Special Report: With development rampant across major Australian cities, many residents feel like they’ve lost a say in what happens to their communities. Public consultation seems token, and deals appear to be stitched up before concerned citizens can put in their two cents.
Communities are frustrated and angry.
It’s in this fraught environment that an alternative governance model known as a citizens’ jury is beginning to pop up more frequently as local and state government grapple with how to involve communities in public decision-making.
Citizens’ juries are operating in the City of Melbourne and the City of Greater Bendigo in Victoria, NSW’s Eurobodalla Shire and South Australia, and now Sydney’s Greater Sydney Commission is looking to go down the same route
- See our story People’s panel: citizens tell Melbourne where to go
Independent non-partisan research organisation newDemocracy is responsible for rolling out many of the juries. Executive director Iain Walker says the organisation selects its projects in the areas where governments are least likely to gain public trust – crime, tax and urban planning.
“Think of all the decisions where there’s kicking and screaming,” he says.
A chance to participate
newDemocracy founder Luca Belgiorno-Nettis says there is a rigorous argument for random recruitment as a representative process of democratic engagement.
“We think the process of democracy has become unnecessarily adversarial and the election processes per se tend to make that adversarial context,” he says.
According to Belgiorno-Nettis, even governments themselves are beginning to recognise that best practice public engagement is, in fact, citizen jury-type models.
“It’s not your town hall meetings, it’s not your quantitative surveys, it’s not your focus groups, because each one of those fall short in a number of areas, not least of which is in fact representation, let alone deliberation.”
Planning raises its head as a hot issue
Elizabeth Farrelly, associate professor at the University of NSW Graduate School of Urbanism and Sydney Morning Herald columnist, says the model is a very interesting idea and not just for planning either.
“We need ways of ensuring that the peoples’ voice is effective, and it’s not being effective,” she says. “For the first time since I’ve been in Australia, planning is now a hot issue. There is fury all over this state right now – coal seam gas, motorways, wetlands being built on, public land being sold off everywhere, trees being cut down. People are just furious about what is happening and clearly that is not being heard.”
Farrelly emphasises it’s important to thoroughly educate jurors on the issue at stake.
“I think you have to provide them with enough intellectual resources to do the job properly,” she says. “So it’s not just straight pluck people out of the pool and put them into a decision-making position.”
Developing a trade-off mindset
Walker points to the City of Melbourne’s 2014 People’s Panel and the City of Canada Bay in inner west Sydney Policy Panel as successful examples of the model.
“We have to get out of this wish-list mindset and into one of a trade-off mindset, and that is really the challenge of our democracy,” he says. “Democracy is not the vote, democracy is not simply a law of large numbers; it’s about taking an informed public decision that reflects the will of the people.”
Belgiorno-Nettis points out that the City of Canada Bay citizens’ jury was able to accept high-rise development for Rhodes in return for community facilities.
“When they looked at the developer contributions associated with that high rise, they were not really that fazed with having high rise given the sort of developer contributions that were coming back,” he says.
Juries operating in our communities
This year newDemocracy will convene two citizens’ juries (one in Melbourne and one in Shepparton) to look at nine key areas of infrastructure to advise Infrastructure Victoria on which projects should be priorities for Victoria and how these projects should be paid for. The findings will guide a 30-year plan for planning and investment decisions in the state.
A citizens’ jury consisting of Melbourne residents, business owners and employees has been convened in the City of Melbourne to help refresh the Future Melbourne plan. After meeting three times, the jury will make suggestions to form priorities for Future Melbourne 2026.
Lord Mayor Robert Doyle says the jury’s work would play a key role in informing the next Council Plan.
“It is a community plan developed by the community, demonstrating how the City of Melbourne is working at the cutting edge of governance, using new techniques to involve people who use the city every day in long-term planning and decision making.”
The citizens’ jury will have access to council data and external advice and will consider ideas raised during community consultation activities earlier this year. Jury members will then present the plan to the six “ambassadors” who will oversee development of the refreshed strategy.
The City of Greater Bendigo in regional Victoria has enlisted newDemocracy to convene a citizens’ jury to provide a considered consensus view about the range and level of services (including capital works) across Greater Bendigo as it develops its new Council Plan. With 85 per cent of the municipality living within the urban area, there’s a feeling among the rural areas and small towns that the centre “gets everything”.
