The Case for Using Citizen Juries to Shape Policy
By some measures, American democracy is in great shape. Despite a pandemic and a move to mass postal voting, the 2020 presidential election saw highest turnout in U.S. history with 158 million people voting. That’s about 66% of the population eligible to vote, the highest percentage since 1900 when 74% voted. Of course, many factors may have contributed to this increase in votes. It’s too early to predict that he will signal a permanent increase in political engagement, but that’s good news for sure.
The vote numbers may also reflect a broader shift to politics in American life, which could be seen as a mixed blessing. In the last few years alone, social media has become more political, family conversations inevitably seem to become political, and political views can even influence who we want to be friends with or hang out with. Certainly, some of these trends can have problematic consequences for society. But they also suggest that people are more invested in politics. They are not so politically apathetic as described once but instead, it seems, they have opinions they want to share.
Voting once every few years, often for distant lawmakers, is obviously of vital importance. But that does not equate to a high level of commitment. We should be looking for other ways to integrate the diverse views of citizens into democratic and policymaking processes – for a form of democratic engagement that sits somewhere between tweeting and voting. This is where the idea of ââcitizens’ juries comes in. As Reeves and Isabel Sawhill argued in the New Deal with the Middle Class, “Citizen juries should be seen as an important part of the standard policy making process.”
As a vehicle for influencing policy, citizen juries have gained ground in many parts of the world, including Australia, Iceland, France, and Canada – to varying degrees of success and with various permutations. Here in the United States, the idea of ââcitizens’ juries was pioneered by Ned Crosby and advanced by the Center for New Democratic Processes which has used deliberative processes to support policy development on a wide range of topics since its inception.
Why a citizens’ jury?
As the name suggests, citizen juries are made up of small groups which, while too small to be truly “representative” of the appropriate population, come together to serve as a microcosm of the public. They are an expression of what the political theorist Helene landemore, among others, call “mini-audiences”, which aim to bring to the table a more diverse range of opinions and styles of thinking, including for policy making and shaping. As Landemore argues, if the dialogue is limited to politicians with law degrees and political experts with doctorates, we miss a “diversity of perspectives, diversity of interpretations, diversity of heuristics and diversity of models. predictive â, which could all help us come to better policy solutions.
There is a powerful intuition behind citizen juries that a small group of people can work together constructively on tangible issues. Jurors don’t need to be experts in the field, but when given the opportunity to engage in policy issues and cooperate with their peers, they are able to produce good results. To take an example in another area, a recent study found that the combined notes of 10 laymen who were asked to verify the facts of a news article were as accurate as the note of an individual professional fact-checker.
The key point here is that different types of knowledge are valuable and must be brought together in a constructive way. Technical expertise is no greater than lived experience – or vice versa. The goal here is greater epistemic equality. Citizen juries bring together diverse types of knowledge – both the technocratic knowledge of policy experts and the lived experiences of âordinaryâ people – resulting in rich and informed deliberation. Citizen juries allow the voices of the public to have real weight with informed recommendations by relevant experts in the field. Such citizen engagement and cooperation can play a key role in creating a stronger and more vibrant democracy that works for all.
How do citizens’ juries work?
Typically, citizen juries work by recruiting and forming a stratified, randomly selected group of 12-24 members of the public who meet for extended deliberations (typically 3-8 days). Depending on the topic, the jury could include people from the general population or specific groups depending on factors relevant to the political issue at hand, such as age, gender or race. For example, a jury of young citizens could be called to study student loans. Due to the large time commitment, selected participants are compensated for their time and costs such as childcare, and travel expenses are provided where applicable. This approach reduces barriers that would otherwise prevent some people from participating in jury events and helps ensure that a wide range of experiences are represented. Like one of us (Reeves) backs it up in the contract, payments and employment protections currently provided by states for legal jury service should also be extended to citizens’ juries.
Once assembled, jurors are faced with a policy question, dilemma, or decision that they must deliberate on for a pre-defined period of time, usually several days (sometimes in several sessions spread over several weeks). Qualified facilitators or moderators oversee the jury and strive to keep the space for deliberation within the limits of reasonable and respectful conduct while encouraging an open exchange of views and perspectives. Expert witnesses are called upon to testify before the technical body of a policy proposal and present relevant facts, statistics or trends. These witnesses may be tasked with providing unbiased technical information and / or presenting evidence in favor of one political outcome over another. Either way, the jury receives a wealth of information and has the appropriate resources to deliberate among themselves.
This process is similar to the more familiar use of juries in the criminal justice system. In a courtroom, legal matters are assigned to twelve randomly selected members of the public after hearing arguments from lawyers and well-researched factual evidence from expert witnesses. There is a judge who oversees and moderates the process, and the jury has the opportunity to listen, deliberate and decide. Even though the function of legal jury is a civic requirement and citizens’ juries operate on a voluntary basis, it nonetheless serves as a model for a formalized deliberation process. If this model works for legal questions, why not for political questions?
Epistemic diversity in policy making
We need a more epistemically diverse approach to decision-making, with a greater voice for the public in shaping specific policies. Surveys and letters are not enough. Right now there seems to be a strong disconnect between the “elites” of one kind or another and the “people”. The people too often feel distrust of the elites, and the elites too often feel contempt for the people. Indeed, recent reports from Pew CA watch 71% of the American population think elected officials don’t care about the average citizen and 67% think most politicians are corrupt. Additionally, compared to France, Germany and the UK, Americans are more likely to say citizen juries or direct voting are important reform actions.
Citizen juries are valuable, in our view, as tools for improving policy making. But their value may go beyond any specific use, in part because their use would demonstrate greater trust and respect for people. The adoption of a more open version of democracy, such as one in which citizen juries are positioned to deliberately shape policy making, offers the public a structured opportunity to directly express their opinions and influence the decision making. Yet this should not go as far as the vision suggested by Landemore and others who advocate the complete replacement of directly elected representative bodies (such as city councils or state legislatures) with groups of people chosen at random. .
An approach that deliberately places citizen juries in policy making signals to community members and voters that their views matter and are trusted enough to be included in the decision-making process. This could be accomplished by developing clear channels for the incorporation or adoption of the findings and findings of the jury by policy makers and decision-making bodies. This model, where sponsoring organizations make clear how the findings and conclusions of juries will be used to shape or inform decisions, has proven effective in a number of recent initiatives by the Center for New Democratic Processes on issues such as large infrastructure and planning decisions, Artificial intelligence, health service delivery, and the the future of pandemic data sharing initiatives. It would be productive and feasible to replicate this approach in the policy-making cycle here in the United States on technical and complex issues that affect the general public, such as the earned income tax credit, sharing issues. data and governance, learning and implementation of training programs. , and the affordability of colleges. The key point here is to be clear in advance on how the jury’s deliberations might influence the creation of the policy.
As a first step, if Brookings or another think tank hosts a citizens’ jury, they can commit in advance to publishing and promoting its findings, to developing a channel to policy makers. And by actively listening to their opinions and taking them into account in policy formulation, democratic institutions can show respect for the public’s ability to govern itself and engage in thoughtful political debate. This is only a small step, of course, but a step in the right direction.
Kyle Bozentko is executive director of the Center for New Democratic Processes, a non-profit organization that facilitates citizen juries as a service. The authors have not received financial support from any company or person for this article or, other than the above mentioned, from any company or person with a financial or political interest in this article. Other than the above, they are not currently an officer, director or board member of any organization interested in this article.