‘Let’s imagine you and I are arrested for a serious crime. We’re there in handcuffs and I present you with a choice: we open this up to a couple of thousand citizens in an opinion poll and they’re going to decide whether we’re guilty or not.
‘Alternatively, we can take ten to twenty people, who are going to look at all the evidence over several weeks and discuss whether they can find common ground as to our guilt or innocence.
‘Which do you choose? Because we apply the former method to spending hundreds of billions of dollars.’
It sounds like an indictment of how the Brexit vote was held, but Iain Walker was actually talking about the world’s largest ever ‘citizens’ jury’, which he ran in South Australia in 2016. It discussed whether to build a huge nuclear waste dump in the state – and ended in defeat for the government that commissioned it.
That project represents a far more sophisticated means of consulting the public than the Brexit referendum. Wherever you stand on the Brexit result, there can be no doubt that the manner in which it was decided upon has divided and angered the British public. Rather than feeling fairly consulted – and listened to – on a matter of grave national importance, the public’s mood has been combative, partisan and vitriolic.
Australia’s example shows how this generation-defining decision could have been handled in a way that grew consensus, rather than entrenching two sides against each other – and what Britain could still do to repair some of the damage.
‘Those dumb citizens are the ones who elected you’
Building South Australia’s nuclear waste facility had been recommended by an expert Royal Commission, which concluded that the project would be safe if properly managed and estimated that it would contribute a life-changing $445billion AUS (around $360billion US) to the state’s coffers over its lifetime.
And yet a jury of 328 ordinary citizens said no. The plan to build the facility was abandoned.
The way it worked was this: the state government had committed to consulting the public but accepted the idea that no one would ever read the Royal Commission’s report. So it convened two juries. The first, smaller jury of 50 people was asked to create some explanatory material for the general public.
These people were convened by an NGO called the newDemocracy Foundation, of which Iain Walker is the head, so that the process wouldn’t be under government control. Chosen to be representative of South Australia’s demographics, the jury called witnesses, listened to experts and pointed out weaknesses in the Commission’s analysis.
‘I remember going to the first jury,’ Matt Ryan, at the time deputy chief of staff to Premier Jay Weatherill, told Apolitical. ‘There were some very emotional protesters outside, but inside, the jury was incredibly calm, very even-handed, very adept, with no training at all, at dealing with the media [outside the deliberations]. The media would ask them all, “Do you want a nuclear waste facility or not?” and they’d say, “Well, look, that’s what we’re here to decide. We think these are the important things to answer: trust, clarity on the economic issues, transparency about the operation of this thing and so on.”
‘We were able to change the tone of the public debate, from a lot of aggravation to one where people were able to bring a lot more information to the table, and make it much more civil and constructive.
‘If you get it away from a partisan issue, you do see a change in the quality of the debate. If you’re always just listening to the noisy voices, you miss the silent majority, who are not terribly vested in one or the other but are usually fairly pragmatic.’
The contrast with Brexit is stark: in the UK, information was presented by antagonistic campaigning groups and exaggerated to extremes, such as Remain camp’s predictions of economic cataclysm or the Leave campaign’s infamous claim that there would be an ‘extra £350million a week for the NHS’ – which was plastered across the side of a ‘battle bus’.
Tiago Peixoto, a World Bank expert on including ordinary citizens in government decisions, told Apolitical, ‘I’m not sure about running referendums to pass the buck or to legitimise positions in the absence of clear debate, without proper deliberation. This is what undermines trust in participatory initiatives, in democracy itself and most of all in the government. Several recent referendums around the world have been disastrous, not in terms of outcomes, but in terms of process.
‘For a government to do a true participatory process, it needs to trust the citizens. If they’re smart enough to elect you, they’re smart enough to discuss things. After all, those “dumb citizens” are the ones who elected you.’
‘Do I give a damn or not?’
Trust in democratic institutions is so low around the developed world that the annual Edelman trust barometer announced a ‘crisis’ in 2017. It found that fewer than one in three people think public officials are ‘credible’. These findings are backed up by countless others. The latest Gallup poll found only 8% of Americans, fewer than one in ten, think members of Congress have high ethical standards.
This collapse in trust has happened mainly in Western-style democracies. The consequences have been increasingly high-volume attacks on democracy and its institutions, and the rise of an angry, anti-government populism.
‘Several recent referendums around the world have been disastrous, not in terms of outcomes, but in terms of process,’
Although the reasons for all this are very big picture – worse jobs, less social mobility, a feeling that the system isn’t working for people – many of these democracies are trying to regain some of that trust by bringing ordinary people into the process of making government decisions.
Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, has created an extraordinarily popular website for its residents to suggest and debate what the local government should be doing. It began after the collapse of the Icelandic banking system in 2008, and since then more than half the city’s 120,000 residents have taken part. The website doesn’t let people attack each other directly, only make statements on the issue itself, which are then grouped to find areas of consensus. Taiwan recently used a similar system to break a six-year deadlock on alcohol licensing laws.