According to newDemocracy, Bendigo presents an ideal test environment for an approach that would be widely applicable across local government. NSW’s Eurobodalla Shire Council faces a remarkably similar situation to Bendigo. The council has significant infrastructure to manage, maintain and renew as well as a breadth of services to deliver. The geographically, socially and economically diverse community will be asked for its help in trying to balance the council’s limited funds.
Walker says citizens’ juries can provide an environment for genuine public discourse on controversial issues that politicians find difficult to even raise.
newDemocracy’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Engagement for South Australia’s Department of Premier & Cabinet is one example. The first jury of 50 randomly selected people will condense the Royal Commission and set the agenda by identifying what everyone in South Australia needs to consider on the issue.
A second jury of 350 will consider this condensed Royal Commission report and draw on all the community feedback to make a recommendation to the government as to whether they want to see South Australia continue to pursue opportunities related to the nuclear fuel cycle.
“Engage early and do so on the basis of a credible process that people can believe in,” Walker says. “We can’t trick up 350 people into a preordained result. This is very hard to cheat and I don’t think many people feel that with most engagement today.”
Make it legitimate
Farrelly champions a concept that goes one step further. Acclaimed scientist Professor Tim Flannery’s idea is to appoint a number of citizens – perhaps well-known people – to be the “question askers”.
“They work to establish the important critical questions such as, ‘Should there be a carbon tax?’ and then you randomly select citizen juries to work out the policy answer to those questions,” Farrelly says.
“One of the virtues of Tim Flannery’s system is that the questions also be asked by thoughtful citizens instead of some paid mediator who is kind of gearing the entire process to an outcome that has been pre-requested by the government.
“You actually want legitimate, open and valid discussion with the public interest in mind – that needs to be the context. If you set that up carefully, I think it could work. If it was set up by the government we have at the moment, I think it almost certainly wouldn’t, because I don’t think they have a genuine interest in finding out what people want.”
Citizens are not specialists
Critics say that randomly recruited people won’t have the knowledge or ability to make decisions on complex specialist problems, however, in the criminal justice system we rely on a field of 12 common people to weigh the evidence, discuss it as a group and return with a recommendation.
“We trust it,” Walker says. “They don’t run on ‘I’m tough on crime’ or ‘I’m helping people with challenging backgrounds’, they just assess it on their merits because they don’t have their career tied to it. We have found that that logic of the criminal jury can be applied to public decisions.”
Farrelly says ordinary people need to be involved in the big decisions that affect our daily lives.
“WestConnex [toll road in Sydney] is an obvious one,” she says. “Australians always think the big difficult decisions are too important to be left to small ordinary people and they have to be taken by men with numbers because it’s much too important to be left to ordinary people who just use transport!”
A much better result
Belgiorno-Nettis says some planners are dismissive of the model, yet they often lead to a better result.
“A lot of town planners see this process of juries as somewhat contentious or somewhat incapable of digesting all of their experiences,” he says. However, he points out that research from Yale University shows that having non-specialists in the room actually brings up more creative solutions.
“This is the beauty of it, when you get a diverse group of people together you get the one plus one equals three effect,” he says.
There’s no reason why citizens’ juries can’t be utilised in complex planning decisions, Belgiorno-Nettis says. In his experience they bring capacity and trust.
“There is an acceptance, not just an acceptance, but an embracing of the fact that you can not do these big urban projects without building public trust.”
Not a replacement for engagement
NSW’s Better Planning Network is affiliated with 460-plus community groups. Spokeswoman Jeanette Brokman said alternative governance models such as citizens’ juries shouldn’t replace meaningful community engagement, but should be an add-on.
“Well-designed deliberative processes enable the participatory process,” she says. “However, a consensus approach can prevent more vigorous outcomes.
“It’s also a question of design and power, where the brief and intent is king.”
At a Sydney forum last week – where consultation, poor governance and the trust deficit were big themes – it came to light that the Greater Sydney Commission intends to use the citizen’s jury model as part of its public consultation in the preparation of six district plans for the Greater Sydney basin, which will guide planning for the next couple of decades.
Draft plans will be released in November – an exceptionally short timeframe, according to Brokman, especially as no public consultation has yet taken place.
