The City of Melbourne has put its 10-year financial plan in the hands of a citizen’s jury to help decide how to spend $400 million across 30 services ranging from waste to libraries. The 43-member people’s panel, set up by the newDemocracy Foundation, will spend up to 100 hours considering all the available information, including input from an online council budget consultation platform, before making recommendations.

newDemocracy founder Luca Belgiorno-Nettis said the citizen jury model ensured a representative section of the community is able to deeply and thoughtfully consider proposals such as the financial plan and arrive at consensus-based recommendations. The jury is expected to hand the City of Melbourne its recommendations in November.

“Community consultation has become a tick the box exercise,” Mr Belgiorno-Nettis told The Fifth Estate.

“There is a notion of ‘we’re the experts, we’ll tell you what the future is, and you’ll like it or lump it’. There is a better process. A citizen jury is not a town hall meeting, it is a deliberative process.”

He said the “electioneering imperative” meant the political class would make decisions aimed at winning elections and retaining government, even at the expense of good policy. Another issue with the standard consultation model was that it becomes dominated by groups who “put forward ideological positions that don’t reflect deeper understanding”.

“Let the market decide” is also “a banal ideological position of governments and developers,” Mr Belgiorno-Nettis said.

In the usual model, most people can only give a planning decision a few hours time at best, while the organised community groups can dominate debate as they have the resources both in terms of people and finances to prepare and lodge formal submissions.

“There is a distinction between community groups and the community,” Mr Belgiorno-Nettis said.

“Often what happens is the average Joe doesn’t really apply his mind to questions of urban planning; he’s too busy to think deeply, all he can do is vox pop. If we want to engage the community seriously we need to give them the time and space to deliberate on it.

“We’re still going on with the traditional DEAD process – decide, educate, announce and defend. And people are so suspicious, they have seen too often how lobby groups, particularly developers, get their way.”

The result is often planning decisions that do not reflect the best thoughts, but the most powerful voices.

“All we’re interested in at the newDemocracy Foundation is public processes, and how best can public decision making be made. The more you have the public involved in these policy discussions, the better policy will be achieved.”

The foundation itself includes some of the nation’s brightest community-focused minds. The foundation’s patron is Fred Chaney, Iain Walker is executive director, and the research committee includes Nick Greiner, Lucy Turnbull, Geoff Gallop, Cathy Jones, Lyn Carson, Dr Kath Fisher, Professor David Yencken, Max Hardy and Professor Martin Krygier. Supporters include Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott, Cheryl Kernot, Race Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane and Professor Stuart White, Director of the Institute of Sustainable Futures at UTS.

The citizens jury model is about how the public can agree amongst themselves. Members are drawn from across age, socioeconomic, ethnic, gender and professional lines to ensure a true cross-section of the community. The model has recently been successfully used for the City of Sydney Safe and Vibrant Urban Nightlife policy process, and the New South Wales Government’s Future of the State’s Energy Generation policy.

The energy policy deliberations lasted for months as the jury considered how to improve green energy capacity, among other outcomes. The jury asked for and considered presentations and information from experts and from bodies including the government, CSIRO, AGL and representatives from King Island’s new renewable energy project.

Mr Belgiorno-Nettis said that an interesting aspect of the process was the jury’s recommendations mirrored those that were at the same time independently produced by the Productivity Commission.

He said the Urban Taskforce has expressed concerns over involving the community deeply in planning decisions as it believed the community “won’t understand” the future in terms of urban planning.

“People are not stupid. If you give them an opportunity to think about things deeply, they make good decisions,” Mr Belgiorno-Nettis said.

He said the current system underestimated people, whereas in the jury model, people are engaged in thoughtful dialogue and try to find common ground. It is a model that has its roots in the original democratic decision-making process of Greece, as explained by Yale academic Helene Landemore in her paper Why the many are smarter than the few and why it matters.

“The world has moved under everyone’s feet, everyone’s got attitude now. They express criticism and opinion on every subject, the challenge is how to provide space to quietly think about things,” Mr Belgiorno-Nettis said.

Ultimately, the model is designed to resolve the political and public engagement issues that can make the planning process so drawn out and riddled with contention as parties including political parties, developers, resident groups and lobby groups “push their own barrows”.

“How do people feel confident that the plan being proposed is one they’ll be happy with? This is an issue which is not just endemic to the city, it’s global.

“Things get captured by political chicanery and parties that need to manufacture potential differences. The result is you can’t have a nuanced discussion about [the issue].”

  • To participate in the online component of City of Melbourne’s 10-year financial plan consultation, go here.