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‘I’m sceptical, but citizens’ juries could restore democracy’

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The announcement that government is planning to pilot ‘citizens’ juries’ in some areas of England got unexpected attention earlier this month. 

Buried within the latest iteration of the civil society strategy, it could be just another example of government dabbling in participatory democracy – a faddish dalliance with little result.

I used to a be a sceptic of citizens’ juries. Participatory models for democracy are often exciting in theory, but cumbersome and formless in practice. Citizens’ juries always seemed to fit this description.

Giving random citizens the chance for dialogue and debate on thorny, complex issues is expensive. Drawing the group together for a few days in a hotel conference room, advised by a phalanx of experts and academics, is a tough sell in a time of austerity.

But it is austerity and the continued consequences that give us a chance to look again. Local communities are faced with colossal decisions. Involvement in our traditional democratic structures through elections remains low at the local level.

As councils tentatively talk about reducing their services to a ‘core offer’, we need to think creatively about working with the public to find the solutions to some of our intractable problems. If juries are to work, they will require us as professionals and councillors to think differently about how we formulate and make decisions.

Citizens’ juries point to a consensus-building model of change and decision-making. In Ireland, a citizens’ jury on abortion led to a momentous referendum.

They do not stand on their own as a policymaking body. But they can teach us how to rethink and rework our own ideas for a wider, more informed, public debate on difficult topics.

For this to happen juries must be integrated within public decision-making. Policymakers must commit to working with them – and do something tangible with their outcomes.

In that vein, the idea of working with some local authorities to pilot them makes sense. My only worry is that too much emphasis will be put on the jury as a ‘structure’ bolted on to traditional ways of working, without much thought of impact.

Citizens’ juries aren’t a quick fix or a convenient addition to give the impression of public engagement or side-step representative decision-making. Their meaningful use will be judged by their ability to effect real, fundamental change and direct us to solutions which might otherwise seem impossible.

Ed Hammond, director of local accountability, Centre for Public Scrutiny

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I have two, related, fears about citizens' juries. Like any such 'Focus Group' type panel, unless they operate on the same basis as legal juries (you're co-opted through some sort of random process and your employer has a legal duty to release you) then the will just attract those who have the free time to attend; the retired, the unemployed, maybe some students and possibly some people who have a particular axe to grind on the issue so they will burn some annual leave to attend. For that reason, and possibly the prejudices of those setting up that jury, you are likely to end up with only a narrow band of views represented.

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