“We see these issues right across Sydney and NSW and there’s a common thread,” Brokman says. “Reforms that don’t work, or changes in government legislation that don’t work, and bad planning decisions leading to bad outcomes or, in other words, bad governance leading to bad outcomes.
“Will a jury process get rid of that? I don’t think so, because what happens is the issue will still be there irrespective of who makes that decision because the brief will be to determine a particular outcome.”
It’s also important that the potential of citizens’ juries are not watered down. Brokman questions whether the three sessions in the City of Melbourne jury would be long enough to properly explore the issues.
“What we do like about the deliberative democracy process in terms of citizens’ juries is that if they are done properly and they are fixed sessions with proper research and proper access to information that’s a very positive process,” she says. “When they break it down and they start to make it shorter, can they achieve the same thorough result with people who are not well and truly informed at the start of the process?”
Brokman says planners need to bridge the gap and take the public on the journey with them.
“Citizens juries could be one of a number of tools that work but effectively what you are looking for is finding solutions and making a place flourish. So how do you achieve that? Do you achieve that with citizen juries? I don’t know.”
Some also argue that the citizens’ jury process for a safe and vibrant nightlife for Sydney have had “devastating outcomes”, namely the “lockout laws”, which have been a turning point in public perception of Premier Mike Baird and the NSW Government.
Transparency for the people
Sydney resident Sharon Kelly says citizens’ juries are a great idea to improve communication with the local community and provide a way to participate in the planning process.
“More public consultation where the people can actually be part of the decision a bit more,” she says. “Instead of just saying, ‘Here’s our plan, have a look at it, make a comment, and then we won’t listen to you anyway; we’re going to do it’”
Kelly lives in the same street as the proposed Sydney metro station for Waterloo.
“Maybe there was a brochure but did I see that? I must have missed it,” she says. “I didn’t really know about it until I read the newspaper that it was fait accompli.”
She says a citizens’ jury process might bring transparency. In the block where the station will be constructed all the businesses have been told they will have to go at the end of the year. Will they be allowed back? Or will apartments go up over the train station? Will new roads be built to cope with 70,000 new people?
“They are talking about a train but put 70,000 people into a small space and a lot of them are going to bring a car with them,” she says. “These are the kinds of things where having that community jury, if you like, would actually answer some of those questions and get some results for people … the developers want to make money, the government wants to make money. They say it’s for the betterment of the community, but is it really? I don’t know.”
Making room for invited voices
newDemocracy says its citizens’ jury model enables local government to hear the informed views of people who are much less likely to engage with their council. Instead of ‘“insisted” voices – those that make sure they are heard – it adds a structure to make some room for “invited” voices.
“What happens in other sorts of public engagement is you get the angry and the articulate that come forward and dominate the airwaves,” Belgiorno-Nettis says. “People start to confuse those voices for what I describe as that of a silent majority.
“So what we are trying to do through this representative deliberative process is actually enable a more informed but also a better cross-section of the community … a mini public, a mirror of the public at large, give that group the opportunity to actually come together and deliberate.”
Kelly agrees that the model provides an opportunity for more voices to be heard.
“Sometimes you do just get the whingers or the ones who just have their own axe to grind and so it does filter that out,” she says.
“You want people who really want to make a difference but not push their own agenda. It’s a great way to do that and it empowers the community to get more involved.”
Farrelly questions whether people should deliberate on issues affecting their own neighbourhood and wonders how they could be encouraged to see the bigger picture and to vote or to deliberate for the greater public interest not just for their own.
“For some reason we think that democracy is fighting for what you want, but actually it should be about fighting for us all in my view,” she says.
Time and money
Kelly notes that citizens’ juries are likely to be more expensive than traditional methods of public consultation.
“Are developers and governments willing to pay that?” she asks.
A citizens’ jury with 25 to 50 people can be conducted over a period of three to four months for a cost of about $150,000 to $200,000. While that’s not cheap, according to Belgiorno-Nettis, the model is worth the time and expense.
“Of course they are more time consuming and potentially can be more expensive,” he says. “Although it depends on how you look at it because often there’s lots of money spent on surveys, consultants, town hall meetings and focus groups. By the time you go through all of those expenses, you might find doing a citizens’ jury would be more cost effective.”