Some 2,500 local governments from New York to Bangladesh have tried ‘participatory budgeting’, where people can propose projects that public funds should be spent on, and then get to vote on which are chosen. Paris’s version is disbursing a staggering E500million, ($600million), on building play parks, opening music venues, changing dangerous road layouts and very much more.
Portugal in 2016 set up the first nationwide participatory budgeting scheme. The minister who ran it, Graça Fonseca, has been watching participatory budgeting in Lisbon for a decade. She told Apolitical, ‘This happens over many years, but the people who participate start to change their perception of their role in democracy. You have to realise that without you, the quality of democracy is at risk. You need to engage in it. Your role is a very important one. You can’t always go on saying it’s someone else’s problem.
‘The most important thing is to get people to ask, what is my role in the way democracy works? Do I give a damn or not?’
‘How about you actually go and talk to them?’
The second phase of South Australia’s nuclear deliberation didn’t go as well as the first. After the initial 50-strong jury had laid out the issues they wanted addressed in the proposal, a second, larger jury of 328 people was convened to actually recommend a decision: yes or no.
Many of the jurors in the second round reportedly felt that the government wasn’t addressing the issues raised by the first jury. And the things they’d raised were substantive. Most strikingly, they called into question the Royal Commission’s economic model.
The facility was supposed to take nuclear waste from countries all over the world, who would pay for the service. The jury pointed out that the State Government had not spoken to those countries about whether this was a service they wanted or what they would be willing to pay for it.
As Iain Walker of the newDemocracy Foundation put it, ‘They made, frankly, a fantastic point. The Royal Commission is predicting this huge amount of revenue from other countries and the citizens said, “How about you actually go and talk to them?”
‘If you’re going to spend $12billion AUS (US$9.5billion) on a nuclear facility, we’d like to know that someone needs it. And finally they said, “Simply put, we don’t think the price will be anything near that. And, given that you’ve given revenue guarantees, what if we took all the world’s nuclear waste and made no money?”’
Many jurors reportedly felt that the government was pushing them towards a yes. Walker also acknowledges that the second phase was rushed. As the process went on, and a yes-no decision was required, their doubts grew and grew until, finally, two-thirds voted to abandon the project.
Part of their damning rationale was this: ‘The State Government has a track record of poor performance in the area of nuclear issue management. The State Government has had a poor track record in managing large economic issues. The State Government does not have a good track record in acting for the best interests of our community. These issues give rise to a lack of trust in the State Government.’
‘We underestimate people’s capacity for wisdom’
These long-term deliberative panels are actually intended to increase citizens’ trust in democracy. Australia and Canada have run dozens to discuss big, complicated decisions, like how to expand the transport network, getting people to accept a new ID card or how to look after the mentally ill.
In Australia, they have tended to be run by the newDemocracy Foundation and in Canada by a similar NGO called Mass LBP.
Research consistently finds that people who participate become more understanding of the complexities government deals with – and more critical of the media’s reporting. One of the most difficult aspects to get right is moving from pure consultation to an actual decision.
‘Setting up forums on straight yes/no questions is one of the most common pitfalls,’ said Claudia Chwalisz, a researcher who has just published a book, The People’s Verdict, on this subject. ‘It divides people and makes it difficult to build consensus.
‘There also needs to be a sustained feedback loop, people really feeling like their voice made a difference, not just that they participated but that it really changed something. A lot of governments struggle with that aspect, and unless you have that you won’t really restore trust in democracy in the longer term either.’
It is as yet very difficult to draw a causal relationship between these means of involving people in government decisions and a more constructive political culture. One of the problems is how to involve or affect people who don’t take part directly in the deliberations. But Australia and Canada have managed to hold public debates that understand big decisions as imperfect choices, as complex trade-offs to be picked apart, rather than partisan screeching about either cataclysm or utopia.
‘We really underestimate people’s capacity for fundamental, basic wisdom, and that’s the really exciting thing about it. We’ve just got to stop underestimating them, I guess,’
As Matt Ryan, who was part of an administration, lest we forget, that was defeated on the nuclear question, put it, ‘I think the nuclear debate enlivened people to the calibre of debate we were interested in having and I think they responded positively to that notion, even if in the isolated case of nuclear, they weren’t prepared to take that step.
‘The tricky thing isn’t the technical information – the tricky thing is, well, do I want to live in a state which has a high-level nuclear waste facility, what ethical responsibilities might we have if we’re a major exporter of uranium, is there a possibility that this could support low-carbon energy – these aren’t technical questions, they’re value judgments, and people make these deliberations in their everyday lives.
‘We really underestimate people’s capacity for fundamental, basic wisdom, and that’s the really exciting thing about it. We’ve just got to stop underestimating them, I guess.’
(Picture credits: New Democracy Foundation Facebook, Flickr/Alex, Twitter/@participatory, Orçamento Participativo Portugal, Wikipedia)