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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.

Friday, 6 January 2017

98. The Citizens Chest (and Community SOUP)

[I said when I started this blog that I would share 101 ideas.  I'm now getting near the end so I'm having a final push.  I found this in my drafts and thought it was worth sharing - so here it is.]

Turns out that the Community Chest on the Monopoly board relates to an actual thing.  An actual thing that has been around for a while in the United States where community chest means a general home for charitable donations that are then allocated to worthy community causes.  I suppose the nearest thing we have to this in the UK is something like the Big Lottery Fund.

I think the idea is an interesting one as it sits somewhere between taxation, where government makes decisions about what you give and how it is spent, and philanthropy, where it is the individual that makes those decisions.

Hence you could either think of a community chest as voluntary taxation or civic philanthropy (I prefer the former as a concept).

One way I would like to see the idea developed is to add the dimension of participatory budgeting.  At the moment (as far as I can tell) community chest funds are allocated to good causes by a board or committee. Imagine if the funds were allocated by a participatory process involving all citizens instead.  There are participatory budgeting schemes that use a 'community chest' approach but, as I understand it, the money for these schemes comes as a lump sum from a local council or parish and not from individual citizen donations.

The idea of the Citizens' Chest then is a linking together of the idea of community chest and community based particpatory budgeting schemes.  Not only would this be a great way to expand participatory democracy, engaging people in debates over what should be funded and why, but it would also be a much more democratic way of allocating funds. 

I wonder whether giving people the right to participate in the allocation might also nudge people to donate.  As I've blogged before, people might be more comfortable about contributing if they have a better idea about how the money is being used.

Update:  John Popham has pointed to a rather brilliant scheme that captures the community chest idea in a nutshell - 'Huddersfield Soup' is an evening where you pay to get in, get fed soup, hear pitches from local projects and help to decide who gets the door money.

Here is the video:

Update 2: Turns out that SOUP is an international thing.  See this news piece for example.  Thanks to @helencammack for pointing out on twitter also making the point that there is room to do this on a larger scale, in other words, scope to scale up the soup.  Here is the Guildford SOUP website also via Helen.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

97. Councillor question and answer pages

This is something I picked up at the recent Nesta Digital Democracy Day (I wrote about the day here).  The idea was one of many included in a rich presentation from super cool Taiwan ‘Digital’ Minister without Portfolio, Audrey Tang.

Upon taking office earlier this year Audrey set up a question and answer page for public and media enquiries on Wiselike (although I'm sure other solutions are available...).

Anyone can submit a question although it will only get published once the answer is published.  This gives complete content control and allows the page owner to curate their media responses in public.

As Audrey explained at the Nesta event, this is her single channel for dealing with the press.  So, if anyone wants her official line on something, or is simply looking for a story, this is the only place to go.

I think this idea has bags of potential for local democracy in the UK.

It would be great if councillors in their ward roles, but also as cabinet members and chairs of committees, could set up pages like this.

It would be a step towards making the process of local democracy more human by giving people and media direct contact with real people rather than the more traditional more corporate PR approach.

It is also something that councillors could (and should) manage for themselves – a ‘self-serve’ benefit of digital.

No doubt a degree of support and training behind the scenes will be required but the key point, I think, is that the councillors’ role as the face of local democracy is reinforced as is the principle of working openly in public.

What's not to like?

Friday, 2 December 2016

96. Another 32 public engagement ideas for scrutineers to try

This is the write up from my Purposeful Public Engagement Workshop at the 2016 Centre for Public Scrutiny Annual Conference: ‘Democracy, governance and the truth’.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the event as a whole – some excellent speakers and an opportunity to take stock of the rapidly changing environment we are all working in whether in terms of devolution, democratic renewal or the need for a digital mindset.

My workshop was of a more practical nature - and a big thank you to everyone who came along and contributed.

Public engagement with scrutiny is challenging for everyone and each of the participants was certainly able to point to something that they wanted to improve.

I started with the assumption that there was plenty of good practice already in the room for people to draw - what the session could usefully do, therefore, was share it.  I’m delighted to say that this assumption was right and, by focussing on ‘what works’, we learnt about some great examples – even from the people who felt that they weren’t doing much – it turned out, in fact, that they were!

Anyhow, my suggestion at the start was that everyone should identify at least three ideas that they could take back to their organisations and try. These were captured on postcards and, before I post them pack to everyone, here is a list of those ideas.  I’ve captured some of the other good practice examples at the end as well.

I also fed in some of the ideas that we have borrowed from the National Assembly for Wales (see here and here) and some of these were also picked up by participants.

Of course not everything will work for everyone but hopefully the list will give you some inspiration for things you might want to experiment with – or even perhaps remind you about the good stuff you are already doing that you might want to do more of.

So, the ideas that participants were going to try:

  1. Use third parties to engage people for you [yes, it’s the double doughnut of democracy folks] +5
  2. Use existing council processes e.g. budget, planning, residents’ associations, social media, media releases, council newspaper
  3. Online poll to select topic (as used by National Assembly for Wales) / provide a topic shortlist
  4. Engage public in work programming
  5. Involve the user / interest groups in items or working groups / Talk and listen to various user / interest groups
  6. Explore the use of social media (talk to comms) / Use the comms team
  7. Use committee members to get messages out about scrutiny business / Encourage the active and passionate councillors that you have to engage the public / align to engagement champions / support the especially active councillors to do more
  8. Use focus groups +2
  9. Get out of council meetings and talk to real people – do it more often / talk to residents associations (go to their meetings) +2
  10. Press release / full page add / facebook / twitter to promote scrutiny topic
  11. Hold meetings elsewhere – go out to meet people affected by the issue
  12. Hold ‘ask the councillor’ sessions using twitter/facebook
  13. United (corporate) approach to planning scrutiny inquiries / use contacts in the council (planning / school governors etc) to advise on engagement as well as using them as technical officers / engage with front facing staff who are already involved in the topic to plan engagement
  14. Discuss topics with communities ‘off the record’ / off the record sessions before meetings that enables better questioning in later session
  15. Report outcomes on twitter / use other twitter accounts to get messages out +1
  16. Use social media streams to contact interested parties +2
  17. Follow people / councils from this workshop
  18. Use celebrities / local press to promote scrutiny work
  19. Give feedback so people can see the impact of their contribution – get creative with it
  20. Engage the public in pre decision scrutiny
  21. Engage the public in making recommendations to Cabinet

Some other ideas that didn’t make it to the postcards but are still worth sharing:

  1. Co-opt members of the public onto task groups
  2. Scan the local media to pick up issues of public concern / issues the public will want to engage with
  3. Web cast meetings
  4. Use alternative venues
  5. Web form that the public can use to suggest topics
  6. Facebook live session
  7. Use town / parish councils (the doughnut again...)
  8. Better use of the scrutiny webpages
  9. Engage via e-petitions
  10. Keep people informed throughout the scrutiny process
  11. Use council social media accounts

OK, off to the post box now...