In recent years Novocastrians have witnessed hard-fought debates over the art gallery redevelopment, CBD building heights, the rail line truncation, the Newcastle Bowling Club redevelopment in King Edward Park, and Supercars.
ANOTHER MECHANISM: Citizen juries are a means to engage Novocastrians in decisions crucial to the future of their city, the author says.
In each case, debate has been rancorous and has left bitterness and distrust. This may not be a problem for victorious proponents of projects. But many other Novocastrians feel that consultation and decision-making on these issues have been top-down and peremptory.
We must find more satisfactory ways of engaging Novocastrians in decisions vital to the future of their city. Citizen juries offer one such means.
A citizen jury is a group of randomly selected people who consider an issue affecting their community and provide a response to decision-makers who have agreed in advance to provide a formal, public response.The issue the jury considers is phrased as a clear and neutral question (e.g. What services should we deliver in our city, and how should we pay for them?)
The jury meets for at least 40 hours over six months. So that they can consider the issue in depth, jury members are given detailed information representative of different opinions.An experienced facilitator helps the jury work through the issue and make recommendations. Because they have had time to consider all sides of an issue, jury decisions are often unanimous. At worst, the facilitator works towards a majority decision of 80 per cent, with minority opinion being recorded in the jury’s final report.
Citizen juries have dealt with difficult local government issues in places including Marrickville, Canada Bay and Melbourne. They have also been helpful with contentious national and state issues such as urban planning and energy generation in NSW and recycling nuclear fuel in SA.
Citizen juries are one of many mechanisms being used around the world to improve existing democratic processes. Others include audit commissions, citizens’ assemblies, consensus conferences, participatory budgeting, web-based think tanks, and regional parliaments. Such mechanisms augment, rather than supplant, elected politicians.
We are fortunate in in having an independent organisation committed to the citizen jury process. The New Democracy Foundation is largely funded by commissioned projects, with any income shortfall being underwritten by the Belgiorno-Nettis Family Foundation.
Since 2007 the NDF has completed 20 citizen jury projects. Outcomes of these projects include improved local council transparency and accountability, better planning and pricing of water and sewage services, and more effective treatment of obesity.
In any decision affecting a large number of people, not everyone will be satisfied. One measure of the effectiveness of a citizen’s jury is whether the wider public look back on the process and thinks, “That was fair enough.”
We need ways of re-engaging citizens in discussion about issues that affect their lives. Deliberative processes like citizen juries are not a magic bullet. But they have been shown to contribute to better decision-making. They are certainly worth trying in Newcastle, where we often seem to be stuck in fruitless debate.
Griff Foley was formerly associate professor in adult education at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has no connection with the New Democracy Foundation.