include more than 12 people
  • be selected to ensure diversity
  • pay a small honorarium to people for participating
  • allow citizens to cross examine selected experts
  • be run by an independent organisation
  • have a facilitator
  • end with a set of recommendations in the form of a report that a public body is expected to respond to

Now I'm not arguing against any of this - citizens juries are a brilliant way to engage citizens and to ensure some real public deliberation in the policy process. 

But what if, as an additional alternative, we used the existing model of juries for policy decisions?

There are three big advantages I think.

  1. This is a process that everyone knows and understands.  People don't need to have it explained to them much - they can just fit right in.
  2. This is a process that people have confidence in.  It's been around for a long time and people know that it works.
  3. The machinery is already there.  The means of selecting citizens, granting exemptions and paying compensation is already in place.  We have the processes and the facilities and the people with the experience to make it all work.

There are also some challenges of course.

Policy questions would have to be formulated as either yes or no - isn't this too simple?

Actually I'm not sure that is so hard.  Policy juries would act as a gateway for proposed policies to determine whether they should go ahead or not.

Juries don't give reasons for their decisions - how would we know why something has been refused or agreed?

No, but here is the role for the judge.  They would give guidance before deliberation and provide a summing up afterwards.  They could also provide a 'sentence' and give a minimum time before the policy could be considered again.

What about the vested interests and prejudices of jurors?

One of the greatest films ever made is 12 Angry Men.  At one point one of the jury members says:
We have a responsibility. This is a remarkable thing about democracy. That we are…ummmm… what is the word…Ah, notified! That we are notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have not known before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong. We should not make it a personal thing.
That for me is the attraction of a jury, in theory anyway, that 'we have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict'.

This is really important of course and so it makes sense that a system like that in the US is in place where the attorneys for either side can challenge the inclusion of jurors who they feel do not have an open mind.

So, here it is. The idea is a simple one to grasp.  We set up part of  our policy process so that it works like our jury system.  We invite citizens randomly to attend court and to make binding decisions about local policies.  In other words we trust our peers to make decisions about local policies in the same way we trust them to make decisions about someone's guilt or innocence.


johnpopham said...

Interesting idea, Dave.

My main concern is from my own experience of being on juries. That experience suggested that the majority of people hadn't listened properly to the evidence and that they carried all their prejudices and preconceptions into the jury room, keen to jump to snap judgements. Several of them more concerned with trying to get home early than deliver justice.

Only one experience I know, but....

Dave Mckenna said...

It's a concern but I suppose at least in a jury others can challenge that view - I think of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry men angrily breaking up the game of noughts and crosses with "This isn't a game!"

This is something you don't get with elections where snap judgements are just as a likely. Or maybe more likely?

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